My Immigrant Pashtun Parents and Me: On Love, Sacrifices, and Change

This was originally published over at the The Thrival Room and titled On Immigrating and Parents’ Love.

My family and I immigrated to the U.S. from Swat, Pakistan, some fifteen years ago when I was twelve years old.change is tough manThe reason my mother and father have always given us for our migration was “a better education”—and this is still the reason they remind us of. In a society, like many others around the world, where parents’ priority is not even in the vicinity of their daughters’ education but instead their marriage at an early age and children within a year of marriage, my parents recognized that they were compromising some of their core beliefs and values by bringing us here, that their identity as Pashtuns and Muslims would be challenged because of their decision to support their daughters’ education. Yet, while they recognized the impossibility of remaining “100% Pashtun,” whatever that may mean, in America, where influence from the community, peers, media on certain beliefs and practices is inevitable, they have made every effort to prevent us from becoming “too Americanized.”

During the last decade, whenever my siblings and I have shown signs of adapting to the “American culture,” whether by speaking English with each other or by wearing pants and shirts instead of traditional Pakistani clothes, my parents have wistfully pointed out that we did not come here to become American but to obtain a better education. Till date, I feel uncomfortable and guilty wearing anything but shalwar and kameez  (or kameez partug, as we say in Pashto) in front of my father—but I comfortably do so in front of my mother, who never forgets to point out whether my shirt is too short or my pants are too tight—and it feels awkward speaking anything other than our native language, Pashto, with them. English will always be a foreign language to them. I feel guilty when I do or say anything that I know sounds “American” and “un-Pashtun” to my parents, and I often don’t know what to do about that guilt. As my parents continue to be torn between their decision to support my sisters’ and my education and their nostalgic urge to return to Pakistan with us by their side where they are certain we will all live happily ever after, I often find myself at tears over how much and what all my immigrant Pashtun parents have had to give up only so that their children can have the opportunities they were denied growing up in Pakistan.

immigrant strugglesMy family and I visited Swat in summer 2011, and I have never seen my father happier than during the month he spent there with his siblings and parents. Women from all over Swat traveled by foot, car, and other means of transportation to welcome my parents—to just get a glimpse of their faces because they had not seen them in years. These included poor women with children who have always relied on my mother for support.

In Swat, my parents mean something to everyone around: they have a name there, they have people who love and admire them; they have people who turn to them for advice and all kinds of support. There, everyone knows them, and no one has anything negative to say about them. One of the highlights of my childhood in Swat involves my father’s attitude towards the poor. One day, rumor in the neighborhood had it that a neighbor of ours, who was living in a small house my grandfather was renting to them, had not been able to eat for peshmaney (sehri in Urdu, suhoor in Arabic—it is the food Muslims eat before sunrise to start their fast) because they did not have any food. When my father found out, he immediately took me with him to a shop owned by a good friend of his and ordered bags of flour among many other things and foods for the family. When we were done shopping for them, he and I delivered the goods to them; I went into the house, and, per Pashtun gender and family norms, my father waited for me outside by the door. Till date, I remember too clearly the tears that streamed down the face of the co-wives in the household. They simply did not know how to thank my father, but my father is not one to have expected any such thanks. He had not done them a favor; he had merely carried out his Islamic and Pashtun responsibility of caring for those who were less privileged than he was.

The day we arrived in Swat, there were many people there to greet us. Every day, we had visitors and guests who walked or rode miles upon miles, from their tiny homes in the mountains of Swat in the oppressive Pakistani summer heat, to welcome my parents back home. They were a beautiful reminder to my parents about who exactly they were and what they meant to people, and this was something very emotional for me as their daughter who rarely gives them the respect that they very much deserve. With our migration, my parents have lost so much I often don’t believe our “comfortable” and “peaceful” lifestyle is worth it for them to have left everything they had in Swat. Surely, they appreciate the relatively more comfortable lifestyle here than what we would have in Pakistan, but I feel somewhere inside me that they do not believe it is worth it—moving here wasn’t worth what all they ended up losing. As they put it, there is no sukoon here in America, sukoon roughly meaning peace of mind, deep contentment. They are merely satisfied with what they have gained, but the peace that comes with having infinite love around and families, relatives, and other loved ones along with a community that looked up to them are all now mere memories of a beautiful past.

1910334_16126207371_9767_nIn my Pakistani-Pashtun culture, love is expressed differently from what I’m now used to in the U.S. We are generally, and my family specifically, not an affectionate people; we don’t hug each other as a symbol of our love for each other. We certainly don’t hug our brothers and fathers except in certain circumstances, such as celebrations and death. Even saying “thank you” is not so common; instead, we pray out loud for the person we want to thank so they know we appreciate them. When an aunt of mine in Swat two summers ago would constantly serve us food and take care of us, my American self would come out and thank her out loud. This made her uncomfortable at first, although she started to appreciate it eventually, but my grandmother reminded me that we don’t need to thank her verbally and loudly—we just pray for her (out loud) to show her we appreciate her. Children’s respect for their parents is considered an expression of love; we show our parents we love them by, among other things, obeying them, avoiding disagreements and fights with them, and serving them. When I know that my mother is upset with me and I make her tea, she forgets all about the reason she is upset and starts thanking me (praying for me) instead. But there is another way that I can show them how much I love them: by maintaining my faith, praying five times a day, reciting the Qur’an as often as possible, wearing the hijab as “properly” as possible, and otherwise displaying signs of piety in front of them. This is because many Muslims, including my mother, believe that one leaves children behind so that they can pray for their parents, ask God to forgive the parents’ sins and to send them to heaven. If the children are not pious and don’t pray, God wouldn’t accept their prayers for their parents.

Between my father and my mother, it is my mother who knows me best. I am even open enough with her to fight with her and express disagreements and opinions with her, something I have not learned to do with my father. My relationship with my father is a complicated one that I myself have not fully understood yet. I often get these sudden urges to talk to him, to tell him how much I love and appreciate him, to tell him what all he means to me, but we don’t end up talking about these things. I strive for that kind of relationship with him and am hopeful that with more conversations with him, we will get to that level. Our current conversations extend little beyond my classes, my degree, my wants and needs, and other ordinary but great things—what I hope to learn to discuss with him more openly are my personal, religious, and cultural beliefs.

My parents have come a long way with my siblings and me, tolerating our changing behaviors, attitudes, and even lifestyles as we attempt to figure out what our place is as Pashtuns, Muslims, and Americans. They are learning and growing with us, which has meant, for them, giving up on many things that were once precious to them, such as letting their daughters travel and live alone for the purpose of an excellent education despite many Pashtuns’ disapproval. I have traveled to Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Canada; I’m going to the UK this summer, God willing; and I live several states away from them working on a PhD in Islamic Studies (this emphasis on “Islamic Studies” is important because of the little respect that non-science fields holds in my parents’ community).

Any time I have left the country, I have sought my parents’ blessings and made it clear to them that I will not pursue the journey until and unless I have their blessings. My mother’s response has evolved from a hesitant “I don’t know; ask your father” to “Don’t forget to pray and remember God. Dress well, and keep our and Islam’s honor in mind. Always remember that we’re Pashtuns, and our honor lies in your hands.” My father’s response, years ago, used to be, “But why? Why can’t you just go to classes and straight home and not do all these other things in between?” But now, when I request his approval and blessings to go abroad, he answers with, “If it has the potential to lead to your success in your studies and career, you have my blessings.” A few weeks ago, I told him that I have received a scholarship to go to Oman this summer, and I asked if I could go. His response surprised me: “You’re an adult – you don’t need my permission. If it’s something that you know will benefit your future and career, go; if you think it’d be a waste of time, don’t.” He is critical of my pursuit of Islamic Studies and Arabic in the West, often advising me not to lose track of Islam’s value and to be mindful of any funding I receive to study Islam and Islamic languages.

changes hardAs an immigrant myself who has spent half of my life in Pakistan and half in the U.S., I often struggle with reconciling my complex identity as a Muslim Pakistani Pashtun-American female immigrant. My parents, however, do not have it any easier, either. They, like other immigrant parents, have the burden of raising their children as properly as possible in a culture they are hesitant to adopt even partially as their own, and they sometimes realize that they do not always make it easy for us their children to embrace ourselves as half-and-half. But my parents have come an extraordinarily long way with me and my siblings to accept and respect us and our concerns as they understand them. One thing I can say with certainty is that recognizing my parents’ fears and struggles has helped me understand my own self and understand them even better. This realization has led me to respect myself to an extent that allows me to see that nothing they do can be or is intended to be harmful for me or my future; essentially, they can do no wrong—and they do no wrong—and this is why I will always, always need their blessings for every new path I want to take.

17 thoughts on “My Immigrant Pashtun Parents and Me: On Love, Sacrifices, and Change

  1. What a lovely essay Orbala! It’s so great when a teacher can learn so much from his/her student. I thank you and bless the day you came into my classroom. Also, such beautiful English.

    Unwillingly this will be my last year in my classroom at Key and I will be moving on to other things. I thank the good Lord for having had students such as you and your sister. Love always.


    • Ms. De Soto ❤
      Thank you for reading! What an honor!
      One day, if I write a book, so much of my faith in myself would be due to you and my other teachers at Key. I'm really saddened to hear that you won't be there any longer. It's a serious loss for the school and the community, especially the students. You're a wonderful teacher and mentor.


    • Thank you for reading it, Luisa! 🙂
      I was at your blog and it’s all in French. Beautiful stuff – I’m working on my French reading/comprehension skills currently, so it takes me forever to read a paragraph, but I’m getting there, inshaAllah 😀 A friend of mine and I get together once a week doing French readings, and I’m just gonna start recommending your blog lol


  2. Beautiful post Orbala and I love your parents already. They raised a daughter who seeks knowledge, who upholds justice and speaks against oppression… sounds like their sacrifice paid off to me. May Allah, Most Merciful and Most High increase your parents always ameen.


    • Aameen to your prayers, SN 🙂
      Thank you for reading it! I hope they, too, realize eventually that their sacrifices have definitely paid off.


  3. very interesting and thought provoking write up and thanks for sharing. you have expressed so well feelings and aspirations of pashtun parents and children growing up in US. my daughter with two young kids lives in DC area with her pashtun husband and in-laws. we too like your parents would like our grands to grow up as good US citizens but also to retain pashtun values and language. since they visit us every summers we do our best to play our role in this regard.


    • Thank you for reading!
      Yes, it’s a serious struggle having to maintain a certain authentic sense of culture while at the same time living in the time and place we’re a part of as well.
      I wish your family well!


  4. This also reminds me of Asra Nomanis second book, Standing Alone in Mecca, in which she also tells the tale of her loving, but complicated relationship with her parents, who, in the end stood by her & gave her what we all need from our parents – unconditional love.


    • I have that book and read parts of it, but I haven’t yet read the whole thing! Looking forward to it. Human relationships in general, especially when they involve different generations and ages, are so complicated – but can be so beautiful when we let them grow ❤


  5. Orbala! Good work and your essay was really worth reading. Keep the good work up and ensure your parents feel proud of you. Being from the same area I am honored that we have good people like you, who will bridge the gap between Islam and the West.


  6. Great post! As a Pashtun American myself, I can relate to this on so many levels! My parents traveled here with my older siblings when my mother was pregnant with me so I was born here. There was always so much tension growing up because of the culture clash but mashAllah my parents have come a long way in trying to understand that I’m torn between the two conflicting cultures and have tried their best to adapt.


You're welcome to share your thoughts - but I don't accept bigotry and don't publish all comments <3

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