Juliana deLehman’s Interview with Urfa Aamir

“I was always, in my family, the fish that swam the other direction. I’m one of seven kids, I’m in the middle, the middle child, so I was a little more adventurous than a lot of women would be”.
Full interview with Urfa Aamir

Every time I walk into Mrs. Aamir’s home, as you hear at the start of this interview, she asks me how I am doing. It is a simple sentiment, almost always exchanged in casual conversation, and for most, is a means of politeness. However, when Mrs. Aamir asks me how I am, I know there is a genuine interest in the response behind the simple words. She is my best friends’ mother, and even prior to knowing me very well, has always been able to offer the utmost support to me through any difficulties I face. Recently, she gave me a piece of advice, and reminded me that the nature of life is that we will all experience the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, and there will be people who come in and out of your life; She tells me that some people come into your life only to teach you things, and others are meant to be permanent fixtures. But the most important thing to remember, she tells me, is that you are always loved, whether it be by the people around you or a higher power. This sense of optimism is what I most admire about her, and is seen throughout my conversation with her, as she always chooses to search for the silver lining.

Urfa Aamir is in her mid-fifties, is an administrative law judge, a mother, and singlehandedly created a non-profit organization to provide education to a low-income, minority community in Pakistan. She was born and grew up in Pakistan, was educated and began a family there, before immigrating to America in 2002 as a result of discrimination against Christians following the September 11th terrorist attacks; She sought a better, safer future for her children. She was pressured to abandon a financially stable life, in the career path of her choice as it became increasingly difficult for people of her faith to maintain this lifestyle safely. Upon moving to America, after enduring the challenging immigration and transition process, she obtained a job as a caseworker and was eventually promoted to an administrative law judge. Further, she later had the idea to begin her non-profit organization, which she attributes to her Christian faith. In this interview, she offers an insightful perspective on life and education in Pakistan, the difficulties of parenting as an immigrant, creating a non-profit from the ground up, and the most valuable lessons she has learned in her career path.

Life in Pakistan and Immigration to America

Aamir described her life in Pakistan as “good and bad, like every place”. Due to the male-dominated nature of society, she detailed a constant fear that was felt in living daily life outside the household as a woman. Further, she struggled from a feeling of separation from the larger culture as a result of being brought up with the Christian faith in a country that is majority Muslim. However, there was comfort in her country, the good that she describes, in her community, her family and friends, and her strength and belief in her faith. Following the September 11th terrorist attacks, Aamir explained the discrimination faced by Christians in her country, attributed to their association with the West. She stated that the Christian community was targeted, which led to her decision to immigrate to America, out of caution for her children’s future.

“The majority of the Christian community over there is not just poor, they are extremely poor, and….they are called names which mean, it is very similar to the caste in the Hindu religion which is called the Untouchables, because they do all your cleaning jobs…so you keep those people just for cleaning and they never get out of that cycle, basically from one generation to the next they are just doing those same things. Extremely poor, very oppressed and persecuted at the same time because when a whole group of people is weak, then the majority will always try to oppress them even further. Because of the religion, it kind of drew a line, because when they look at the West they see Christians, the Muslim community sees Christians, even though its not but they see it as Christians so whenever they want to get revenge on Christians, they will further oppress the Christian community. So a lot of churches got burned or they would burn their colonies”.

As it is for most, the immigration process was difficult for Aamir; she described an absolute lack of help from the government, as well as difficulty in access to information on the process and how to cultivate a life in a new country. She made the transition from an affluent lifestyle in Pakistan, to living in one bedroom in her sister’s home with her husband and three young children. They began their immigration process by applying for asylum and became naturalized citizens five years later. With only the help from their family, some of whom had already immigrated, they were able to find small jobs, getting their own apartment after a year of living in one room. Hearing her speak of this experience outlined how challenging it is to create a life in a new country with little help. However, Aamir’s optimistic approach to life, which is, in part, attributed to her strength in her faith, allows her to see what she believes is the best in America: the ability for opportunity.

 “It’s been really hard and it’s still hard but…you know, theres a lot of good stuff over here in this country as well. We do love the fact…the freedom in this country is the biggest thing I think. Where you can just do things, and if you kind of put your mind to things, then things do happen, so we do just, we do appreciate this country I think a lot more sometimes than the citizens do. because we can, we’ve seen the other places and then we see here. So there is a good vibe about this country, where if you work hard you can get somewhere. But, at the end of the day its God I think, who sustained us through it all, but it was extremely difficult, extremely difficult”.

Parenting Between Two Cultures

Aamir offered an incredibly honest perspective on the difficulty of being brought up in Pakistan, where the customs and culture are entirely different from America, and of having to raise children who are growing up with experiences that she cannot relate to. When asked about her values in parenting, and her process of bringing up her children, she responded, “I think we’ve been pretty confused, after we came to this country, about how to bring up our kids. I think that has affected our parenting. I don’t know if anything good came out of it. Seriously. Cause, once you’re in a confused state of mind you really don’t know what you’re going to convey to your children”. Although parenting is a hardship and new experience for everyone, there is an additional difficulty in having little frame of reference to attribute to your children’s experiences. However, throughout every aspect and hardship of her life, her faith guides her; This is the value she feels that she has instilled most fervently in her children, as a constant reminder that alongside her guidance, there is a faith in a higher power which will always be beside them and supporting them.

“Culturally, I think we find it the hardest. Because, culturally, over there, the family is a much stronger unit, in our country and children are more engaged with their parents…more than they are over here. We do find that more difficult. We really don’t know, you know, like all of the new parents you really don’t know what you’re in for, everybody’s doing a wrong job, wherever you are…I think its hard for the kids as well, they don’t have anyone to properly guide them because we haven’t been through things that they’re going through. I think the next generation, the generation after them, will find it a little easier, I’m hoping. Because they will be able to guide them to things, we weren’t able to give them any guidance in a lot of things, so they had to find their own places and find their own feet”.

Further, she spoke of her children enduring discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity as a result of racism in America after 2001. Similarly to the narrative La Guera by Cherrie Moraga, where she tells of the feeling of being isolated from her peers, which she later attributed to both her race and her class (Moraga 31). This is a narrative that many immigrants can relate to. Her story aligns with that of Aamir’s children: attending schools where the majority of the population was white and wealthy. Their experience in school was increasingly difficult as the result of feeling different, of isolation from their peers. This feeling exacerbates the hardships faced by her children as they grew up, as well as the disconnect that Aamir felt with them, as she never had the experience of life in American high schools. This emphasizes the adversity one faces in being an immigrant who endures discrimination in a community that has a vast white majority.

Values in Education: Light on A Lampstand

As a result of Aamir’s mothers’ promise to herself to provide her children with the best possible quality of education, it became an important value in her life, which she passed onto her own children. She states, “I’ve seen that, you know that even in Pakistan if you’re educated you will be respected, whatever religion you belong to, but if you’re uneducated and you are a minority community you will get extremely oppressed, there is no way out for you; so that was something that was already in my heart. Like, I know that life was better because I was educated in that country”. The positive effect of being well educated in her life, which led her to the successful position she is now in, led her to the desire to help other children in low-income, minority communities in Pakistan. While worshipping, she was given the idea to cultivate her non-profit organization, Light on a Lampstand, to break the cycle which imprisons Christians in Pakistan to poverty. 

“The Lord had told me that it was going to be through education, that you had to give them quality education…to kind of help them break out of this cycle”.

She began this process largely on her own, reaching out to various family members, researching people with similar interests in creating this type of organization, and eventually found herself in contact with a Christian community organizer from a slum similar to her own, who placed her in contact with a pastor who was in charge of a small school; They provided school supplies and other support in various forms, such as building a bathroom for them, and began their mission of providing education to underprivileged communities. From here, they rented a room in Islamabad, Pakistan, beginning with fifteen children in the Pre-Kindergarten class which has grown to about 185 children, and a building with six rooms. Since starting the organization, Aamir’s passion for education and for helping these children has only grown. This school not only helps the children but, in addition, provides jobs for young people in the community who, despite having an education, were unable to previously find stable employment. Further, the curriculum comes from the private schools in Pakistan as well as the American curriculum, providing the children with skills, such as learning English, which will aid in bettering their future. This further relates to Cherrie Moraga’s story, as she states, “it was through my mother’s desire to protect her children from poverty and illiteracy that we became “anglocized”; the more effectively we could pass in the white world, the better guaranteed our future” ( Moraga 28). Aamir stated, similarly, that access to good jobs was largely dictated by whether or not you could speak English, which perpetuates the idea that in order to be successful, there is a necessity to conform to Western culture.

“I just love everything about it. Like my heart is totally there. And I never thought it would be, like I really now…long to go [to Pakistan]”.

She also spoke about her difficulties in seeking funding for the organization, initially providing it herself with help from her family and others involved in the project. She describes it as a learning process, referring to the personal difficulty of “asking people for money”, as they attempt to expand the school as the children grow, which requires further resources.

Learning Objectivity: Career Path

Aamir earned a master’s in English Literature in Pakistan, and began a career path there, creating her own advertising agency, where she was a creative director and worked directing television commercials, achieving tremendous success. Aamir’s story mirrors that of Amy Tan’s, which she described in her narrative, “Mother Tongue”, stating that although she grew up with a mother whose English was not perfect, she went on to major in English, defying the stereotypes imposed on her (Tan 258). Aamir learned English in school, but exclusively spoke Urdu at home, learning to think in both languages simultaneously. Her decision to major in English Literature is reflective of her nature that she describes as “the fish that swam the other direction”. There was inherent difficulty in choosing to pursue a field of study which placed her at a disadvantage.

Upon moving to America, with little information on how to enter into the industry here, and in order to be more present in her children’s lives, she sought a government job. She began as a caseworker and has since been promoted to an Administrative Law judge. She largely deals with cases related to welfare, often between caseworkers and people who apply for benefits. She also sees her journey in this job as a learning process, as it can be difficult to separate feelings of empathy from the law; Particularly due to her being placed in similar situations to the cases which she decides upon. However, the most important lesson that she has learned is to be objective, in every facet of her life.

 “I’ve learned a lot in this job and initially when I was doing the cases I would try to make decisions through my heart. Which is not a good thing…My journey with these cases has been like, initially I started off, like, I felt so bad for people and I would try to find ways that they would get helped. Because when you’ve been there yourself, you know, you’ve been there done that, you’ve been on both sides of the playing field. You’ve been on the other side and you’ve been on this side as well so you understand it a little bit more. The job has really taught me to be able to have clarity in my own thinking… So, I think, thats whats really made a difference in my life even as a person, I have learned that I’m looking at things in a much more clearer way, instead of just being emotional about things…Something for all of us to learn, when you’re making your decisions in life, you have to be able to see things objectively and not just think through your emotions.”

Aamir feels that being a minority, woman and immigrant has helped in her career, particularly because she works within the government. Although, luckily, she believes that she has not been subjected to discrimination, she spoke on the idea of abuse of power, particularly in the immigration process: “What I felt was when we were going through certain things, I think its more of an abuse of power…even if its a guard at the office door and if he thinks he can let you in or out, they will discriminate on the basis of that, anybody that they can push around, that person will push around”. She shares the sentiment that discrimination is entirely power-based: if someone holds power, they are likely to abuse it. This is similar to the thoughts of Audre Lorde in her paper Age, Race, Class and Sex, where she states, “Much of Western European history conditions us to see human differences in simplistic opposition to each other: dominant/subordinate, good/bad, up/down, superior/inferior”, she goes on to explain that there are particular minority groups who “occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior” (Lorde). This is an interesting way to examine that even if oppression is not always outward or apparent, it is always present against groups who have been made to feel lesser.

I have always admired Mrs. Aamir as a mother, but hearing her honest perspective as someone who has endured immense hardship as a result of the immigration process and everything that comes with it, expanded my admiration even further. Additionally, her ability to manifest the difficulties she has faced into something beneficial, in the form of her non-profit, and to consistently see the best in every situation is incredibly commendable. As someone who has not been exposed to the immigration process firsthand, she provided me with a new perspective, allowing me to understand my own privilege even further, and I know that I can always learn more from her.

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