PATERSON, NJ – Last summer, Paterson’s Bengali residents felt they were being targeted in a wave of discriminatory attacks. Merchants were robbed. People were beaten. There were calls for the city to intervene.
Bengali leaders kept a tally of the victims. “There were 53,” said Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman.
A community activist who has organized anti-tax rallies and protested the problems at Paterson school buildings, Akhtaruzzaman knew some of the folks who were assaulted. “We pay so much in taxes and the quality of life was deteriorating,’’ said Akhtaruzzaman. “The people we had in there weren’t doing their job,’’ he added, explaining his decision to run for the City Council.
Akhtaruzzaman sent shock waves through Passaic County political circles with his stunning victory in Tuesday’s 2nd Ward election, in which he ousted 12-year veteran Aslon Goow. He becomes the first Bengali elected to city office in Paterson and one of a handful to win an election in New Jersey.
“I’m totally impressed,’’ said John Currie, chairman of the Passaic County Democratic Party. “It’s something to see a new community come together and elect someone.’’
“History was made,’’ proclaimed 6th Ward Councilman Andre Sayegh. “Clearly, the Bengali community has a voice and we heard it yesterday. I have to admit, I’m stunned.’’
Akhtaruzzaman may be the only person not surprised by his triumph. “I’ve been doing community service my whole life,’’ he said. “People know what I have done.’’
Akhtaruzzaman also may be the only one not touting his victory as a testament to the rise of Paterson’s Bengali community.
“I am not the councilman for just the Bengalis,’’ he said. “A lot of people helped me. I have friends who are Latino and I have friends who are African-American.’’
Akhtaruzzaman said he moved to Paterson in 1986 when he came to the United States from his homeland. In 2008, he said, he moved to Totowa, but returned to Paterson in January 2011. “When I came back, I wasn’t thinking I was going to run,’’ he said.
Akhtaruzzaman garnered 1,093 votes, or 450 more than his Goow, his nearest competitor. Some Paterson Bengalis backed Goow in the race, despite the candidacy of one of their countrymen. “They felt it wasn’t our time yet,’’ said Aziz Rahman of those who campaigned for Goow. “We felt we needed to start somewhere.’’
Goow said he believe he had earned the support of 2nd Ward Bengalis through years of constituent service. “Nobody worked harder for the Bangladesh community than me,’’ he said.
And he wondered whether his successor will be effective as a councilman. "I don't know how responsive he will be,’’ said Goow, questioning Akhtaruzzaman’s residency. “I think he'll be another one-term elected official.’’
Bengali community leaders say Akhtaruzzaman’s victory is just the beginning. Next year, they expect there to be a Bengali candidate for the Board of Education and in 2014 they say one of their people will run for an at-large city council seat.
“We didn’t have any power,’’ said Mohammed Ahmed, president of World Glan Entertainment, a Bengali group. “We didn’t have anybody fighting for us.’’
Ahmed estimated that Paterson has about 15,000 Bengali residents. One Bengali group is raising money to open a community center for youths. Another is working on forming a charter school. Akhtaruzzaman’s victory has given Paterson’s Bengalis hope and pride.
“I cannot even explain it,’’ said Rahman.