When Pakistan is Safer than North Carolina

Abdul Aziz with his arm in a sling after being beaten by classmates.

Remember the clock kid, Ahmed?  He was honored by President Obama for his ingenuity and scholastic achievement after he was put in handcuffs and arrested at his own school for the same. He lives with his family in Qatar now, because of safety concerns after he became a target of Richard Dawkins and other right-wing public figures.

There’s a recent story that is every bit as heartbreaking.  In it, a cherub-faced first-grader named Abdul Aziz was beaten, punched in the face, kicked in the stomach and ended up with his arm in a sling. The seven-year-old was attacked by his classmates for being Muslim. They tried to force him to eat non-zabiha food, and when he refused, they made fun of his name and attacked him.

Abdul Aziz no longer attends school in Cary, North Carolina, where he once lived with his dad, Dr. Zeeshan-ul-hassan Usmani, and the rest of his family.  It’s hard to overstate Dr. Usmani’s  accomplishments: He is a Fullbright scholar and an Eisenhower Fellow, the founder and Chief Technology Officer of Predictify.Me, Inc.  He holds several degrees, among them a PhD from Florida Institute of Technology; he uses big data to help understand who is vulnerable to ISIS recruitment and has developed software that predicts the damage of suicide bombings.

And yet, all three of his sons have been subject to bigoted and Islamophobic harassment and abuse at school.  His eldest son was being homeschooled and suffers from anxiety and depression because of bullying and discrimination. The entire family had been subject to threats and intimidation by a pro-Trump neighbor until he finally moved away.

After the attack, Abdul Aziz and his family moved to Islamabad, Pakistan, where they hope to live with greater security.  An irony, as the family suffered a brutal attack and robbery in Pakistan several years ago. They were returning home after watching their father win the TiE StartUp Cup, a business model competition held in collaboration with the U.S. organization of the same name and the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.

Perhaps the family is willing to take their chances in Pakistan because they are having the same conversation I have been having with my own family.  I am the child of Pakistani immigrants, but I was born here, and have always considered the United States my home.  Would that shift if we were no longer welcome here?  Would it change if we could no longer keep our children safe, even in their schools and in our homes?  Given the rising level of hate crimes, extreme school discipline and police brutality, perhaps we are no safer here than anywhere else.

“The brain drain” is a phrase used to describe the attrition of the most educated and talented in formerly colonized countries to the West.  Individuals with success in a valued field have been lured to greater opportunity, wealth and security outside of their home countries in numbers so significant that the process “drains” the intellectual resources of their home countries. My father was a part of the exodus of scientists from Pakistan in the mid 1960s.  He had every intention of returning to his home in Pakistan after obtaining his PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Toronto. There was very little to root him here, on the other side of the globe. Toronto could sometimes be a hard place for people like him, immigrants with accents.  When he and my mother searched for an apartment one winter, “For Rent” signs were removed as they started up the walk.

But when he returned to Pakistan to explore a professorship he had been offered, he learned that one of his old teachers was unavailable to meet with him.  The professor had been beaten by some of his own students, either because of some sectarian tension or because they hadn’t been given the grades they’d wanted.  It could have been either; both were fairly common. This was sobering to my father, who felt that a place so full of pointless violence and unrest could not offer the future he wanted for his young family.  My father’s decision to leave Pakistan then was not unlike Dr. Usmani and his family’s decision to return now, a complex assessment and comparison of which place offers more acceptance, opportunity, security and freedom, of which place could be called home.

Some have remarked that these recent cases, in which highly skilled people move from West to East, rather than East to West, to escape rising, and now often violent, Islamophobia signal a “reverse brain drain.”  My husband and I have a hard time imagining it, as we are one generation removed from Pakistan. I have always thought of Southeastern Pennsylvania as my home; I live a few miles from the house in which I grew up.  Until this election, I had always thought bigots who told people like me to “go home” were ridiculous, but it seems that for some Muslim Americans, it’s no longer a joke.

Sofia Ali-Khan is a Muslim American public interest lawyer and writer. Her recently viral post, “Dear Non-Muslim Allies,” and other writings can be found at sofiaalikhan.com.

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