Who Are They? How Did They Get Here?

Who Are They? How Did They Get Here?

The growth and widespread popularity of New York City’s halal carts is inextricably linked to immigration—particularly that of Egypt and Bangladesh. Muhammed, a Prince of Egypt halal cart worker and of Egyptian descent, disclosed that according to him, most halal cart cooks originate from those countries. Muhammed generalized this to “mainly Muslim countries,” which aligns with the people of that religion adhering to halal dietary requirements.

The Egyptian community is one of the smallest national-origin groups, at “less than 1 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population,” (1) according to the Migration Policy Institute’s profile of The Egyptian Diaspora in the United States. The most prominent way of Egyptians immigrating to the U.S. is by receiving legal permanent status based on relatives who have previously settled here. Muhammed mentioned a long waiting period for Egyptians to arrive in the United States, referring to the Diversity Visa Program—an initiative to increase immigration from underrepresented countries to the U.S. This is the second most popular way for Egyptians to enter the country. In this lottery-like system, there are a high number of applicants and “no single country can receive more than 7 percent of the total number of diversity visas issued during a given year (3,500)” (5). The beneficiaries of this program are often younger than those who arrive in a different way, and a majority are single males. New York City has the highest concentration of Egyptian immigrants, many of whom come in search of better work opportunities or, as a result of chain migration, for family reunification. Egyptian immigrants are typically better educated and earn a higher income when compared to the aggregate U.S. population.

A study by New York University’s Center For The Study Of Asian American Health found that New York City is also the “home to the largest Bangladeshi population in the United States,” the size of which increased by 471% from 1990 to 2000. Nonetheless, 48% of this immigrant group only arrived in the U.S. during or after 2000. The cause of Bangladeshi emigration is typically related to employment—mostly young, low-skilled Bangladeshi men leave their home country in search of job opportunities. This often results in “harsh working conditions and inhumane treatment at their respective destinations.” This contrasts with previous immigration from Bangladesh during 1960-1970, during which time primarily educated professionals emigrated. 31% of Bangladeshi immigrants in New York live in poverty and 60% have limited English proficiency. However, there have been limited studies on Bangladeshi immigration, as historically, studies of South Asian immigration haven’t been divided by countries of origin.

Halal carts have become a subculture of New York City, born out of immigrant culture. From 1990 to 2005, the number of food cart workers who identified as Egyptian, Bangladeshi, or Afghan increased sevenfold. However, halal carts generally modify the immigrant’s native food to adhere to local tastes, as well as due to the availability of ingredients and to distinguish themselves from competitors. Food carts have been present in New York since the early 1800s, when Italians sold peanuts on street carts, then during the late 19th century when Jewish immigrants set up pickle and knish vendors stands, but especially between 1960 and 1980, when Greek street food vendors became popular. The recent (in the last decade and a half) popularity of halal carts is believed to have originated as a response to the demands of Muslim taxi drivers, who needed a quick and filling meal while working a long shift, that also abided by their religious dietary standards. One of the most famous carts who capitalized on this need is The Halal Guys, owned by Ahmed Elsaka, Mohamed Abouelenein and Abdelbaset Elsayed.

A New York Times case study reported on the work routine of a Bangladeshi halal cart cook, Kabir Ahmed. Like many other Bangladeshi immigrants, Ahmed lives in Queens and commutes to Manhattan for work. His household is comprised of himself, his wife, their three children, and his mother—larger than the typical American household. He holds a bachelor’s degree from his home country, but shortly after immigrating to New York, he started working in the halal cart business. His “work is both demanding and routine.” He works from 7:30 am to 3 pm, and is tasked with setting up the cart, maintaining it within the rules of the city’s license, and of course, serving hundreds of customers. Another cook takes over for the evening shift.

An interview with the employees of Prince of Egypt revealed patterns similar to those mentioned above. The Egyptian halal cart cook kept his name anonymous, but stated that after coming to America five years ago, the halal cart is his second job. He works the morning shift with Muhammed, whose role is both an overseer of his father’s business as well as to serve the food after the cook prepares it. At 4 pm, another cook takes over, working at the cart until 10 pm. The cook’s English was poor, making it hard for him to communicate. However, he was very knowledgeable about the halal dietary requirements, perhaps because he eats halal himself. Muhammed explained that halal carts are a family business, a co-ethnic work environment that induces more immigration from the home country. Nevertheless, halal carts are in many cases temporary work for recent immigrants, until they find a better position.


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