Bangladeshi couple find 'American Dream' at ethnic grocery in Columbia

Azad Shah, 58, traversed the streets of Faridpur, a poor district in Bangladesh, and dished Jewish bagels in the heart of Brooklyn in pursuit of the American Dream.

His fascination with the United States began in Bangladeshi high school classrooms when Shah was in his late teens and eventually brought Shah, a thin-framed Muslim business owner, and his wife, Mona, to Columbia. More than 20 years ago, the Shahs were one of the first residents to move into Long Reach as Columbia continued to build on founder James Rouse's vision of a diverse, equal and thriving sense of community.

Last year, the Shahs opened a specialty meat and ethnic grocery on Red Branch Road, a short drive from their home in Long Reach.

For the Shahs, the American dream materialized in the form of nearly 45 types of fish that line their freezers, rows of ethnic food from the Middle East and South Asia and a separate meat pick-up area where butchers prepare special meat that is delivered to their store in line with Islamic guidelines.

At Masala Bazaar and Halal Meat, Shah doles out mango juice mini-packs to kids, offers to carry customers' bags to their cars and plans to set aside an area of business for customers to gather and chat over complimentary tea and Carrom, a popular table game in South Asia in which players strike a series of disks.

"To treat someone with dignity and respect doesn't cost you anything. ...You tell them you are human if you make a mistake. You ask them how to improve your quality," Shah said.

His business model is rooted in the Islamic and Bangladeshi tradition he has carried with him since he left home in the late 1980s: "When each customer comes into my store, I treat them as my guest," Shah said.

Like the stories of other immigrants, their journey is not linear.

The lure of education brought Shah to Ohio where he studied marketing and sales at the University of Toledo in 1982. A stint at a Manhattan clothing store shifted into selling New York-style Jewish bagels in the heart of Brooklyn, where he lived. He briefly ran an import-export clothing business, selling brands by mainstream popular artists like Beyonce, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa, names that roll off with apparent ease despite Azad's Bangladeshi accent. He supplied a clothing brand of his own creation, Cut2Fit, to a store in The Mall in Columbia.

Mona Shah handles the finances, a language that knows no geographic boundaries. She married and moved to the United States with little to no working knowledge of American customs and English.

"It was hard, very hard," she said. "I always do the numbers. Azad does everything else."

With their first child on the way, the couple embraced the quiet calm of Columbia, attraced to the community after visiting the area with family who lived in Howard County.

"I told my sister they were beautiful houses. I'd like to have one," Azad Shah said.

Former cornfields transformed into retail and commercial before their eyes as their son, Fabian, now in his early 20s, grew up. Breaking from the tradition, the couple said they intentionally chose a more American name for their only child to help him fit in.

The Shahs said they rely on word-of-mouth to get business going. The fish they sell, including deep river fish from Bangladesh, are a popular item, along with halal meat, which caters primarily to Muslim customers.

The coupled sectioned-off former office space into a separate area for groceries and meat, including more than $200,000 in upgrades. A grand opening of their halal meat section is scheduled for next month.

"We've taken the good and left the bad. You don't have to go to Macy's or Nordstrom to look good," Shah said. "Deliver a clean product with good service and you look good. Now I see the fruits of what I'm doing."

"This is the best country in the world. This is the land of opportunity. I really see that. When I pray, I pray God bless America. Day and night, we were working together to make this happen," Shah said.

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