Why I Owe My Big Fat Indian-Muslim Family So Much
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Politics and Activism

Why I Owe My Big Fat Indian-Muslim Family So Much

My life would be very different if my two sets of grandparents did not have the courage and hope towards a better future based on faith, family, and education.

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Why I Owe My Big Fat Indian-Muslim Family So Much
Sara Zahir

There are two words that come to mind when I think of my family: big and warm. I have four grandparents, five aunts, five uncles, ten cousins, two parents and three siblings. Put simply, we need two turkeys to feed everyone at Thanksgiving. My big family is an integral part of my life, I would be nowhere without their constant loving support. They are the foundation of our lives and have shaped each of the children of my generation.

I have a vision for my future. In my vision, I am successful in my chosen field (this particular detail is subject to specification), I am married with kids. I am able to devote time to volunteer work, but also go to all of the swim meets and soccer games I can. It’s a lot, I know. But this is a common occurrence in my family both extended and nuclear. I am a strong believer in the fact that a person stems from their beliefs and environment and family around them growing up. The people around you influence the structure your life.

Ever since I was a little girl, there are two things that have been taught as integral parts of our lives: faith and education. I am Muslim. Islam has been a part of my life from the very beginning and can be traced in my family as far back as the first tribe of Muslims. My paternal grandfather has lineage that reaches the Muslim who brought Islam to India. It is deeply rooted in our culture and an essential part of my life. It has shaped my life and will form my future. Everyone in my family strived to get an education. We are doctors, engineers, corporate executives, lawyers, and educators. No matter what generation, education was at the forefront, coupled with faith. This combination has been the secret of our success.

My grandparents moved to Canada in 1963 right after they were married. Their goal was to come to the United States, but at the time it was difficult to immigrate directly into the states from India, so they came to Canada. My grandfather needed to complete his medical training in the United States. He met a Muslim doctor in Toronto that had a connection in Massachusetts. He got a training position in Worcester, and moved. My dad was born in 1965 when he was training in a residency program.

My grandfather knew it was time to leave India because of growing political unrest. At the time, people did not respect Muslims and not many were getting jobs. It was difficult to establish a life when his religion became an issue despite the fact he had gotten a premier education. There was a prejudice against the Muslim people that exists to this day in India. He knew that in order to give his future children and his family the best chance for success, he needed to leave India. I would not be who I am today if he had not made the decision to come to the United States.

After my grandfather completed his training in Massachusetts, he took the first job he was offered. It was in a very small mountain town called Beckley, West Virginia. He started an orthopedic practice and began setting down roots; grateful for the opportunity America had given him. He built a house where they still live today after 50 years. Now, he is a well-respected orthopedic surgeon in the community.

Community is another important part of my life. When my Dadahuz (grandfather) went to West Virginia, he was part of a few Muslims that had moved there and were the beginning of a new Muslim community. Together they built a mosque in the area and grew the community persuading people to move to the area. Now, the community has grown to ten times the size it was fifty years ago. The Muslim doctors are the mainstay of the health care provided for the underserved population of rural West Virginia.

The community I live in now is one that has grown over time. When I was born, we lived in Waterbury, Connecticut while my parents were doing their medical training. For the next few years, we moved around quite a lot because of their jobs, but ended up settling in Northern Virginia, a place they knew would have many advantages for their future children. My parents placed me in the best schools taught me to make friends and be humble. They taught me right from wrong and the lessons of life within a trusting and faithful community. The people that they surrounded me with influenced my life. Every Eid, we came together as a community and celebrated. Every Ramadan, we all broke fast together as a community. Now, my parents have been an important part of creating a new mosque close to my home, so now our community can grow further.

My parents are both very religious, intelligent, and caring people who would defend what is right and help anyone in need. I would like to think that they have rubbed off on me a little bit too. My maternal grandparents live in India. Our family made annual trips and I realize that this has helped me keep our traditions and culture alive. They are the strongest people I have ever met. My mother has taken after my Nanijaan (grandmother) so much, I wish to have the same traits as well. This strength is something that has been a part of my family for many generations, it reminds me everyday that I must be strong as well. Strong for my own will, my family, and my future. What has made my family so strong, are the struggles that they have faced. During a time of unrest, they rose above. In times of crisis, they were calm. In times of woe they powered on. Nothing ever brought them down.

My Nanijaan and Nanajaan (maternal grandparents) lived in Malaysia for many years while my Nanajaan ran one of the most successful technology corporations in South East Asia. He too had left India in search of opportunity without prejudice. My mom and her siblings all grew up there before going to India or England for their tertiary education. My mom went to India for college and medical school alone at 15 years old. An independent woman beyond anyone’s belief, she was incredibly successful winning a full paid scholarship in India for the entirety of her education. When she married my father in 1995, she had already finished her training in India, but because she moved to the United States, she had to redo some of it. She did this without complaint knowing it would serve us well. She inspires me everyday to work hard, because if she could do it twice exceptionally, then I can hopefully do it well once. Education has played such an elemental part of our family background and success.

My Muslim Indian heritage is something that has never been lost despite immigrating to a different country. With each passing generation, my all of my grandparents have made sure that each one of their children and grandchildren has a set understanding of our culture, traditions, faith, and habits. It is a part of who we are and we will never lose it. It is a constant in all of our lives to speak Urdu and read to finish the Qur’an. However this has also been challenging at times. In the past 14 years, it has been difficult to be a Muslim American. In the seventh grade, due to the lunar calendar, Eid Al-Fitr fell around 9/11. The Imam had finished his dua (prayer) for the victims when a group of my friends and I started talking about being a Muslim kid in post 9/11 America. We realized we had similar stories: dirty looks, being called a terrorist, and people being rude, mean, and derogatory toward us. We hated it because we weren’t the people who had committed such a horrendous act. Not our family. Not our ummah (community). This has become such a large part of our lives as Muslims growing up in America during this time. Where someone is called a terrorist because of the color of their skin or has judgment passed on them from a single look. This draws a parallel to why my Dadahuz left India in the first place. I am here because of a decision my Dadahuz made for a better future. After achieving the American dream, he is met with hatred for something that has nothing to do with him. The United States has been known as a land of opportunity and hope, it was founded on immigrants and the ideals of finding a better life, why should people be treated differently even though they have the same goal as everyone else? This is a question I have asked myself everyday since a peer called me a terrorist because I have brown skin.

Its true, I am very opinionated. But I am also smart and tough. I am honest and I have a strong sense of self. I will never get lost in everything that is going on around me because I am grounded by my parents. I have beliefs that I will always follow through on and am not afraid to word hard. I feel its in my blood. I try to be good, but also serious, and at times I get scared of what the future holds. I am also human. I know that I am all of these things because of the people around me.

My life has been changed due to the actions of my grandparents. Their migration made me an American. Their struggles made me humble and my parents perseverance made me privileged. My life would be very different if my two sets of grandparents did not have the courage and hope towards a better future based on faith, family, and education. I feel that my family’s past has forged my future. I am the next chapter and I could not be more excited.

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