" I remember my mother crying when we first came to America. She was a woman who wasn't used to cooking or taking care of the house, and I remember watching my aunt teach her how to boil water to make pasta so that she could feed her family. It was really a big shock."
-- Bilal Askaryar
"It was a new world, a new country. It was a lark, I wasn't expecting it to be a permanent thing."
-- Syed Qamer
"The future of my children is 1,000 times better than mine."
-- Hanan Zamarial
For most Americans,
awareness of Pakistan and Afghanistan dates from a single day: September 11,
2001. So did Americans' awareness of the immigrants from those countries living
in the United States. Before that date, it is safe to say, the great majority
of Americans knew little about and paid little attention either to those distant
countries or to the Afghans and Pakistanis living among them in America. After
the 9/11 terror attacks, the Afghan and Pakistani American communities became
much more visible in the American public eye and mind. But like their homelands,
those communities have been seen for the last decade almost entirely through
the prism of post-9/11 terrorism-related issues.
In fact, the story of Pakistanis and Afghans in the United States is a wider, richer, and older tale, one that began several decades before 9/11 and intersects with many other issues beside America's war on terrorism. In part, that story is a new chapter in a much longer narrative of the immigrant experience in this country. In part, it is also about new challenges to American traditions of pluralism and openness. And in part it is about not just one country but an entire world in which different peoples and cultures are mixing, not always peacefully, as never before in human history.
Significant immigration to the United States from Pakistan began as a direct result of the Immigration & Nationality Act of 1965. The new law ended a decades-old system of quotas based on national origins that had sharply limited immigration from Asia. In place of the old quotas, the 1965 law established a new system of preferred categories, including one giving a high preference for professionals and scientists. With the doors now opened to many more non-Europeans, a growing stream of immigrants began arriving from Asian countries, including Pakistan. Most of the early Pakistani immigrants were in the professional category, some already established in their fields, others in early or late stages of professional training. Though some may have come originally from humble backgrounds, as a general rule by the time they emigrated they had climbed into the upper levels of Pakistani society alongside others born into that class. As a consequence, with few exceptions the immigrants had elite characteristics: well educated, almost always in English; working in or studying for high-status occupations; living in the cosmopolitan society of Karachi or Lahore or other major cities.
Those qualifications, especially the lack of a language barrier, were attractive to U.S. employers, particularly in areas such as medicine and engineering where the demand for skilled professionals was high. And as difficult as it may be to imagine in today's climate, the Pakistan of 40 or 45 years ago had a positive image and good relations with the United States as a long-standing ally in the Cold War. For all those reasons Pakistanis in that early wave of immigrants often found the path to America an unexpectedly easy one. It sounds like a completely unbelievable fantasy in today's atmosphere, but the story in Zahra Billoo's family is that when her mother, a chemist, arrived from Pakistan in the 1970s, she was given her green card when she landed at the airport. "She took it to her host family," Billoo related, and told them "'oh, they gave me this and I don't know what it is,' and they laughed at her."
Syed Qamer's experience may not have been quite that effortless but still sounds today like something that happened on a different planet. As a young engineering student in 1970, Qamer applied for a U.S. visa after seeing ads in magazines and even on roadside signs saying engineers were wanted in America. He sent in a visa application almost as a whim, he remembers, not seriously expecting a response. But he soon received a letter inviting him to the U.S. consulate for an interview. At the time, Qamer was busy on a building project, so he didn't make the appointment. The consulate sent a second letter, then a third. Eventually he went for the interview, still not believing anything would really come of it, but shortly afterward he was notified that the visa was granted. He used it, but out of curiosity and a sense of adventure rather than any decision to settle in America.
"It was a new world, a new country," he recalled 40 years later. "It was a lark, I wasn't expecting it to be a permanent thing." But like several hundred thousand other Pakistanis who arrived in the 1970s and '80s, Qamer ended up embarking on a new life in the United States. He became a citizen; found work as a construction engineer for the U.S. Navy, supervising building projects on military bases; went back to Pakistan to get married and brought his wife, an artist, back to America, where they raised their two sons. Eventually he left the Navy and formed his own company, which was successful enough to solidly establish the family in a comfortable, upper-middle-class American life. For many others in that first wave of Pakistani arrivals, the trajectory was similar.
In the course of the 1990s and on into the first decade of the new century, the profile of Pakistani immigrants changed. The newer arrivals tended to come from less privileged, less educated backgrounds, and were more likely to land in lower-status occupations in America -- driving taxis, delivering pizzas, working in gas stations, clerking in convenience stores. Many of the newer immigrants were admitted to the United States as relatives of Pakistanis already settled here (of those gaining permanent residence status, four-fifths were in that category); others came with various forms of employment visas. And, as with many other immigrant groups, there were substantial numbers who were undocumented, either having never had legal status or because they had stayed in the country after their visas expired.
Even though navigating U.S. immigration rules and practices had become far more laborious than in earlier decades, and despite a badly deteriorating relationship between Pakistan and the United States, Pakistanis continued to arrive in growing numbers. Between 2000 and 2010, the Pakistani population in America doubled, according to official statistics. That made them the fastest-growing community of Asian Americans, who in turn were the most rapidly increasing racial group in the country.
Exact numbers are elusive. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that there were 409,000 people of Pakistani origin in the United States in 2010, a figure that is almost universally thought to be too low. Adil Najam, a prominent Pakistani American scholar who analyzed earlier census statistics for a 2006 book, believes the true figure is around 700,000 or perhaps slightly less.
Others give estimates of 800,000 or even higher. Irfan Malik, a board member of several local and national Pakistani American organizations who was active in a campaign to promote greater participation by the Pakistani and Muslim communities in the 2010 census, believes the real number is double the official census figure. Malik, an engineer and successful entrepreneur in Maryland, lists several categories that contribute to the undercount. First is the sizable number who are living illegally in the United States and, Malik said, "are afraid to participate in anything." (Even if they do fill out a census form, undocumented Pakistanis are unlikely to call attention to themselves by answering questions about their national origin). Another sizable group is those who are in the country legally but are afraid they might have something in their past -- some misstatement on an immigration form, a minor criminal offense -- that could subject them to deportation. Despite assurances that information on census returns cannot be used for law enforcement or any other purpose, Malik said, many in that group are fearful that "they may come after me, so let me not get into this trouble, I'll stay away from filling this form." Even legal residents who aren't vulnerable for any past irregularity may share that reluctance, fearing -- and not without reason -- that just being identified as Pakistani or Muslim can make someone the target of official investigation or anti-Islamic harassment. Added to those, Malik said, is a third group of respondents who were just careless or inattentive in filling out the form.
Moreover, as Adil Najam points out, the formulation of the census question can itself contribute to undercounting. "Pakistani" is not listed among the categories that a respondent can choose by checking a box next to the group name. Instead, it is included (in smaller type) as a possible selection within the "Other Asian" category -- meaning the respondent has to check the "Other Asian" box and then print the more specific answer letter by letter in a separate row of boxes below. Clearly, not everyone filling out the form will do it that painstakingly, especially when they are not using their first language. And beyond all those issues, Najam adds, "identity -- especially of diasporas -- can be a tricky question" for many; for Pakistani Americans with roots in two worlds, there is often no simple answer to the question "who am I?"
The initial influx of immigration from Afghanistan started later than the Pakistani wave, though only by a few years, and for entirely different reasons. The Afghans who began arriving in significant numbers in the 1980s did not leave their country because of liberalized U.S. immigration laws, or even because they chose to seek a better life in a new, more developed country. Instead, they came as refugees from violent upheavals at home that had begun late in the preceding decade -- the start of a catastrophic cascade of events that would ravage the country for more than three decades.
Afghanistan's spiral of devastation began with a leftist coup in April 1978, followed by a brutal campaign of repression against Afghans who were associated with previous governments or were business leaders or members of the social or intellectual elites. Continuing violent unrest led to an invasion by the Soviet Union at the end of 1979, touching off ten years of bloody and destructive conflict between Soviet forces and Afghan resistance fighters, known as mujahideen, or holy warriors. Those events drove millions of Afghans from their homes, in one of the biggest refugee crises in human history. By the late 1980s, the number of refugees outside Afghanistan had reached nearly six million, more than one out of every four Afghans. The majority, three and a half million, were in Pakistan; almost two and a half million were in Iran. Up to two million more Afghans were displaced inside the country. In the '80s and through the following decades, Afghans were by far the largest refugee population in the world.
From that huge flood of refugees, a small stream began arriving in the United States at the rate of several thousand a year. By 1990, approximately 28,000 Afghans had been resettled in America. These were by no means representative of the refugee population as a whole. For the most part, those reaching the United States came from the most privileged layers of pre-war Afghan society, a small world of well-educated, affluent, high-status families, living mainly in Kabul. Unlike the vast majority of Afghan refugees, this group tended to have the means and international connections that made it possible to seek haven in the West -- and the intellectual horizons that made a new life in Western societies a conceivable choice.
Elite backgrounds in Afghanistan did not guarantee the same status in America, to be sure. Sufia Alnoor, the daughter and granddaughter of senior Afghan army officers, remembers that parents' stories about their past life were not always completely convincing to their American children. "It was kind of like an inside joke" among her Afghan American friends, she said with a laugh, "about how all our parents were from these high-class families in Afghanistan. Everyone would say their grandfather was a mayor or a governor or whatever. We thought our parents were kind of heightening what they were, but then as we grew older, we realized they really were."
For most Afghans, no matter how privileged their lives had been in Afghanistan, resettlement in the United States was not an easy process. In a few respects they were in a better position than many other immigrants. Because they were fleeing a Communist system and Soviet occupation, the Afghans were seen in American eyes as being on the right side in the Cold War, giving them a legitimate claim to U.S. help and support. For the most part, they had little difficulty qualifying for refugee status, since people escaping from Communism were almost automatically considered to meet that standard. As refugees, they were entitled to a modest allowance and various other forms of assistance to help them get established in American life. Still, the early years were often a struggle. Many who had been well-to-do in Afghanistan had lost all or nearly all their wealth in escaping, and had to start over with nothing. Many found their educational and professional qualifications were not recognized in the United States. Unlike emigrating Pakistani professionals, many Afghans did not know English well enough to work in their previous occupations, even if they were well qualified in other areas of knowledge and experience. Others had training and skills for which there was no demand in their new country -- teachers, for example, or literary or religious scholars.
In the standard American narrative, immigrants come "for a better life, a better standard of living, to seek economic opportunity," said Bilal Askaryar, who arrived in the United States in 1990 at the age of six when his father, a professional diplomat, defected from the Communist regime. But, he went on, "for a lot of Afghans, particularly my family, it was the opposite. Coming to America meant a significant decrease in the standard of our lives." In Afghanistan the family had lived well. "We were a part of the elite, and they were comfortable, they were happy." In America, they were poor, isolated because they didn't know much English, and coping with work and living conditions at far lower levels than anything they had known before. For years, Askaryar's father worked at low-wage, low-status jobs -- the first job Askaryar remembers him having was delivering pizzas -- while his mother had to learn all the domestic tasks she had never had to do for herself in Afghanistan. "It was very difficult. I remember my mother crying when we first came to America. She was a woman who wasn't used to cooking or taking care of the house, and I remember watching my aunt teach her how to boil water to make pasta so that she could feed her family. It was really a big shock."
It took more than a decade, but over time the Askaryars managed to climb back up the occupational and social status ladder. Both parents have learned English; Askaryar's father now works for a pharmaceutical company as a chemist, his first field of study before joining the diplomatic service; they have sent both their sons to college, and the family is now solidly rooted in American middle class life.
In the three decades since Afghan refugees began arriving in significant numbers, many, like the Askaryars, have gained or regained modest affluence and middle class status and comforts. But there are also many who have remained in far less prestigious and satisfying jobs than those they left behind. Among the Afghan Americans interviewed for this report, one is an author and historian who taught for many years at universities in Egypt and Saudi Arabia; now in California, he is a driver for an airport car service. Another was a well-known actor, film director, and radio and television personality who since coming to the United States has cooked hamburgers in a Wendy's fast-food restaurant, worked in a factory, and now monitors security cameras in a Virginia clothing store. The husband of another interview subject, who used to be a high school math teacher in Kabul, is now the custodian at a nursing home in Rochester, New York. Those men and many others like them may be managing to support their families, but that does not make up for the respect they received in their earlier lives, or the feeling that in leaving their country they had not just lost their home, but a significant part of themselves as well.
Whatever the course of their own lives in America, most refugees see a future for their children that they believe is more promising than any life they could imagine in Afghanistan. That might not take away the sadness or regret at losing their own former lives, but it gives a compelling reason for their hardships. "The future of my children," said Hanan Zamarial, the former actor and film maker, "is 1,000 times better than mine." For him and many others, that is enough to make all they have gone through worthwhile.
After Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the Communist-led government they had propped up for the previous decade lasted for another three years before falling to resistance forces. But instead of bringing peace, the resistance victory led to further violence, as rival mujahideen factions fought savage battles for control. The post-Communist conflict brought a new wave of destruction and terror that lasted until 1996, when a new force known as the Taliban defeated the mujahideen factions and established still another new regime in Kabul. The name came from "talib," an Arabic word also used in Pashto, the language of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. It means student or seeker and usually applies to students in religious institutions -- in this case, madrassas that were established in Afghan refugee camps with support from Saudi Arabia and conservative religious leaders mainly from Pashtun regions in Pakistan and southern Afghanistan.
(In a bizarre twist of history that most of the Americans involved might prefer to forget, along with Saudis and Pashtuns, the United States also underwrote education that carried a violent jihadi message to Afghan refugee children. As part of its support for the anti-Soviet resistance, the U.S. government funded the University of Nebraska-Omaha and its Center for Afghanistan Studies to produce hundreds of thousands of textbooks in Pashto and Dari (Farsi), Afghanistan's two principal languages, for use in refugee camp classrooms. The texts were full of language and warlike images glorifying the mujahideen as heroic soldiers for Islam. One Dari text, for example, contained this definition of jihad: "the kind of war that Muslims fight in the name of God to free Muslims and Muslim lands from the enemies of Islam. If infidels invade, jihad is the obligation of every Muslim.")
The Taliban succeeded in restoring peace in most of the country, but true to the teachings of the madrassas, they enforced an oppressive, ultra-conservative version of Islamic rules while also making Afghanistan a haven for extremists from the Middle East. Weeks after Osama bin Laden and his followers planned and coordinated the 9/11 attacks from their Afghan sanctuary, a U.S. invasion ousted the Taliban government. In the following years, however, an insurgent Taliban movement regained strength in wide areas of the country, waging a new war that by mid-2013 had taken more than 2,100 American and many many times that number of Afghan lives.
All those events -- the civil war in the early and mid-'90s, the harsh reign of the Taliban, and the new conflict between the U.S.-backed government and Taliban insurgents -- continued to turn great numbers of Afghans into refugees. Those reaching the United States in the '90s and '00s had a different profile from those who had arrived earlier, however. While some still were members of elite groups, a greater number of the new refugees came from rural areas, many with little or no education. This reflected in part a policy change giving preference to war widows and families with a family member who was disabled by wounds or had some other disability. Since most war casualties occurred in the villages, refugees in those categories were more likely to have rural, less privileged backgrounds.
As was true in the earlier wave, the refugees resettled more recently in the United States were still a tiny fraction of the worldwide Afghan refugee population. But together with Afghans admitted under various family reunification procedures, they brought the total of Afghans resettled in America to slightly over 54,000 by 2010, according to Census Bureau estimates. American-born children of Afghan immigrants were estimated to number nearly 29,000, bringing the official figure for the total Afghan American population to just under 83,000. For various reasons (a lower rate of illegals, for one), the undercount of Afghans is thought to be less than for Pakistani Americans. Still, the true figure is almost certainly somewhat higher than the census estimate, probably reaching 100,000 or more. That would put the Afghan and Pakistani American communities together at more than three-quarters of a million, by conservative estimates, and possibly closer to a million -- still well behind the larger Asian immigrant groups, but still a significant new population on the American landscape.
* * *
Adil Najam, 2006. Portrait of a Giving Community: Philanthropy by the Pakistani-American
Diaspora, Published by the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2006.
 U.S. Committee for Refugees, "World Refugee Survey, 1987 in Review," p. 17-21 and 31, and "World Refugee Survey, 1988 in Review," p. 34
 Hiram A Ruiz, "Afghanistan: conflict and displacement 1978 to 2001," Forced Migration Review, issue 13, Refugee Studies Centre of the Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford. June 2002, p 9.
 Ajmal Stanigzai, who was born the same year as the Soviet invasion and spent most of his childhood and teens as a refugee in Pakistan, remembers a math problem in a text used in his high school in Peshawar: "If 50 Russians were attacked, 25 were killed, and 10 ran away, how many were captured?"
Another math problem, cited by mideast scholar Craig Davis in an article for World Policy Journal, read: “The speed of a Kalashnikov bullet is 800 meters per second. If a Russian is at a distance of 3,200 meters from a mujahid, and that mujahid aims at the Russian’s head, calculate how many seconds it will take for the bullet to strike the Russian in the forehead.” The article also reproduced this excerpt from a lesson on the Persian alphabet:
Alif [is for] Allah. Allah is one.
Bi [is for] Father (baba). Father goes to the mosque...
Pi [is for] Five (panj). Islam has five pillars...
Ti [is for] Rifle (tufang). Javad obtains rifles for the Mujahidin...
Jim [is for] Jihad. Jihad is an obligation. My mom went to the jihad. Our brother gave water to the Mujahidin...
Dal [is for] Religion (din). Our religion is Islam. The Russians are the enemies of the religion of Islam...
Zhi [is for] Good news (muzhdih). The Mujahidin missiles rain down like dew on the Russians. My brother gave me good news that the Russians in our country taste defeat...
Shin [is for] Shakir. Shakir conducts jihad with the sword. God becomes happy with the defeat of the Russians...
Zal [is for] Oppression (zulm). Oppression is forbidden. The Russians are oppressors. We perform jihad against the oppressors...
Vav [is for] Nation (vatn). Our nation is Afghanistan.... The Mujahidin made our country famous.... Our Muslim people are defeating the communists. The Mujahidin are making our dear country free. (Craig Davis, “A” Is for Allah, “J” Is for Jihad, World Policy Journal, Spring 2002, pp. 90, 92-93; see also Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway "From U.S., the ABC's of Jihad: Violent Soviet-Era Textbooks Complicate Afghan Education Efforts," Washington Post, March 23, 2002)
 U.S. Census Bureau, American FactFinder, Selected Population Profile in the United States, 2008-2010 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates; at http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_10_3YR_S0201&prodType=table
II - The 9/11 Aftermath