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Caught Between Two Worlds, an Uzbek Student Finds Her Own Path

Munsia, center, with her sisters Medina, left, and Sabina, right. (Photo by Nell Gluckman)

At the end of a recent school day, Ditmas Junior High School’s 1,322 students mingled on the sidewalk outside the low-lying brick school in the Kensington section of Brooklyn. Friends found each other and formed groups to walk home. The students represent 42 nations and often stick with others from their home countries. But Munisa Habibova walks a different path.

Although the 12-year-old smiled at other Uzbek girls and said a few words to them in Tajik, her native language in Uzbekistan, she preferred to walk the two blocks home on the other side of the street, with another Uzbek friend who’s in high school and had been waiting for her to get out of school so they could talk before she started her chores and homework.

In school, Munisa doesn’t mind serving as a go-between for the many students who have recently emigrated from Uzbekistan. In the past few years, the number of Uzbeks admitted into the United States has surged, and many of them are settling in Kensington, a Brooklyn neighborhood that is used to receiving new immigrant groups.  There are 127 Uzbek students at Ditmas Junior High, making it the largest immigrant group represented there, and the latest immigrant group to relocate here in search of higher paying jobs.

Ukbekistan’s economy “is in an absolute state of collapse,” said Steve Swerdlow, a researcher on Central Asia for Human Rights Watch. Swerdlow was the head of the Human Rights Watch headquarters in Uzbekistan until 2010, when the government forced all non-governmental organizations out of the country. Swerdlow describes a Soviet style society where a president who has been in power since the country’s inception in 1991 arbitrarily usurps wealth and imprisons and tortures young men under the assumption that they are Islamic extremists. “There are so many good reasons to leave a country like Uzbekistan,” he said.

Immigration experts see the movement of Uzbeks to Brooklyn as part of a decades-old trend. “This is just a recent example of something that has been taking place in the United States for many years,” said Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst and data manager at the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that studies migration worldwide. “There is one first family that arrives to a place and then through word of mouth they have family members come, they have neighbors, and suddenly you have a flourishing community,” she said. But with the Uzbek immigration, “the pace of change is just phenomenal,” she said.

In 2007, when Munisa and her family won their green cards through the Diversity Visa Program, which randomly selects applicants from countries that are not heavily represented in the United States, they were among 1,304 Uzbeks to gain permanent residency here. In 2012, that number nearly tripled to 3,716.

Munisa occupies a space between culturally American and culturally Uzbek. Unlike most of the other Uzbek kids at Ditmas Junior High School who are struggling through classes that are geared towards students learning English, Munisa has been here long enough to feel American. She’s been speaking English in school since she was seven so she has no accent and with her hoop earrings, skinny jeans and loose-fitting t-shirt she could be easily mistaken for a native New Yorker.

“Half my life was in Uzbekistan and half was in America,” she explains. “None of my friends have been here longer than me.” Even when she speaks with her family in their native language, she says she inserts English words when she can’t remember the proper Tajik word.

Munisa has a 90 average and her teachers say she does well in school. At Ditmas, each student chooses a talent class and Munisa’s is the Ditmas News Network, where students have learned how to write, film and produce monthly news segments that are broadcast in the cafeteria to the whole school. As the show’s anchor, Munisa writes the scripts and confidently introduces news segments about the closing of a pizza parlor or a vending machine eating students’ dollars.

The students at Ditmas who are learning English as a second or third language make up nearly a third of the school’s population.  In teacher Raven Roytblat’s English class for language learners, 10 of her 24 students are Uzbek. The others are from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Haiti. Like Munisa, all of the Uzbeks in her class are from Samarkand, an area in western Uzbekistan near the border with Tajikistan. They speak Uzbek, Russian and Tajik and fondly remember their home country where they lived in larger homes and each family had a farm with cows and crops. These memories are mixed with the harsher memory of a scant supply of water. Sometimes a large family had make one bucket last for days.

After school, when Munisa returns to the dimly lit two-room apartment that she shares with her parents and three siblings, she assumes a more traditional Uzbek role. She is the oldest so it is her job to clean the apartment before her parents come home from work. Munisa has two younger sisters Medina, 10, and Sabina, 5, and a brother, Darjon, 2.

She often serves as a translator for their mother, who only understands short sentences in English. Her mother looks incredulous when asked why the family moved to America. Like others after her, she and her husband applied for diversity visas and when they won, they did not hesitate to jump on the opportunity to make more money in the United States and put their children in American schools. She hopes someday they will become doctors.

Darjon’s toy cars litter the floor of the room where Munisa’s parents sleep on two large cots pushed together. Munisa put the toys away, scrubbed the dishes in the sink, made her siblings’ beds and pushed her parents cots up against the wall, creating a seating area.  When her mother came home, she helped her put away groceries from Costco, then prepared palov, a traditional Uzbek dish that consists of rice, beef, onions and carrots.

“Having brothers to take care of is like practice for the women,” she  said, referring to women who intend to marry and have children. In Uzbekistan, Munisa explained, when a woman reaches the age of 18, she is selected by a husband and has no choice but to marry him. “It mostly depends on the guy,” Munisa said with her eyebrows raised in an expression of disapproval. “If he says yes, the girl has to say yes.”

Munisa knows that even though some customs have been relinquished in New York, the marriage practice will not be one of them. Weddings are too important to Uzbeks. She is hoping that her parents will wait until she is 25 to arrange her marriage. “You don’t know the guy,” she said. “You don’t know if he drinks. You don’t know if he has bad habits or not.”

But then she added with a shrug: “My mom and dad were picked for each other. They turned out pretty good.”

Like many Uzbek women living in Kensington, Munisa’s mother cares for an elderly Russian woman. Her father owns and runs an ambulette service, which shuttles around the neighborhood’s elderly in white wheelchair accessible vans. When the family first arrived, they had only one acquaintance – a friend of their father’s who let the family stay with him. Though her sister Medina doesn’t remember it, and the youngest children were not yet born, Munisa remembers waking up with aches in her neck from sleeping on the floor in the single room that the family shared for a year. It was a difficult transition from the large house and farm that they had left in the care of Munisa’s grandmother in Uzbekistan.

The girls’ father worked first as a construction worker before he was able to invest in a van for the ambulette business. Now the family can afford beds for everyone and trips to places like Niagara Falls on long weekends. Friends and relatives from Samarkand have followed them to Brooklyn, including their mother’s aunt.

Members of this family all do what they can to help ease their countrymen into their new lives in Brooklyn. Frequently, the whole family crowds into the children’s bedroom and lets recent émigrés stay in the living room for months at a time until they find their own place to live. Munisa’s younger sister Medina regularly serves as a translator from English to Tajik in her fifth grade class at P.S. 134, also in Kensington. Eleven of the 20 students in her class are Uzbek.

Munisa does not know much about the Uzbek government, but when her mother is asked the whether political situation there affected the family’s decision to leave, she simply nods. The family returns to Samarkand in the summers, but Munisa says that increasingly she feels her home and her future are here.

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