Humayun Kabir in Nazma’s garden
Justice for Nazma Khanam - Words by Mansi Choksi
Humayun Kabir, a transit officer with the New York Police Department, is sitting in the driver’s seat of his SUV in Jamaica, Queens, watching a video on his cellphone over and over. A man strides into the frame of the video, time-stamped August 31, 2016 9:11:33 PM. He’s wearing ghost-white sneakers and carrying a paper bag in one hand. His face isn’t visible, but his right hand appears to be fisted. In seven seconds, he walks into one end of the frame and out of the other.
The clip was recorded by a surveillance camera down the street from where Kabir now sits, and later released by the police in connection with the murder of Nazma Khanam. Kabir’s aunt and a retired schoolteacher, Khanam would have been sixty this month, but she was stabbed to death minutes after the video was recorded.
The evening she was killed, Khanam was walking home after locking up her accessories shop around the block from Normal Road. Her husband, Shamsul Alam Khan, was walking with her, carrying three bags of groceries. Right before reaching the point where the street leading to their home peels off a thoroughfare, he began wheezing and stopped to catch his breath. Khanam carried on, with two other bags of groceries, to prepare dinner.
When they met again, a few minutes later, she was screaming and bleeding from her chest. A neighbor called 911 and rushed out with bottles of water. When she reached the hospital, she was declared dead on arrival.
The man accused of murdering Khanam, Yonatan Galvez Marin, lived in a rented room in an apartment owned by a Bangladeshi-American family eight houses from her own. Three days after the murder, detectives identified him by his shoes and eventually, he confessed to killing her in the course of an attempted robbery. He did not, however, steal anything.
Khanam was the third Bangladeshi Muslim to be murdered in Queens in August, in what many in the community called obvious hate crimes; two weeks earlier, Alauddin Akonjee, an imam, and his companion, Thara Uddin, were shot dead outside a mosque. The Friday after Khanam died, crowds gathered outside Jamaica Muslim Center to protest what they called a pattern of targeted violence. Khanam was wearing a traditional headscarf. Had it been a robbery, her nephew bellowed into a microphone, the man would have taken something. One elder held up a poster that said: New York Police Department: help us, protect us, increase security.
Hate crimes against American Muslims rose 78 percent over the course of 2015, to the highest levels recorded since the aftermath of 9/11, according to researchers at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University. The report analyzed official data from twenty states. In New York, the study noted, hate crimes against Muslims went up from 24 to 33 between 2014 and 2015.
As secretary general of the Bangladeshi American Police Association, a national organization founded last year. Kabir, 35, has lobbied to recruit more Bangladeshi Americans to the police force, in order to create stronger connections between law enforcement and the Bangladeshi community.
About 250,000 people of Bangladeshi origin live in the U.S.; roughly 75,000 are in New York, according to a report based on census data. The community had so far kept its head down, Kabir says, but it could no longer afford to if it wanted to claim its stake in the country.
“As Bengalis, we can’t just be isolated, go to work, come home and go to sleep,” Kabir says. “We have to make friends, even though we are Bengali, talk to our neighbor, share our ideas and share our culture.”
The fraternity had roughly two hundred gun-carrying unformed officers and about 1,500 other members of service of Bangladeshi heritage across the country. If there were more Bangladeshi officers, the community would feel calmer, he says.
When the imam and his companion were killed, the fraternity provided logistical and translation help. When Khanam was murdered, Kabir broke the news of her death to his uncle, managed documentation and drove her corpse to the airport for repatriation to Bangladesh, where her two older sons live.
The fraternity was originally started to help Bangladeshi-American officers rise within the police department. But lately, it felt more urgent to warn about the threats of Islamophobia and remind the community that the police department was on its side. Kabir and team came up with the idea of printing posters of a verse in the Koran stating that the death of an innocent means the death of humanity. They pasted these in Bangladeshi restaurants and small businesses, hoping to help the community make sense of its anxieties.
“There is too much going on in my head,” Kabir says, as we walk to the scene of the crime. Kabir is wearing a slack suit jacket and marching, hands in his pocket. He stops at a green patch in a triangle of sunlight, the spot where his aunt had fallen. This is where the police recovered the butt of a knife that killed her, he says. The blade remained inside. “When I found out she was dead, I lost my mind.”
Kabir received condolence calls on behalf of his family from the mayor, councilmen and the police commissioner. He became an informal spokesperson, amassing crowds for demonstrations after her death.
He, too, thought of himself as an envoy of his community, someone who had figured out how to navigate the American system. Kabir arrived as a student on a diversity lottery the year the Twin Towers fell. He drove yellow cabs and worked at Dunkin’ Donuts before joining the police department.
Kabir spent most of his working hours riding the subway undercover. Since the murder, he found himself repeatedly drawn to memories of his aunt. In Shariatpur, a south-central district in Bangladesh, he grew up a few doors from her home. Years later, in August 2009, when she moved to New York, he introduced her to the city with an evening in Astoria Park. On Eid, he gifted her a handloom sari. The weekend before she died, they met at a picnic for the Shariatpur community in New York. She complained that he no longer came to see her, and after a brief conversation, he was pulled into managing the logistics of the picnic.
“She’s a sixty-year-old woman going home from work. She doesn’t deserve to be killed like this,” Kabir says. “We don’t want to be victims of crime. We don’t want to be victims of any kind of nonsense. Because I wear hijab, grow a beard or go to the mosque.”
Kabir now sits inside his aunt’s home, drinking a cup of tea, browsing pictures on his cellphone. Here she is, somewhere in Bangladesh, beaming while holding her daughter’s baby. There she is, sitting in front of a bowl of soup, with her smiling family. Then, pictures of her coffin wrapped in an American flag, TV grabs of her weeping children, photos from her funeral.
“We are as American as other Americans,” he says. “We have a right to peace as much as other Americans do.”
Surveillance footage, as seen on Humayun Kabir’s cell phone, released by police in connection with the murder of Kabir’s aunt
Majeda Uddin (left; a cousin of Khanam’s), Kabir (center) and Mohammed M. Rahman (right; a nephew of Khanam’s) standing at the crime scene
Nazma’s kitchen plant
Tea at Nazma’s home
A photo of Nazma on Kabir’s cell phone
Kabir pointing to the crime scene