Pakistani Immigration In A Changing America

By in Immigrant NYC, Middle Eastern Immigration

The Pakistani community is an immigrant group that has largely experienced great social and economic mobility in the United States while also maintaining transnational ties to their homeland.  That spirit of mobility and transnationalism, however, was greatly impacted by the events of September 11, 2001.

By Sarah Cappiello, Wagner College ’16

Interview with Dr. Salman Zafar

For my project, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Dr. Salman Zafar, an active member of the Staten Island community as well as a Pakistani immigrant with a fascinating story to tell.  Throughout our time together he stressed to me, over and over again, the critical importance of education in his life and how it can be used to make a difference in the world.  Education was the whole reason why he and his wife chose to uproot their lives in Pakistan and make the transition to life in New York City.

Through his words, he spreads a message of hope that through understanding, education, and mutual respect, people will come to better understand each other despite their differences.  Everyone, but in particular young people, must arm themselves with knowledge to combat ignorance and hate in this world.  The younger generations, as Dr. Zafar said, are the future and that is why he enjoys speaking with them.  He encourages them to step outside their comfort zone, to visit mosques, to get to know the Pakistani community and learn more about their culture and their faith.  As he said many times throughout the interview: “Unless you see, you will not know.”

History and Development of Pakistan

The nation of Pakistan is itself only a few decades old, having been formally declared its own country recently on August 14, 1947.  Despite Pakistan’s relatively novice status as a nation, however, the history of human habitation in that region dates back thousands of years.  Modern-day Pakistan can actually trace its roots all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilization, where the technologically advanced cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were built.  Over the next few centuries, the area would be repeatedly invaded, conquered, and placed under empirical rule.  It was the Achaemenid Empire for nearly 200 years, then came under Greek control under Alexander the Great, then was absorbed into the Mauryan Empire, which conquered most of South Asia  The Mughal Empire was one of the last dynasties to rule the Pakistani region before the British seized control of it in 1857.  Through the British East India Company, Great Britain had been asserting great power all over the world.  Their empire was so vast, in fact, that it was said the sun never set in the British Empire.  Before asserting their control over the Pakistan region, Britain had heavily involved itself in India and China, two major South Asian countries.  This meant that Pakistan was frequently caught up in matters involving both nations.

Quick Facts About Pakistan

Immigration and Mobility

Pakistani immigration to the United States, in large percentages to New York City, began largely towards the end of the twentieth century.  The 1970s and 1980s, in particular, were big years for Middle Eastern and South Asian immigration, including Pakistani.  Dr. Zafar and his wife came to New York in 1981 and settled on Staten Island shortly thereafter.  He, along with several other members of the Pakistani community on Staten Island, were all in agreement that education and economic opportunities were the main driving forces that prompted many to leave their homeland and take the risk of coming to the US.  Higher education was extremely important to Dr. Zafar’s father, who received his Ph.D. in Indiana, and so it became important for Dr. Zafar as well.  He studied in Pakistan and finished medical school in Lahore, then came to New York and did his residency and rotations in the United States.  His wife, too, is in the medical field and works in the hematology/oncology unit of Staten Island University Hospital.  Their entire motivation for emigration from Pakistan was the pursuit of higher education and higher level jobs.  Their motivation to come to New York, according to Dr. Zafar, was the fact that it is a city of immigrants.  “I could have gone to the Midwest like my father, but New York is a city of immigrants.”  He felt his family wouldn’t feel like such outsiders if they were in a city where such a large percentage of the population was foreign-born. While Dr. Zafar feels his immigration story is a little different than most, due mainly to his father’s previous ties to the US before his immigration, he does confirm that education and economic mobility were being sought by most Pakistani immigrants coming in the late twentieth century.  And it is true that those coming to this country during that time found social and economic mobility.  Like Dr. Zafar, a great number of Pakistani immigrants before 2000 were professionals with a great deal of undergraduate and graduate level degrees. They assimilated with general ease into American society and even incorporated some of their culture into America’s Western culture.

Impact of 9/11

Unfortunately, the heinous terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which killed more than 3,000 people in New York City, brought a halt to the mobility and transnational relations Pakistani immigrants had always been able to enjoy.  While Americans now know that the attacks were planned and carried out by the extremist group Al-Qaeda, suspicion at the time of the attacks fell on anyone thought to resemble the terrorists in any way. This included the Pakistani community, despite the fact that they had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

Socially, Pakistani-Americans, along with any other immigrant groups regarded as “terrorists,” were stigmatized by society.  Whereas before the September 11th attacks no one ever bothered to ask someone’s ethnic or religious background, after 9/11 any Muslim or person of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent became suspect. Economically, Pakistani-Americans were hit hard as well by the changing climate in New York and the United States.  Not long after the attack on the World Trade Center, reports of labor-market discrimination and xenophobic attitudes toward Muslim and Arab men began to explode.  Furthermore, it seems the wage disparity that grew for Arab American men between 2000 and 2002 came about not from a change in the structure of wages or in any observable way beyond ethnicity.  While Pakistani-Americans, even the non-professionals who had followed family members and worked lower-paying jobs, had once enjoyed as much economic freedom as anyone else, they were targeted and discriminated against in exorbitant amounts after September 2001.

Concluding Remarks

Overall, the Pakistani community is a group that has faced tremendous challenges, but has also received tremendous opportunities as well.  As Dr. Salman Zafar will tell you, the opportunities in the United States are like no other.  And while he has been part of a group that has faced heavy and unjust discrimination in light of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he doesn’t blame anyone for their misguided judgments. Becoming better educated and learning to ignore the media is what he recommends.  Our generation is the future and it is through us that later generations will learn either to love or to hate their neighbors.  By educating ourselves on the history and culture of those who are different than us, we are paving the way for a brighter chapter in American history.


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