Monday, November 13, 2017

USA: Pakistani immigrants make rural Pa. their home

"Every time I went to my work, or (went) anywhere in the market or anything, believe me, I (didn't) know that I (would be able to) come back and see my wife again or my children."

Dr Amatul and Akram Khalid
Times of Ahmad | News Watch | US Desk
Source/Credit: Public Opinion
By Ashley Books | November 12, 2017

“When we came (to the U.S.), we saw the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, prosperity - everything - and we (relaxed) and we (enjoyed being) here.”

When two Pakistani immigrants moved to a small town in rural Pennsylvania, they knew they were home.

Amatul and Akram Khalid quickly noticed the welcoming attitude of the local people when they arrived in Chambersburg. Folks were always willing to lend a hand, they were always smiling and, more importantly, they appreciated having the two in the community.

For any immigrants coming to America, "believe me, this area is better for them ... help is always here," Akram said.

Starting over 

The couple moved to the area in 2005 from New Jersey, where they lived for a decade and a half after immigrating from Pakistan in 1990.

Amatul said in their home country, they faced discrimination and persecution because they practiced a sect of the Muslim religion that was not considered Muslim by the country.

The then-Pakistani woman said she spent her days praying her husband would come home safely. Akram was very outspoken, she added, and talked about their religion at a time when it was forbidden to do so.

"Every time I went to my work, or (went) anywhere in the market or anything, believe me, I (didn't) know that I (would be able to) come back and see my wife again or my children," Akram said.

Once they made the decision to leave, even with sponsorship from family Amatul had in the U.S., it would be six years before the pair and their two daughters would arrive in the country.

"When we were traveling, my mindset was I was really, really scared to come here because I had two daughters," Amatul said. "I was worried how (they would) be brought up in this country with the culture differences."

And starting fresh in a new country wasn't without its challenges. After arriving, the family found themselves living in a one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, surviving on a limited income with no financial support.

"Those are the challenges of all immigrants, I think, to deal with those things," Amatul said.

At the time, she was also pregnant with the couple's third child, their first son, and because she had attended medical school in Pakistan, she was juggling being a mother and a wife with studying to become a certified physician by the American Board of Medical Specialties, an organization which certifies doctors in the U.S.

Akram, however, was confident from the beginning. He was able to get a job within the first week in the chemical industry, despite not being fluent in English.

"Because he was so confident, he did not take (not being fluent in English) as a challenge," Amatul said. "He just spoke his broken language. He spoke Urdu in between English when he gave his interviews."

The couple spent the next 15 years in New Jersey with their three children, while Amatul worked as a doctor and Akram continued working in the chemical industry.

The Sept. 11 attacks made it hard for Muslims in the U.S., he said. Shortly after, the company he was working for - AT&T - laid off several Muslim engineers, one of which was him.

"But I don't care. I don't care," he said after it happened. "Don't worry. I will find another job."

So, the family once again decided it was time to start over - this time in Chambersburg.

Finding a home in rural America

Now that the couple is living in Chambersburg, they said they prefer the rural area compared to their hectic lives in New Jersey, where they saw more discrimination and a higher cost of living.

They also did something that would have been very difficult in their home country - they opened their own medical practice, called Chambersburg Medical Associates.

Even though they had no experience running their own business, for the past 12 years Amatul has been practicing there as a doctor of internal medicine and Akram has been managing the office.

"This proves that America is the land of opportunity for everyone," Akram said.

But they weren't just afforded the chance to create something new. They also saw the freedoms - such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion - that came with, not just living in rural area, but the country, in general.

"That actually doubled our love for this America, because the equal rights, justice for everyone, I did not see when I was in Pakistan," Akram said.

It was these rights that allowed the family to openly practice their religion, without fear of being persecuted.

"There was no one telling us that you are not a Muslim or you are a Muslim," Amatul said. "We were considered Muslim over here."

But more importantly, unlike in New Jersey, their neighbors waved at them.

"When we came (to rural America), we felt that everybody appreciates you more," Amatul said.

And the welcoming feeling they have come to know and love has stayed the same over the years, even after the election of President Donald Trump.

People in the community are becoming more careful and conscious about immigrants, according to Amatul. She said even though Trump's stance on immigration is more conservative - he has advocated for tougher immigration laws to help strengthen the country's borders - she has seen her patients continue to show their support for her and her family.

The U.S. Census Bureau's 2011-2015 Estimates states that, out of the county's then-total population of 152,285 people, 3.3 percent, or 5,027 people, were estimated to be born in another country.

Akram has also seen more positives since Trump took office. He noticed that a neighbor who normally didn't wave at the couple before the election and who had a Trump sign during the race, took down the sign after Trump won and now waves at the couple.

"Even though they voted for Trump, they want to show me that they are okay with (us) and we are safe," he said.

Since the election, those with far-right views have been speaking out more.

A group of white nationalists hosted a rally in August in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the University of Virginia campus, which attracted a swarm of counter-protesters.

But smaller incidents have also happened. Two men on a Portland, Oregon, train were stabbed to death last May while trying to stop a white supremacist's anti-Muslim remarks against two teenagers, USA Today reported.

Akram didn't vote from Trump, but said he agrees with some of the things he is trying to do, and understands people might be frustrated with other, typical politicians. He likes that the president speaks his mind, and is trying to get Congress and the Senate to do more with legislation.

However, he doesn't agree with his stance on immigration. As a immigrant himself, Akram argues that this is the "key backbone of the American economy."

Both also don't agree with the travel ban - an executive order signed by Trump early in the year which blocked citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the U.S. for 90 days. The ban has since been revised with the third version blocking certain citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Chad, North Korea and Venezuela, according to USA Today.
Amatul Khalid works at her desk the morning of Nov.

"If we're thinking that these Muslim countries are producing more terrorists, this is just a lack of knowledge, a lack of education," Akram said. "Believe me, these Muslims are suffering more in their own country, and when they come here (and) they see the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of everything, they love this country more than their own country."

To them, it doesn't make sense.

"You cannot get rid of all the people of color from this country, or other races, or other religions," Amatul said.

And as Muslims, when attacks and shootings do happen, their first reaction is to be scared and hope the attacker isn't a Muslim, too. Amatul added they feel guilty when anything like this happens in the name of their faith.

"When somebody says there is a nurse, you think (it is a) woman," Amatul said. "When there's a doctor, people used to think man. When there's a terrorist, people think Muslim."

But even with these challenges,the couple said they would still encourage immigrants to come, not just to America, but rural America.

"When we came (to the U.S.), we saw the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, prosperity - everything - and we (relaxed) and we (enjoyed being) here," Akram said.

And their advice to other immigrants is simple - be honest, be always willing to work and be loyal to the country.

"I don't think I see any challenge in this country," Akram said. "Even today, this country has the least challenges. If you are smart, you are willing to learn, you are willing to work, you are willing to work hard, this country is the best country for you."

Ashley Books, 717-377-4512

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