Uzbek community in New York wary of being tied to Islamic extremism

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Sukhrob Sobirov was 20 when he left Uzbekistan with his parents and sister in 2009 and immigrated to the U.S. through a visa lottery program.

The family relied on relatives at first but eventually settled into life in Brooklyn. Sobirov learned English, got a job managing his uncle’s restaurant and married and had a daughter with another immigrant from Uzbekistan.

For the record:

11:00 a.m. Nov. 8, 2017An earlier version of this article was accompanied by a photo of a cafe named for the capital of Tajikistan. The cafe, in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, is part of the Tajik community, not the Uzbek.

His U.S. beginnings are typical among the thousands of Muslim immigrants who have arrived from the former Soviet republic over the last decade — including Sayfullo Saipov, the 29-year-old charged in Tuesday’s terror attack in Manhattan that killed eight people.


Saipov immigrated through the same visa program in 2010, used family contacts to get a job as a trucker, and married and had three children with an immigrant from his home country.

The similarities end, however, with what authorities say was a conversion from moderate Islam to extremism. Authorities said Saipov carried out the attack — using a rented truck to mow down people on a crowded bicycle path — in the name of Islamic State, which two days later claimed responsibility in its weekly newsletter.

Now the Uzbek community in the United States is struggling to understand how one of its own could have carried out such an attack.

In interviews in the Kensington and Sheepshead Bay neighborhoods of Brooklyn, home to a significant Uzbek population, many were quick to point out that while the country is predominantly Muslim, most are not very religious let alone extreme in their views.

“We were shocked, we were surprised,” Sobirov said. “How could this guy do this?”

“I love my Uzbek roots,” he said. “But now if you say [you’re from] Uzbekistan, people are going to look at you funny.”

Of the 63,000 Uzbek immigrants in the U.S., nearly half live in the New York area, compared with about 10% in California, which has the second largest population.


The earliest immigrants from Uzbekistan were Jews who arrived in the 1970s under a program that allowed them to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Muslims started coming later, with most arriving after 2000.

Jeanne Batalova, a senior demographer at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, said Uzbeks historically lacked the family connections and high-skilled science and technology backgrounds that would have afforded them the opportunity to immigrate.

“Because of the skilled competition and because of the very, very small number of people from Uzbekistan who were in the U.S. already and who were eligible to sponsor additional relatives… there were no other options,” she said.

That changed with the creation of the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, the lottery launched in 1995 to boost immigration from places that are underrepresented in the U.S.

The program requires a high school degree or equivalent work experience and training. Of the 4,000 people from Uzbekistan who received green cards in 2015, about 2,300 came through the program.

Uzbeks have a long history of working outside their country.

Like other parts of the former Soviet Union, Uzbekistan struggled after the fall of Communism to transition to a market economy, said Nate Schenkkan, a Central Asia expert at the think tank Freedom House. Millions of citizens left to find work in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere.


In the U.S., Uzbeks commonly work in education, healthcare and social services, according to the U.S. Census. Many also work as Uber drivers — Saipov’s most recent employment — as well as in the trucking and construction industries.

“They love to work, they love to make money, give their kids a good education,” said Shavkat Tashmatov, a professional singer from Uzbekistan. “They want to have a good life.”

Tashmatov lived in Tajikistan and the United Arab Emirates and earned a good living, he said. But he repeatedly entered the visa lottery in hopes of giving his children better opportunities, finally winning a slot and moving to the U.S. in 2012.

One night this week, Tashmatov sang upbeat Tajik pop music from a stage next to a fully stocked bar at Emir Palace, the restaurant Sobirov manages. Two women, one dressed in jeans and a blouse and the other wearing a dress, danced along.

Tashmatov, 46, grew up Muslim but said he is “not at all” religious — which is typical among Muslims from Uzbekistan, where governments dating back to its Soviet days have quickly cracked down on extremism.

He said he was deeply saddened by Tuesday’s attack and struggling to make sense of it.

“Even in Uzbekistan it is hard to find radical people,” he said. “Why here? I don’t understand.”


Sitora Ashrafova, a community organizer who immigrated with her family 10 years ago, said Uzbeks’ moderate approach to Islam back home carried over to the U.S.

“You wouldn’t really find them in mosques,” she said. “Unless it’s a religious holiday like Eid — only on that day people might make some kind of effort and go to a mosque and pray.”

She was grappling with how Saipov may have become radicalized and worried the attack would destroy the reputation of the entire community.

“We are proud of who we are,” she said. “This person does not represent Uzbekistan, let alone Islam.”

Twitter: @AgrawalNina