Little to Show for Strong Work Ethic and a Degree

Abdulla Chowdhury
Uli Seit/The New York Times

Abdulla Chowdhury, his wife, Marjahan, and their children in their Queens apartment.

The New York Times

December 19, 2011


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Abdulla Chowdhury was telling the story of how he took his young daughter shopping recently for a winter coat, and the memory was enough to make him bury his head in his hands. In his wallet had been a $20 bill. On the coat rack, many options sure to please his daughter. But the cheapest coat cost $50. So the money stayed in his pocket and the coat remained on the rack. The moment crystallized one of Mr. Chowdhury’s worst fears: his inability to provide for his two children the way his parents had provided for him.

“I was raised without any worry,” said Mr. Chowdhury, 43, who grew up in Bangladesh. “Everything was there for me.” But since 2009, he has been struggling to care for his family.

When Mr. Chowdhury came to the United States in 1997, he had a bachelor’s degree in accounting and six years of employment experience, along with a towering work ethic and lots of optimism. He settled first in Hyattsville, Md., and went job-hunting. But he said he was told that his degree was useless in America; his Bangladeshi education simply did not translate.

“Nobody could see my value,” Mr. Chowdhury said.

Despite the setbacks, he sought work in the fast-food business; he had known it was a career possibility even before he left his home country. He was hired as a cashier at KFC, and after about 10 months, his supervisor promoted him to assistant unit manager. Mr. Chowdhury said he continued looking for an accounting job, but to no avail.

Then, in 1999, he began experiencing a burning pain in his eyes, and his vision became increasingly blurry. Mr. Chowdhury said he thought it was related to stress. But after seeing a few specialists, he was told he had Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that would slowly rob him of his vision.

Though devastated, Mr. Chowdhury kept on working even as his sight grew worse. In 2001, he transferred to a KFC in Jamaica, Queens. But his impaired vision eventually led him to cut his work hours and to take a position as a cook.

Fumes from the stoves and the kitchen machinery worsened his condition, Mr. Chowdhury said. Once, he accidentally placed his right hand into a vat of frying oil heated to 380 degrees. He had been burned on the job before, but this was by far the worst accident, and he knew then that he had to find another line of work.

With a degree rendered useless by country borders, and with one of his five senses failing him, Mr. Chowdhury said, his options were limited. At a friend’s suggestion, he decided to seek employment as a security guard. During interviews, he would produce a small magnifying glass from his pocket to help him fill out applications. But the special lens might have put him on employers’ blacklists, he said.

“Whenever they saw it,” he said, “they all said the same thing: ‘Thank you. We’ll call you back.’ ”

But Mr. Chowdhury’s phone never rang. Eventually, he learned to hide his statutory blindness, and in 2005, he landed a security job that required him only to verify that staff members slid their identification cards through a sensor correctly.

The job went well until 2009, when he and 86 other employees were laid off. He has been looking for work ever since.

Mr. Chowdhury lives in a one-bedroom attic apartment in Woodhaven, Queens, with his wife, Marjahan, 35, whom he married in 2007, and their two children, Fatiha, 3, and Zikra, who turns 6 months this week.

His wife, who speaks very little English and has a master’s degree in Bangladesh, has not been able to find work, either. Mr. Chowdhury receives $1,070 in Social Security disability benefits, $465 a month in food stamps and nine cans of Enfamil formula each month from the Women, Infants and Children program.

Having to walk away from the child’s coat he could not afford drove him to contact Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, and in November, he received $300 from the fund to buy his children coats and clothes.

Mr. Chowdhury said he had also spoken with his caseworker at Catholic Charities’ Guild for the Blind about the possibility of getting help to pay for classes so he could pursue an accounting degree in America. The charity is also helping him look for other work in the meantime.

“Financially, I am weak,” Mr. Chowdhury said. It was a painful admission for him. “I need a part-time job; I still feel like I am capable to work.

“I hate sitting at home and feeling like a bum.”