WASHINGTON -- Following Wednesday's visit from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in which he says he urged Obama to end the U.S. drone program in his country, medical student Mohammad Aamir has a unique perspective on the at-times tense relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Two years ago, Aamir came from Lahore, Pakistan, to Washington, D.C., on a student visa.
"Pakistan-U.S. relations are strange because both sides don’t trust each other but term one another friend," Aamir told The Huffington Post, translated from Urdu. "They need to take solid steps and form a clear framework to strengthen these relations."
"I think an end to drone strikes could be a factor to improve ties, since both Islamabad and Washington are hand in hand with each other over the drones issue," he continued. His remark last week takes on new significance following Wednesday's revelations that behind closed diplomatic doors, Pakistan has endorsed, rather than condemned, U.S. drone strikes in the country, according to The Washington Post. In 2012, former president Pervez Musharraf insisted Pakistan's government signed off on strikes "only on a few occasions, when a target was absolutely isolated and no chance of collateral damage," but the most recent reports indicate this agreement goes much further. Several organizations also released reports this week suggesting that the U.S. has killed civilians and violated international law by strikes within Pakistan's borders.
The perspective of Aamir and other Pakistani immigrants in the U.S. offers crucial insight into the complexities of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, and their experience demonstrates these challenges go even deeper than drones. Talking to The Huffington Post, Pakistani immigrants hailing from different walks of life in New York and Washington D.C. expressed concern over sharp divisions within the large Pakistani community in the U.S., divisions that also hint at potential areas for improvement in diplomacy between the two countries.
The U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 estimated that there were over 300,000 U.S. residents of Pakistani descent living in the United States. The Census Bureau, however, excluded those living in institutions such as college dormitories. Some studies estimate the size of the Pakistani community to be much higher, and in 2005, research by the Pakistani embassy in the U.S. found that the population numbered more than 700,000 people. The gap in numbers may be due to the U.S. census only counting Pakistani immigrants, rather than including those born in the United States between Pakistani parents or second and third generation Americans of Pakistani descent. According to official figures, some 92,267 Pakistanis were issued immigrant visas by the United States from 2000 to 2010. Irfan Malik, president of USPAK Foundation, an organization of Pakistani immigrants working to educate members of the public on the Pakistani community, culture and their contribution to the U.S., says that today, the number of Pakistanis residing in the U.S. is as high as 1 million. According to Malik, measuring the Pakistani population in the U.S. is difficult because many Pakistanis did not participate in 2010 Census due to fears over an illegal immigration status or discrimination against Muslims in general due to the tragedy of 9/11.
Many of those who spoke to The Huffington Post said they did not experience discrimination in the U.S., though they admitted that rules for immigration and traveling have been tightened since 9/11 for Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular. Institutions are very strong in the U.S., Aamir, the medical student, said, and the Pakistani community doesn't face discrimination in Washington.
Nonetheless, despite heightened restrictions, most said they had come to the U.S. in search of economic prosperity and a better future.
Aamir said though he misses his family and Lahore, he does not plan to return after completing his education, due to high unemployment and incidents of terrorism in Pakistan. But the economic opportunities presented by the U.S. can also place heavy pressure on immigrants who send significant portions of their earnings back home to Pakistan.
Ayaz Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who works at a grocery store and settled in the United States some five years back, says that his family cannot imagine how hard he works. As an example, he said because his sister's parents-in-law knew her brother was settled in the U.S., they expected a large contribution to her dowry. Khan said he spent over $20,000 on the wedding. "They think as if earning dollars is a child's work," Khan said.
He said he plans to sponsor his brother to come to the United States so that his burden can be shared.
Many immigrants cited cultural differences as the biggest source of difficulty for the Pakistani community in the U.S., especially in cities such as Washington or New York, which have large immigrant populations. The strength of family ties -- a primary foundation of Pakistani society and identity -- is fraying as the community faces questions over tradition and religion, several Pakistani expatriates said.
Malik, the USPAK president, said the foundation is working to inculcate young Pakistani Americans with traits of Pakistani culture -- including hospitality, a strong relationship with family and respect for elders -- while also embracing positive aspects of American culture, such as humanity, equality and respect for law. Pakistani children born in the U.S. can have a conflicted relationship with their roots due to many misconceptions of Pakistan in the U.S., he said, and the organization is working to improve that relationship.
Malik also believes there is complete religious freedom in the U.S., but that the stigma of terrorism still attached to Muslims can be harder for Pakistanis to overcome in areas where literacy and education are lower, as opposed to larger cities where the population is much more visible and integrated into communities. USPAK is working to improve understanding in a number of ways, such as by pushing for schools to observe Muslim holidays and religious festivals, or excusing Muslim students from sports activities during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and allowing Pakistani girls to use pants instead of shorts in exercising.
Other traditions in Pakistan are breaking down among the community in the U.S., ranging from marriage to whether or not one continues to wear Pakistani dress inside the home. In Pakistan, there are often arranged marriages. In the U.S., some parents have continued the practice, but it can more often lead to divorce in a country where it is more common. This concern has led some parents to "import" sons- and daughters-in-law from Pakistan, believing by doing so they are keeping intact the connection with their country and its traditions.
Mohammad Ali, a Pakistani immigrant who has been living in the United States for the last 20 years, originally left Pakistan after marrying a girl who was born there but grew up in the U.S. Ali said that Pakistani women who come to the U.S. as wives after being married in Pakistan are often young, and caught between expectations of tradition in Pakistan and basic rights afforded to women in the U.S.
"They are treated like housemaids throughout their life," Ali said, or are even psychologically or physically tortured, but unable to tell their families back in Pakistan or to get help.
Qamar Abbas, a Pakistani immigrant who runs a cab in Washington, expressed similar concerns about eroding traditions in the U.S. He worries about teenagers' turning away from religion, and says that at times U.S. values and Pakistani values can conflict, such as regarding views on gay marriage, when it is still even controversial for Muslim women to marry non-Muslims in many parts of Pakistan. Such differences, he said, as with the broader U.S.-Pakistan relationship, can, "lead to cultural clashes and create problems."
The Huffington Post interviewed many of the people quoted here in Urdu and translated their responses.