1. How old were you when you came to the United States? Tell me a little about when you first realized that you were undocumented and what that meant for you.
My family came to the U.S. from Pakistan on a tourist visa when I was ten years old to seek treatment for my sister’s life-threatening brain condition. At this point, she had been through surgery in India and treatment in Dubai, but doctors felt she would receive the best care in the U.S. After we arrived, my father was able to get an employment visa and we received approval to remain in the U.S. Unfortunately, when our visa was up for renewal, our lawyer misfiled our papers and we were ordered to leave the country within 30 days. My father has always been very open with us about our undocumented status. He explained that we had to choose whether to leave the U.S., interrupting my sister’s treatment and risking her life, or stay behind and face the consequences. We knew we had no choice but to stay and try to save her. Because of that decision, my sister is still alive today—13 years longer than her doctors expected.
The repercussions of being undocumented did not actually hit me until high school. When I was a junior, I was really excited about getting my driver’s license like my classmates. But I quickly realized that I could not get a license because I did not have a Social Security number. I knew why I didn’t have a Social Security number, why we were undocumented, and why we chose to stay. Yet I still found myself disappointed and embarrassed. When all of my friends asked why I was not driving, I made up excuses so that I wouldn’t have to tell them. In my senior year of high school, I felt much more than embarrassment. Despite my academic achievements and efforts to build my reputation at school—I was Salutatorian of my class and President of the National Honor Society—I was ineligible for college scholarships and financial aid because all of the forms required a Social Security number. I was constantly worried that my school or classmates might learn that I was undocumented and it would somehow jeopardize all that I had achieved.
2. What have been the biggest barriers for you in achieving your dreams because of your undocumented status? How has DACA changed that?
I have always been passionate about learning and pursuing higher education. I want to become a doctor one day, but it has been difficult to envision that goal due to my undocumented status. As a high school student, I was incredibly anxious when I learned that, even if I attended a public university, I would not be eligible for in-state tuition because I was undocumented. I felt crushed when I realized that I had to pay $2,500 for each class without financial assistance. As a result, I decided to attend school part-time at the College of Staten Island. I was pre-med for my first two years there, but felt disheartened again when I learned that I needed a Social Security number to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Even if I completed the requirements, I could not apply to medical school. As a result, I put my dream of being a doctor on hold in order to pursue a doctorate degree in nursing while I await the resolution of my immigration status. Being barred from accessing financial aid and having to pay out-of-state tuition has definitely been a barrier to pursuing my dreams.
Obtaining DACA status has made me eligible for in-state tuition rates; this has eased my financial burden, but it has not made my dreams feel any more attainable because I must renew my DACA status every two years. My current nursing program requires an eight-year commitment, and in order for me to succeed my DACA status needs to be renewed. It is very challenging to feel like my whole life and future career hang in the balance while I await a decision on my renewal. In the meantime, I wonder whether I will ever be able to go to medical school. Even though I now have a Social Security number, if I take the MCAT and am accepted into a medical program, how will I pay for it? Lacking immigration status has significantly limited my options for a more affordable medical school option. If I was a U.S. citizen or had a green card, I could attend medical school in other countries in the Caribbean, which is far more affordable. I don’t have that option because I cannot travel with my current status.
3. What is your happiest or most vivid childhood memory?
My happiest memory is the birth of my little sister. It was like a miracle for our family. My mom was older when she discovered that she was pregnant, and she had a very difficult pregnancy. I was so scared for her, but so excited about having a new addition to our family. I loved having the ability to care for my sister from birth. In some ways, I feel like a mini-parent because I have raised her and watched her grow. She brings so much joy into my life.
4. Where do you see yourself in ten years? How would that change if you had status or citizenship?
In ten years, I hope to be a medical school graduate or a successful nurse practitioner. I would love to be involved with an organization like Doctors Without Borders or Nurses Without Borders so I can help people in areas where medical assistance is scarce. It would be incredible to open a clinic in an underserved area in Pakistan. If I had citizenship, I would not have to worry about my status and could travel outside of the U.S. freely. I could attend medical school and to serve communities in need in other countries. It would be amazing to fulfill my dreams without limitations.
5. What is one thing that no one knows about you or your most marked characteristic?
My most marked characteristic is that I am very talkative, passionate and determined. I can also be incredibly stubborn which keeps me focused on my goals and beliefs.
6. If you could ask one question of President Obama, what would it be?
Why are you trying to deport the same people for whom you are working to pass immigration reform? You say you want to provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in this country, but you are deporting these same individuals in record numbers.
7. What is your favorite quote?
“In a literal way, men rule the world. And this made sense a thousand years ago. Because human beings lived then in a world in which physical strength was the most important attribute for survival. The physically stronger person was more likely to lead. And men in general are physically stronger; of course, there are many exceptions. But today we live in a vastly different world. The person more likely to lead is not the physically stronger person, it is the more creative person, the more intelligent person, the more innovative person, and there are no hormones for those attributes. A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, to be creative, to be innovative. We have evolved, but it seems to me that our ideas of gender have not evolved.”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
8. Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself or your experience in the United States?
As I have learned of the struggles of others in the U.S., I feel that my life has not been so difficult. Yet experiencing the hardships that I have endured has allowed me to grow and mature very quickly.
While I was a part-time student at the College of Staten Island, I was awarded the New York Immigration Coalition’s DREAM Fellowship, and began to work with El Centro De Inmigrante, a local immigrant rights organization. When meeting the immigrants that I served there, I was struck by their unconditional acceptance of my appearance. They never cared that I am Muslim, wear a head scarf, or can’t speak Spanish. They just saw me as human, as someone they could trust. Feeling so easily accepted made me reflect on our own South Asian culture and how we often judge others. I have realized through my work that the divisiveness within our cultures and communities and the stereotypes we have against one another only operate against us in the long run. We need to learn to trust each other, work together, and support one another because the issues for which we are fighting affect us all. We all deserve to live with dignity and respect, regardless of our immigration status.
I was inspired and moved by my experiences working with undocumented individuals. I have learned to put things in perspective, to appreciate and value life, and to remain strong. It is easy to keep to oneself and endure challenges alone, but sharing my life story has been invaluable for my personal growth. In some ways, our greatest value as human beings is in connecting with one another, in being involved in each others’ lives and life stories.