On July 20, Texas is scheduled to carry out the death penalty against Mark Stroman. One of his victims, Bangladeshi immigrant Rais Bhuiyan, has garnered international headlines by calling for Stroman’s life to be spared. Bhuiyan’s campaign colors my own ethnic identity, and I also plead Gov. Rick Perry to grant Stroman clemency.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Stroman, a meth addict and Aryan Brotherhood member, wanted to enact revenge against people of Middle Eastern descent. In shooting sprees across the Dallas area, Stroman murdered two immigrant gas station workers, one Indian and the other Pakistani. He also shot Bhuiyan at a Texaco gas station ten days after 9/11, leaving the victim with injuries that led to the loss of his left eye and 39 pieces of metal embedded in his head.
At his trial in 2002 then 22 year-old Stroman remained defiant and unrepentant for his crimes. He claimed his murderous rampage was fueled by the loss of his half sister in the World Trade Center collapse – a claim investigators could not confirm. He made an obscene hand gesture in the courtroom at Bhuiyan’s family. He boasted of killing “local Arab Americans, or whatever you want to call them.”
He was sentenced to die by lethal injection by the state of Texas.
I felt struck by Bhuiyan’s story because it encapsulates the pain and idealism so familiar to Bengali immigrants in America. As a one year-old baby, I moved with my family to Texas from Bangladesh. While some Bengali immigrants from India and Bangladesh can comfortably settle into white-collar occupations, many others are relegated to dangerous, arduous jobs such as taxicab drivers and gas station clerks.
Like Bhuiyan, my father first encountered America with all of its hardships and few of its glories. We didn’t have a mattress at the time, so we slept on the carpet of our one-bedroom apartment. After working two full-time jobs (one hauling luggage in a hotel, the other cooking at a Denny’s in Houston,) Dad found a new job in a gas station. The hours were long and he often only came home for only three or four hours of sleep, but I don’t look back on those times with misery. I was too young then.
But one of my earliest memories was around age four, when I visited my father outside Memorial Hermann Hospital in 1993. That year, gunshot wounds from an armed robbery at Dad’s gas station had left him in a wheelchair for more than a month. His absence felt like a hollowed-out emptiness, a sense that what once was is what should be and that anything else was loneliness.
Standing outside that hospital with mom and dad in his wheelchair and hospital gown in a pitch-dark night during visiting hours, I felt complete. It felt reassuring to be next to the man with the same hair as me, the “big version” of myself. I was impatient for him to come home already, and I had no feeling (much less animosity) toward the robber. Being next to my father then was the only time in my life I felt hopelessly, undeniably secure.
I support the death penalty, and I don’t think Stroman’s evil deeds warrant seeing the light of a free sun again. But his children shouldn’t be bereft of hearing his voice or being near him. On his executionchronicles.com blog, a remorseful Stroman writes of being a “father of four awesome kids. Three girls and one boy – kids are pure innocence – and I can’t stand for anyone to harm or abuse them.”
Bhuiyan understands Stroman is partly a victim of circumstance. Bhuiyan wrote of Stroman in the Austin-American Statesman: “When he was a kid, about the kindest thing his mother told him was that she was $50 short on aborting him. His stepfather ordered him to hate people, and beat him every time he refused to get into a fight.”
Bengali immigrants are accustomed to hardship. We left a land of endemic poverty to forge a new identity in a country where we don’t even make up a tenth of a percentage point of the population. I grew up often being confused for Indian or Pakistani, and unlike Italian- or Irish-Americans, we are too recently arrived to have substantially contributed to the melting pot.
A Bengali cab driver in New York made national headlines as a stabbing victim during the ground zero controversy, but he bore no malice against his attacker. Last year, another Bengali immigrant drove nearly 50 miles to return $21,000 an unfortunate passenger had left in his cab. And in 2007, another Bengali also made news for defending a Jewish couple in a subway assault.
I hope Perry does the right thing and grants Stroman clemency. I also hope forgiveness and empathy are values that define Bengali culture’s influence on America.
Quazi is a nursing graduate student.