Navigating Two Different Cultures: A Pakistani Immigrant Girl’s Struggles

Home Brooklyn Life Navigating Two Different Cultures: A Pakistani Immigrant Girl’s Struggles
Fifteen-year-old Amira Ashfaq immigrated to the United States in 2006. (Aisha Asif/The Brooklyn Ink)
Fifteen-year-old Amira Ashfaq immigrated to the United States in 2006. (Aisha Asif/The Brooklyn Ink)

A couple of years ago, Amira Ashfaq got a dog. Her parents were angry, but not just because the dog would need to be walked and housebroken – dogs are seen in her family’s culture as being impure.

“He always says Muslims aren’t supposed to have dogs, but I don’t understand,” said Amira, now 15, of her father. “God made him, so why is he different?”

Amira had gone with her older brother to a shelter for a cat, a pet which is allowed, but ended up with a one-year-old white pit bull when they found out he was being euthanized. Out of pity they snuck the dog into their apartment in Flatbush. When he was discovered by their disapproving parents, the teenagers said he would only be staying for a few days until a friend adopted him. But that never happened, and two years later the dog, Lumiere, has become a member of the family.

“So, my dad he still doesn’t admit that he likes him, but at night we see him sneaking food to him,” the Amira said, laughing.

Amira is one of the 8.3 percent of New York City kids who have immigrated to the United States from a foreign country, according to a recent report by Citizens’ Committee for Children. And like her counterparts, she is straddling the line between two different worlds – the one which her parents come from and the one she is living in now. She has learned to cope with bullying, the prospect of discrimination, and tries to live up to the traditional values her mother tries to instill in her.

Born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents, Amira and her family immigrated to the United States in 2006.  Her father, who worked as a driver in the American embassy in the country, received visas for his whole family as a gift.

Amira’s family spent a few months in Georgia with a family friend before moving to New York, a place she said they prefer because of better job opportunities, and because everything was open late and within walking distance. But in Brooklyn, unlike in Georgia, she was bullied.

“Kids would be like, you don’t know how to read; you’re in fourth grade and you read like the level of a first grader,” Amira said. It didn’t help that her mother would dress her in shalwar kameez, traditional Pakistani clothes consisting up a long shirt and loose trousers, she added.

Amira started school at PS 214 in the Little Pakistan neighborhood in Brooklyn, where more than 50 percent of the students are Asian, and many are Pakistani. Because of her English skills, she was two grades behind and took ESL classes for five years. She and her younger sister Quratulain, who is known as Queen, used to watch Dora The Explorer to build an English vocabulary. Amira now chuckles at the thought that they had no idea they were learning Spanish at the same time.

As her English improved, her mother and father, who don’t speak English, began to rely on Amira as well to translate for them when they went shopping, to doctor’s appointments, and during parent-teacher conferences.

“If I’m failing in school and [teachers] call or something, they don’t understand nothing and I have to explain,” Amira said. “I could lie to them, you know, say I’m passing but I don’t do that. I let them know because they trust me.”

Christina Ali heads the youth program at the Council of Peoples Organization, a community center in Little Pakistan, and deals with immigrant kids and their parents regularly. She said that because some immigrant parents do not speak English and had limited education in their home countries, their children become their guides in navigating life in America.

“The kids end up being like the parents and the parents end up being the kids,” she said because they need their children’s help. “So the parents rely on the kids to communicate and they rely on the kids to make the decision so it becomes a total vice versa of parents and children.”

Though Ashfaq’s English has now improved to the point where no one teases her, she thinks languages — whether English, Urdu, or even the little bit of Arabic she picked up while in Saudi Arabia — are a big challenge for her. She said she struggles with her English lessons in class.

“I’m not really fluent with English or Urdu,” she said confessionally. “It’s like I don’t have a language; I just know a little bit of both.”

Since moving to Brooklyn, the family has stayed close to the Flatbush/Midwood neighborhood because of its large Pakistani community. Her mother was able to find a job at a nearby pharmacy despite her limited English because the neighborhood is filled with so many Urdu speakers. Her father does not work because of complications arising out of a problematic surgery. But the fact that her mother worked outside the house is strange for Amira and her family, who take the idea that the man of the house is the breadwinner very seriously.

“I always try to ask her [about her working] but she’s like, we did everything and passed through those horrible times,” Amira said.

Now her eldest brother, who is 21, supports the family as a construction worker and her mother no longer works. The eldest son is expected to provide for his parents in Pakistan, and her brother is glad to help out, Amira said.

“My parents are very cultural and…our family stick together and so my brother is very helpful and supports the family, too,” she said adding that she wants to do the same for them when she grows up to becomes a doctor.

But for now the family follows the traditional route. “My mom always says it’s [my brothers’] job to look after you guys after they pass away,” she said.

Amira has expectations weighing on her, too. Her family are Sayyids, a group in Pakistan who trace their ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, they must be on their best behavior because people look up to them. Living in a neighborhood with so many other Pakistanis makes it difficult to stay away from the scrutinizing gaze of gossipy fellow residents who might talk negatively of them if for instance, they stay out too late.

“[My mother] always says, ‘Don’t embarrass me in front of anybody,’” Amira said. “She says do whatever you want, but don’t embarrass me in front of family because we’re girls and especially because we’re Sayyid.”

Amira poses for a picture near Little Pakistan, the neighborhood she lives in, in Flatbush. (Aisha Asif/The Brooklyn Ink)
Amira poses for a picture near Little Pakistan, the neighborhood she lives in, in Flatbush. (Aisha Asif/The Brooklyn Ink)

Ali said that because some parents are afraid their children might be negatively influenced by people or things around them, they are not as open to let their children just “hang out” with their friends in certain places. Amira mentioned that although she is allowed to do what she wants for the most part, she is restricted from activities such as sleepovers, because her parents don’t let her go because they don’t know her friends’ families and also find it rude to intrude in their homes this way.

“They feel alienated and because their parents have different expectations for them they also feel they don’t belong with the other kids,” Ali said.

When Amira starts high school in a few months, she might wear a hijab, or headscarf, like her mother. She said she has been mistaken for Mexican or Italian a few times, and it’s become increasingly important for her to identify herself as who she really is. She believes the headscarf will help.

Hearing the story of a friend who had a bottle thrown at her by a man who told her to “go back to your country you terrorist freak” gave her pause in the past, but not anymore.

“Before I used to be ashamed, but now I’m not. I always used to think, ‘Why can’t I be American?’ and then I realized I don’t want to be fully American. I liked that I’m mixed,” she said with a smile.


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