On one bright sunny day a school trip to Newseum--- a museum in Washington DC which is exclusively devoted to media and journalism--- changed Noorulain Khawaja’s life. Inspired by gallant stories and heroic images of war correspondents, the little Pakistani-American girl decided to become a journalist. She wanted to tell fascinating stories to the world but her mother believed “journalism was a failed profession”.
Ms. Khawaja’s was destined to be a bumpy ride because of what she terms the “complex identity as a Pakistani-American-Kashmiri Muslim woman”. She faced hardships due to each of these misconstrued identities.
“If you want to achieve a goal in your life,” says Ms. Khawaja, a producer with Al-Jazeera English, “just go and achieve it. Don’t wait and only harp about it.” Today, her mother is “110 per cent satisfied” with Khawaja’s decision to stand different from the mob by deciding to opt for journalism as a career against the oft-preferred spheres of medical science and engineering.
The audience at the Washington DC Youth Conference on “Embracing the American Mainstream” fervently listened as Khawaja recalled her journey from the Pakistan Television to BBC, CNN and the United Nations to pursue her goal as a scrupulous story-teller.
“Don’t waste any opportunity of practical learning,” she advised the young audience of Pakistani Americans while referring to the significance of networking and interactions to assimilate into the US mainstream: “intern, intern and intern until you learn what you need in your professional life”.
While Ms. Khawaja confidently counted her achievements, every speaker at the conferences did not share similar experiences of joy and success. For Ms. Darakshan Raja, a human rights activist, it had been a contrary experience.
“They [the Americans] hate us,” said Ms. Raja, a panelist who works with the Amnesty International in New York, “Discrimination against Muslims and particularly Pakistanis in the US has significantly skyrocketed since 9/11.”
Her anguish was officially certified by Ms. Iffat Imran Gardezai the deputy chief of the Pakistani diplomatic mission in the United States. “There is a nasty media campaign unleashed in this city [Washington DC] against Pakistan,” she grumbled, “The media are propagating against us.”
Such divergent stories of success and suspicion made the one-day conference a ‘must-attend’ event to learn more about the role and issues of the Pakistani-American community.
In the first session of the conference on “Reflections on Pakistani American visibility in the US”, Dr. Mehtab Karim, a visiting senior research fellow at Pew Research Center, said around 600,000 Pakistan Americans lived in the United States. 32.7 per cent of them were born in the United States while the biggest migration (23 per cent) took place between 1990 to 1999. During 1980 to 1989, the second higher migration (14 per cent) was recorded. However, the post-9/11 period saw a dramatic decline in the number of Pakistanis who migrated to the US.
“A vibrant, educated youth is in fact the strength of the Pakistani American community,” said Dr. Khan, who had formerly taught demography at Karachi’s Agha Khan University, “60 per cent of Pakistanis are below the age of 35 while only 49 per cent of America’s total population is below 35 years.”
He noted that more Pakistanis (29.5 per cent) completed four years of college than Americans (17.6 per cent). Likewise, Pakistanis did better (22.5 per cent) than the Americans (20.0 per cent) in terms of completing a Master’s degree in a professional degree while 1.6 per cent Pakistanis obtained a doctorate degree as compared to the total of Americans (1.1 per cent).
“More Pakistani Americans opt for medical and engineering while fewer join the education sector,” he observed, “America is a country where writers and researchers are easily noticed and widely respected whereas a low presence of Pakistanis in social sciences is one major reason for their invisibility in the American mainstream.”
Moeed W. Yusuf, the South Asia advisor at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), said the Pakistani-Americans faced tough challenges because of an increasing clash of interests between their ancestral and present countries.
“The Pakistani community faces a serious problem of assimilation either because of the experiences they bring from their home country or due to averseness to politics,” he pointed out.
The presentation by Shuja Nawaz, the Director of South Asia Center, at the Atlantic Council, was very helpful to the audience in grasping the classic problems of integration and nostalgia faced by Pakistani and other communities who newly settle in the United States.
According to Mr. Nawaz, the immigrants bring with them the South Asian culture to the United States and continue to romanticise the “good practices”, “delicious food” and “wonderful music” of their home country which does not necessarily exist in the new country of their residence. Hence, the new-comers subsequently find it hard to integrate into the American pluralistic culture and initiate a nostalgic discourse of ‘my country versus America”. They also draw an analogy of American cultural practices with their home country instead of accepting diversity and pluralism as the essence of American society.
“Those who have come to the United States should not shy away from taking ownership of responsibilities and practice the rights they are guaranteed by the constitution instead of living in ghettos,” he recommended, “At the end of the day, it’s your hard work and credibility that counts.”
During the conference, discussions on “the art of organising and mobilising”, “the value of public service” and “Shaping Public Discourse” further helped in understanding the challenges and opportunities the Pakistani community faced in the United States. A few young Pakistani girls, who now work at important institutions such as the US Congress, Department of Defense, USAID, ABC News etc, inspired the audience with their stories of hard work and achievement of professional goals.
Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, like most speakers of the conference, regretted the ghettoisation of the Pakistani community and its absence from the American mainstream. In his views, Pakistanis failed to join the mainstream because of their unwillingness to shun their past experiences and get out of their comfort zones.
A lot of Pakistanis still look at channels and newspapers from back home as the “reliable sources” whereas the ambassador insisted that they were “full of conspiracy theories and rhetoric which eventually form people’s perceptions about the United States and distance our people from accepting the different realities of the western world.”
Mr. Haqqani described America’s ties with Pakistan as that of a rich uncle’s troubled relations with a thankless child who loved to accept gifts and presents from the ‘rich-uncle’ but still continued to speak against him.
“Pakistan should not solely depend on American assistance,” he suggested, “We should take this assistance as an opportunity to grow the seed for future progress by developing our institutions. It is easy to suggest discontinuing relations with the US or rejecting their aid but we have to calculate the price of such an emotional decision.”
In the session called “Town Hall with the Ambassador”, Mr. Haqqani frankly spoke about Pakistan’s “poor branding” in the United States. For instance, only 5298 Pakistani students were enrolled in the United States as compared to 98,000 Chinese and 60,000 Indians and even 11,000 Nepali students because of the poor standard of education in Pakistan.
The first youth conference of the Pakistan-Americans was very candid in debating pressing challenges and appreciative of success stories of gifted youth of Americans of Pakistani origin. It did a remarkable job by recognising the achievements of those individuals whose actions have ultimately spoken louder than the stereotypes. The event also provided a chance to critically analyse the problem of increasing isolation and self-imposed segregation of the American-Muslim-Pakistani community from the American mainstream.
Malik Siraj Akbar, a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow based in Washington DC, is a visiting journalist at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI).