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How Pakistani Americans can give back

October 19, 2015


We are all Pakistan’s ambassadors-at-large. —AFP
We are all Pakistan’s ambassadors-at-large. —AFP

When I first moved to the United States to pursue my university level education, I was surprised to see the two extremes of Pakistanis living here.

On one hand were those who classified themselves as “South Asians”, so that they may shed their perceived baggage of the word 'Pakistan'; on the other hand were the excessively emotional defenders of Pakistan, who blamed the West for every challenge that Pakistan faces, even if the roots of certain problems might be totally internal.

However, amidst these two categories, were those responsible Pakistanis who have achieved a high level of success and respect in the West, yet their hearts continue to “bleed green”.

Such are the Pakistanis who have been a great connect between the two countries, and they have made immense contributions in all fields and professions across the United States.

Read through: A Punjabi in New York: Juggling multiple identities

On top of the numerous great physicians spread across the country, Dr Teepu Siddique is a prominent name in medicine. Since 1991, he has been serving as a Director of Neuromuscular Medicine and the Les Turner ALS Foundation Laboratory at Northwestern University; his colleagues firmly believe that “it’s not a question of ‘if’, rather, a question of ‘when’ he will be awarded the Nobel Prize”.

Michael Chowdry and Shahid Khan are famous names in business. Chowdry was the founder of $1.39 billion air cargo company known as Atlas Air and Khan now controls majority shares of the NFL team Jacksonville Jaguars.

In politics and governance, Sada Cumber served as the first US Ambassador to the OIC, Shirin Kheli served in various important posts at the White House and at the State Department, Ziad Alahdad served as the Director of Operations for the World Bank, while Pamela Leeming, a Christian Pakistani American, serves as a judge in Cook County, which happens to be the second largest county in the country.

In academia too, Pakistani professors are making a great mark and are teaching at prestigious American universities; the list includes Dr Hasan Abbas (National Defense University), Ambassador Touqir Husain (Johns Hopkins University), Professor Akbar Ahmed (American University), Dr Atif Mian (Princeton), Dr. Ayesha Jalal (Tufts University) and Dr Amir Sufi (University of Chicago) among others.

Apart from the above fields, many Pakistani names also appear in the arts, sports and entertainment industry in the US amongst others, Shazia Sikander of New York specialises in South Asian and Persian painting; Nadia Ali is a vocalist of electronic dance music and best known for her song Rapture; Kumail Nanjiani is a famous comedian, actor and podcast host; Farhan Zaidi is the general manager for the baseball team Los Angeles Dodgers; and, Nur Ali is a former two-time Southwest Formula Mazda Series Champion.

Also read: Ten Pakistanis doing great things for America

While most, if not all, known and responsible Pakistanis already pay back to their native Pakistan, there is a dire need to synergise and institutionalise the community’s efforts.

A great first step in the right direction is the Convention of Pakistani American Community (CPAC) – an initiative launched by Ambassador Jalil Abbas Jilani and his team of four forward-looking Consul Generals based in New York, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles, to gather successful Pakistanis from across the US to convene for a daylong forum at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC to discuss the direction that the community should be channelising its efforts toward.

Two weeks ago, I was a part of CPAC’s second annual meeting, where community members rightly discussed the need for Pakistani Americans to leverage their individual political contacts with members of the US Congress and others, to advance our collective national interests.

—Photo by author.
—Photo by author.

There is no better time to pursue active personal and community-level diplomacy than the months leading up to the US presidential election. In a country where the political system is so prone to lobbying, such efforts are not optional, rather a must.

Statistics show that Pakistani Americans are already doing better than the average Americans. According to a report by Migration Policy Institute, 23 per cent of Pakistanis who live in the US and are at least 25 years old have an advanced degree (Master’s, PhD or a professional degree), as compared to only 11 per cent of the general US population.

Moreover, households headed by Pakistanis have a $10,000 higher income than the median of all US households.

But the question then is:

Despite having such an affluent and well-educated community, why is it that Pakistan’s national interests continue to suffer in the US?

In my interactions with Pakistani Americans over the past few years, I have seen the amount of differences, ego issues, and hatreds that exist between certain factions of the community. But the problem is not the differences – in fact, we can, and perhaps should, have healthy disagreements.

The thing we should be careful about is that these differences do not stop us from engaging with each other and should not hamper our ability to see broader, national objectives, which we can be jointly advanced despite disagreements.

And in doing this, let’s never forget how important it is to engage with those members of our community who work the hardest, earn the lowest, and still remain faithful in their love for Pakistan.

See: How affluent are the Pakistani-Americans?

An excellent initiative in this regard is the Pakistani Cab Drivers Association of Chicago, which aims to bring all Pakistani cab drivers under an umbrella of a single organisation to promote collective interests and instill institutional-mindedness in our community.

Ultimately, we have to realise that foreign policy is not purely about foreign office. Rather, it’s a derivative of various factors, including people-to-people, commercial and institutional relationships that we all have the responsibility to cultivate between the universities, entertainment centres, academic/literary societies and businesses of the two countries.

A successful example is the exchange program between NUST and George Mason University, which was made possible as a result of efforts by Siddique Sheikh, founder of the Pakistan American Business Association (PABA).

That said, we should be aware of the fact that we tend to lose momentum of great conventions and gatherings rather quickly. It is crucial that both the Pakistani diplomats and community members convert the optimism and momentum generated by CPAC ’15 into practical, on-the-ground changes.

In fact, it would be great if Pakistani embassies in other countries where our large diaspora communities are settled (such as the UK, Canada and UAE) were also to adopt this idea of the CPAC.

But when it comes to interacting with global audiences, we have to realise that we are all Pakistan’s ambassadors-at-large, and foremost, it is our conduct, values and character, that will speak larger than any words from our embassies.

As Rumi famously said, “We are not a drop in the ocean, we are the entire ocean in a drop.

I believe, we all have tremendous potential to make a difference. Let’s start thinking strategically and institutionally. Let’s all agree to contribute our fair share.

Let’s all put Pakistan first.