Experience has no substitute, say the wise and the old. I am about to prove them wrong. It’s the fountain of youth from whence flow the streams of wisdom, truth and courage. The young have fire in their bellies and metal in their grit. Can-do is their message in life or after death. This story is of three young women, two from Pakistan, one from America. Only one of them is alive today to show us the path to a world of possibilities; the other two live through their legacies.
Today, Momina Cheema’s name will resound in the Punjab University Law College Auditorium in Lahore. On her first death anniversary, Momina’s parents, Tayyeba and Dr Cheema will welcome the recipients who have been awarded scholarships to study law funded by the Momina Cheema Foundation. Their daughter, 25, died in a car crash last year. After an M.A.
from Harvard and a B.A. from Duke, she was studying law at the University of Virginia. Instead of wallowing in grief at the loss of their only daughter, the Cheemas, residents of Long Island, went about setting up a foundation whose flame will always burn and spread its light across continents.
“We were approached by Harvard and the University of Virginia to set up scholarships in our daughter’s memory that would benefit students in better understanding of Pakistan and the Islamic law,” Tayyeba tells me. Harvard’s department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations has named Daniel Majchrowicz, a doctoral student, to be the first recipient of the Travel and Research Fellowship. He will travel to Lahore this summer to “research the literary, cultural and historical significance of Urdu safarname (travelogues), a subject which has heretofore received scant academic attention.”
The New York-based Nawa-i-Waqt columnist Tayyeba is a brave mother who has turned her personal tragedy into victory by making the dreams of her daughter come alive. “It was Momina’s wish to enlighten those around her about Pakistan; she wanted to project a softer image of her country.” Dr Akhtar Cheema says, “Momina was a beloved daughter and sister in our family and we find it very difficult to continue with our lives…we feel so grateful and blessed to have the support of so many of her friends, professors, relatives and even people who have never met her.”
Imran Khan wrote a personal letter of sympathy saying that he was honoured to know Momina who chose to join his party.
“I maintain faith in the youth of Pakistan which is today committed to change… and hope much like Momina [they] will stand by me and my party as we try to wrest this country [and] free [it from] hate, oppression and the shackles of evil.”
Tomorrow, it will be exactly seven years since Ayesha Khalid arrived in America as a young bride. Her life exploded when her marriage failed. With a toddler in tow, none came to her help with the exception of one Pakistani family. Fallen, she rose, winding her way slowly through the debris of divorce. Her brothers back home financed her education and gave her a reason to live. It’s best that we hear Ayesha tell us her story at her graduation party:
“Today my mother and my sister are here…my Abbu is not alive but he’s here in spirit. Like most girls in Pakistan, he chose my groom. When I came to the US, I expected everything that a young Pakistani wife expects — a loving husband, happy home, kids, etc. But things didn’t work out. My beacon of hope was the family that took me in and said again and again: ‘You can do it. Yes you can.’
“As long as I live I shall remember that there was this wonderful couple who helped me get a hold of myself when the whole world was callous and uncaring. They brought me into their home but more importantly they brought me into their hearts...to put me back together again. They gave me shelter and confidence. They helped me find a job to support myself while pushing me to start my education.
“Today I have done my M.B.A. I have a good job. I have my own apartment. I have my own car. I would say that I am a strong person except I didn’t know I had it in me. When I try to thank the couple, all they say is ‘the best you can do for us is when you find someone in need, you extend out your hand.’”
Among conservative families in Pakistan, the woman is expected to be submissive, docile and accepting of whatever is dished out to her by the males in her life. “I used to be in hijab,” Ayesha tells me. “I have overcome my adversities and learned independence, but deep down I am a Pakistani, still very conservative who fiercely wants to hold on to the values I learned from my parents. I miss my country.” But there’s no looking back now for Ayesha. It’s for her six-year-old son she must continue her struggles. “I want to raise him to be a good human.”
Ayesha has come a long way, as the cliché goes, but the challenges ahead appear daunting. She is well aware and prepared to take them on, one at a time. Go girl, go!
“What we have to remember is that we can still do anything,” Marina Keegan wrote to fellow Yale University graduates in a newspaper column recently. “... We can’t, we must not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.” Days later Marina, 22, was dead. Much like the way Momina had died — in a car crash.
The Keegans like the Cheemas were flooded with notes of sympathy and love from everywhere. Tracy, the mother, told the Associated Press: “I would love my daughter’s words, few as they may be, to be shared... That’s all that’s left of her now, her words.” The column read by thousands of people spoke of hope. What Marina wanted out of life was “the opposite of loneliness,” and encouraged her Yale alumni saying “the best years of our lives are not behind us… We’re in this together, 2012. Let’s make something happen to this world.”
Marina was to start a job with the prestigious New Yorker magazine.
Momina, Ayesha and Marina are women who show the way out of the darkness, gloom and tragedy of life.