Syed Alam opens his Germantown store Rahman Body Oils, Beads and Variety every morning just as he has for the past 13 years he has owned it. In some ways, nothing much has changed over the years at the store. In other ways, everything changed last year. Alam used to run the store with his son, Fakhur Uddin. Then one day last August, Uddin was gone.
It’s raining outside but new customers still come in every few minutes. It’s a busy spot on Germantown Avenue, just past Chelten Avenue. Alam politely attends to each customer, helping this one find a jewelry case, another find a pair of white rubber crocks. It’s a day of business as usual.
Uddin came to America from Bangladesh in 2001. He finished high school and then began attending community college. “In 2008 he started working with me in the store,” says Alam.
They usually came in to open together and then one would leave while the other stayed. If the one working in the store that day had to go out to get some coffee or pick up lunch, he simply locked the front door for a few minutes. The arrangement worked well.
“In the 13 years I do business here I have no problems,” says Alam.
On August 20, 2008, Alam had another engagement elsewhere and Uddin had to open the store by himself. Around 11 that morning, Alam called to see how things were going. There was no answer.
The florescent lights flicker occasionally. The green carpet is worn and thread-bear. The wall behind the counter is lined with oil bottles just like it’s been for years. Bins filled with socks, hats, flip flops and other odds and ends create narrow aisles along the length of the store. Everything is neat and organized. The rain keeps beating at the windows.
Uddin never smoked. He never drank. “He’s very kind to me, a very obedient boy. I never see a boy like this. In this society, it is very rare to get a boy like this,” says his father.
That morning Alam called the store three times, every five minutes. Still getting no answer, he called the store next door. He asked the clerk there to go check on his son. She said the door was locked. Alam figured Uddin had stepped out for coffee.
He made the clerk go back and check several times. Still, there was no one there. Finally the situation became uncomfortable. “She said ‘He’s not here. I don’t feel good. I feel something is wrong. You come,’” says Alam.
It’s been raining for days now, with only small intervals of sun. The gloomy weather seems incredibly appropriate. A man comes into the store with a small boy to look at watches. The glass case has a large variety to choose from. The man picks out a few. “Five dollars each,” says the clerk Alam now needs to employ.
Uddin’s great love was cricket. He liked other sports as well, but cricket was by far his favorite. He followed it closely on TV. “He made a team in Philadelphia to play cricket,” says his father. Everyone got along well with Uddin. “Everybody likes me and they liked my son even more than me,” says Alam.
That morning in August Alam quickly made his way over to the store. “By noon I got here. By that time I saw the police are here. They said he is dead,” says Alam.
Uddin was bound in the back of the store and shot in the head with one bullet. There was no evidence of any confrontation, of any fighting. No merchandise was missing. But Uddin was gone.
“They say this is robbery. But in the store nothing is missing, only missing is my son,” says Alam.
The store was robbed twice before. “They took money and merchandise and that’s it. They did not beat us or
anything. We never opposed them,” says Alam. He gave similar instructions to his son, to let the robbers take anything they wanted. This time, though, Alam points out that even the jewelry in the cases was not touched. “So what type of robbery this is, I don’t understand,” he says.
Local residents came out in support of Alam, extending sympathy for his loss. Even now neighbors check in with Alam regularly to see how he’s doing. “I have no complaints about the neighborhood,” he says.
But even as residents are well aware of what happened here last summer, few want to talk about it. The police department likewise declines to comment. They tell Alam they need witnesses. Somebody needs to come forward with information.
“In this neighborhood, somebody knows,” says Alam. “I think people are scared to say something.”
The $5,000 reward offer, $4,000 from Alam and $1,000 from the Germantown Business Association, has yet to bring any information in.
Alam decided to keep the store open after the murder. “If I close, how will I live? Where will I go? What will I do?” he says. He still needs to provide for three other children, ages three, five and seven. So he chooses to stay and to open this same store every morning. Everything is the same. And everything is completely different.
All Alam can do now is wait for someone to speak up. “This is their moral duty, to come out against this heinous attack. It is not for me, it is for the whole community,” says Alam.