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Columnist Farah Ameen: Antithesis of what US used to represent

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Tuesday, July 03, 2018

“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny ... At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” Jawaharlal Nehru read these words on the eve of India’s independence from the British in 1947, leading to the creation of two countries: India and Pakistan.

I get chills whenever I read these lines or hear recordings. The word “independence” makes me think of 1947. I grew up in India, and although my family is from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), I have always felt Indian.

My fondest memories are those of my life in South India. A hot summer day, green mangoes with chili powder, peanuts in their shells, or the aroma of certain Indian foods evoke memories that make me nostalgic for my childhood, at home with my parents, running around with my school friends. My family visited Dhaka during the summer holidays so we could see my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, which was always fun, but to me (and my parents back then) “home” was Bangalore.

“Independence” also means 1971 to me, when East Pakistan declared its independence from West Pakistan, leading to the creation of Bangladesh — another hard-fought freedom, preceded by months of bloodshed, mayhem, rape, and genocide.

But independence as it pertains to me, personally is when I left my parents’ home, in Dhaka at that time, at age 22 to study journalism at Indiana University Bloomington. My father had sent my two older brothers to American universities a few years before. When I expressed interest in doing the same, he was reluctant. Arranged marriages were still common and my parents envisioned me living close by and raising a family. But I chose independence.

It was a new beginning for me, alone for the first time, even though there were roommates or housemates. Being away from family was tough in the early 1990s, pre-Facebook and Skype. Phone calls were expensive and letters were often lost in the international mail. After getting my master’s in the Midwest, I relocated to New York, to live with one of my brothers for a couple of years, eventually moving to Manhattan for the next 15. My life was the New York dream — a job in publishing, scraping by on a copy editor’s salary in a fourth-floor walk-up in the Big Apple, lots of friends, independence, youth, love!

I had become an “immigrant,” though I didn’t really think of myself as one. It happened so gradually. Before I left home, I promised my parents I’d be back as soon as I graduated. But then I found a job, and another, and another, and, eventually, I met my husband. I went from a student visa to a work permit to an H1B visa to a Green Card — and finally to citizenship (20-plus years of paperwork, with red tape slowing the process further post-9/11).

Now, not only am I an immigrant, but I’m a Muslim immigrant. We immigrants come to the West, especially to the United States, for independence. But we come armed with strong family connections.

Most of us from warmer climes are raised in large families. We are taught to respect our elders, love all little kids, and treat our cousins like brothers and sisters. That bond never goes away — I have it with my cousins, and I have it with my childhood friends from India.

But when I came to the U.S., I lived in an international dorm and I made friends from all over the world. There were South Asian student associations. I went to some of their events because I craved the familiarity of my culture, but I wanted to explore this new place and meet people who were different from me.

So I learned to straddle the East and the West, never quite comfortable in either place, but trying to make the right choices for my life. I grew to love living in the U.S., even as my point of entry was conservative Indiana with all its racist trappings. (Indiana has always been a hotbed of Klan activity.)

Today, the dream of independence that has always drawn people to the U.S. is being openly attacked by a white supremacist right-wing movement that enjoys far more support than most of us would have believed possible a few years ago. The current immigration policy is the antithesis of what the U.S. used to represent.

As this unfolds, all I can think about is the children in detention centers. What about their independence? Don’t they have the right to be with their parents and guardians? Since when don’t we encourage families to come here to build new lives and contribute to the country, just as I, and millions of others, have done.

Independence means different things to different people. To me, it was leaving home and finding my own way. To a child in a “tender age” shelter, it could just mean being in his or her mother’s arms. To deny the youngest among us this independence is a disgrace.

On July 4, 2018, Nelson Mandela’s words on freedom seem fitting: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Farah Ameen is a writer and editor who moved to Amherst eight years ago.