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Bangladeshi-American Finds Hope in Ashes of Minneapolis Restaurant


Ruhel Islam, owner of Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, which was torched by rioters following George Floyd's death while in police custody, remembers artwork painted on his restaurant that depicts his journey from a small village in Bangladesh to Minnesota.
Bangladeshi-American Finds Hope in Ashes of Minneapolis Restaurant
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Ruhel Islam is walking among the ruins of his Gandhi Mahal Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The place was burned down during riots in the city following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in May during an arrest by Minneapolis police. The arrest was captured on a video which spread quickly around the internet. The incident led to an international movement against abuse by police.

Islam expressed his support for the movement even as his restaurant burned. His daughter quoted him in a now famous message she posted to Facebook, saying, “Let my building burn, Justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.”

Islam is a native of Bangladesh. He moved to the United States in 1996. In 2005, he opened Gandhi Mahal. The restaurant stood about four kilometers from the site of Floyd’s arrest.

"This is a very deep problem we need to solve. It's not their fault," he said of the protesters. "It's the system's fault. Our policymakers did not resolve the issues and that's why this happened."

Standing united

He said his pain and loss was little in comparison to what Floyd's family had suffered. Islam added that the South Asian community needs to show it is united with African Americans because both groups are minorities and people of color.

"It's very important to stand with them shoulder to shoulder and fight for what's right for everyone for a better world," he said.

Ruhel Islam, owner of Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, which was burned in rioting after George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police, shows where the kitchen use to be in his restaurant. (K. Khan/VOA)
Ruhel Islam, owner of Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, which was burned in rioting after George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police, shows where the kitchen use to be in his restaurant. (K. Khan/VOA)

People across Minneapolis and from other parts of the country have been raising money to help pay for Islam's losses.

Among those seeking to help is Rachael Joseph, director of Survivors Lead. The group was formed by gun violence survivors and fights for stronger gun laws. She started a group to raise money on Facebook for Gandhi Mahal. It has received more than $64,000.

She wrote in an e-mail to VOA that the restaurant was important to the gun control group. She said, "Ruhel and his family showed the same kindness to all who entered those doors.” She also said the Islam family has been “fighting white supremacy alongside the community."

Getting back to business

Islam is opening another food service business in the same neighborhood until the Gandhi Mahal can be rebuilt. The new restaurant will be called Curry in a Hurry. It will provide food for take away and is expected to be ready by September.

Islam is also working with several community organizations to re-create Gandhi Mahal as part of a multicultural community center.

One of the groups is Pangea World Theater. Its goal is to support human rights through artistic performance that deals with discrimination. Its founder, Dipankar Mukherjee and Islam are close friends. Mukherjee said the Gandhi Mahal provided space for many of the theater's social and musical events. He misses the restaurant.

"It's heartbreaking to even sit here," he said while looking at the remains of the Gandhi Mahal.

A tandoor that was used in the former Gandhi Mahal Restaurant remains among the ruins. (K. Khan/VOA)
A tandoor that was used in the former Gandhi Mahal Restaurant remains among the ruins. (K. Khan/VOA)

Mukherjee hopes that the new building will be big enough to hold Pangea's theatrical shows, including more projects centered on Black lives.

Mukherjee described Islam as "a brother from back home who's committed to food justice, environmental justice."

Leading by example

Islam has many big ideas for the new building. He pictures it as a place for peace, although the project is still being planned. He imagines it as a center where activists and community organizers can gather to discuss issues such as food security, climate change and social justice.

"I want to lead by example," Islam said. "I want to do something more. It's not about making money, but bringing people together.

He aims to create an area in front of the restaurant that will include a Black Lives Matter memorial. He also dreams of an environmentally friendly space, powered by the sun.

Islam believes that rebuilding the restaurant as a community center will help renew the area which many businesses have left because of the riots.

"We want to bring the energy back. We want to bring the businesses back," he said.

Islam estimates the project will cost almost $10 million and take three to five years to complete.

"We'll be rising from the ashes," he said. "I believe in the dream, and if you work hard toward your dream, you can get there."

I’m ­­­­­­Caty Weaver.

VOA’s Kulsoom Khan reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

quote –v. to repeat something said by someone else exactly

fault –n. responsibility for a problem, a mistake, a bad situation

shoulder to shoulder –idiom to be united in a shared cause

supremacy –n. the quality or state of having more power than anyone else

committed –adj. willing to give your time and energy to something

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