Category Archives: The Marginalized

My love affair with libraries


I still remember the first time I entered a library. It was an elementary school field trip, not long after my family had moved to California from Pakistan. My mom chaperoned (as she did every trip — helicoptering was her way of ensuring her children were safe in this new world), and when we got to the library, the librarian explained that we could each get library cards and check out books for free. Both our minds were blown, and visiting the library to get books became a regular part of my childhood.

I loved books, so much so that my parents would sometimes yell at me to stop being antisocial and put my books down. I’d read at home, in the car, on the school bus, in between classes and sometimes even at lunch. It became a real loss when, in college, I began to get carsick when I tried reading on buses. I loved walking through the collections at the University of Washington, which has the largest library collection of any public university, and just smelling the books. I’d look for old books that captured moments in history — census data from the 1800s in South Asia, for example — and marvel at the knowledge accumulated in the written word.

Fast forward to being a mom, and libraries took on new meaning for me. They were places for storytimes and gathering with other moms on maternity leave. They were places to escape on snowy days and let the kids have fun. So imagine my surprise when a friend who returned from a stint in Istanbul told me that there were no public libraries there. What did parents do with their kids, I marveled.

Of course, they did whatever my parents did in Pakistan with us. I know now that my mom’s shock at the free public library system was a result of the fact that free public libraries are actually a very special, wonderful aspect of life in places like the United States. How lucky are we that our predecessors thought the libraries were a public asset worth investing in.

I felt very emotional about all this when I reported on the state of public libraries in the digital age. We have a generation of people used to Googling information, not combing through card catalogs, now unsure if they even need libraries. I hope that they decide they do.

Give this article a read to see how one library system is trying to cope with the mounting challenge it faces from the Internet. (Hint: The answer is embracing technology, not fighting it.)

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Filed under Geeked Out, Parenting, The Marginalized

Writing in Seattle Mag about Punjabi pot farmers

My story on a family of Punjabi Indian immigrants who are farming (legal) marijuana in Bellingham, Washington, is featured in April’s issue of Seattle Magazine. The article is a big accomplishment for me on several ways, not the least of which is having it be published in a glossy magazine that is so well designed.

I worked as an intern at Seattle Magazine when I was in college, around the time I first began thinking of journalism as a potential career. I was introduced to newspaper writing in high school and wrote for my college paper, but it wasn’t until my time at Seattle Magazine that I got to see how a professional publication came together. I remember admiring the glossy issues and looking at the bios of the writers, wondering if maybe I’d be able to write a magazine article worthy of printing one day. Appearing in that exact magazine over a decade later feels so rewarding!

When I moved to Seattle, I also set an intention to cover more stories about the American immigrant experience, which is near and dear to my heart and speak to my personal experience. When my friend told me about the Singh family’s pot farm, I thought it so perfectly encapsulated an aspect of the American dream: Surjit Singh was a farmer in Punjab, India, but he left that behind soon after arriving in the U.S. to pursue financial gain and stability for his family. He owned a video rental store and a gas station that he turned into an Indian grocery in order to make it. But he had always loved farming, and it was the legalization of marijuana in Washington state that brought him back to his roots. What a roundabout way of achieving the American dream, and all through a still-controversial substance that he himself does not use!

It’s quite the story, and I do hope you’ll give it a read.

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Filed under News on News, The Marginalized

Desi food service dishes up nostalgia

One of my goals as a writer has been to bring together my passion for food with my interest in immigrant stories. My recent article for KCTS 9, the PBS affiliate in Seattle, did just that by highlighting a South Asian meal service that provides weekly home-cooked meals to an audience that includes many of Seattle’s recent tech transplants.

Because of companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Google, so many Indian and Pakistani immigrants have come to the Pacific Northwest over the last decade. It’s one of the most visible shifts that stands out to me having returned here after spending that time on the East Coast. In many cases, the tech workers are here on visas and must wait to bring family over.

Coming from a communal society like that of South Asia, the people I interviewed for this story told me it’s a real adjustment to have to do everything alone. In New Delhi, Priyanka Wadhawan, who works at Amazon, tells me she had her parents and other family nearby and that they often shared meals. She had a cook to help prep food, and she never actually learned howt o cook until coming to the U.S. Now she loves cooking simple Northwest fare like salmon, but she leaves the heavy duty, laborious work of South Asian curries to Turmeric ‘N More, and says that owner Sadia Bukhari is like her local mom. When Wadhawan had a baby, Bukhari even sent her soup spiced with herbal remedies known in South Asia to help mothers heal postpartum.

Check out the story.

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Filed under Feed Me, Pakistan, The Marginalized

Islamophobia and the Sikh shootings

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about work, but I did want to share a recent radio interview. I spoke with NPR’s To The Point about the recent shooting at a Wisconsin gurudwara that left seven people dead, including the gunman. The show focused on Islamophobia, which many believe to be the reason for the shooting, although we don’t know that for sure yet. It’s so common for Sikhs to be targeted in anti-Muslim hate crimes that the FBI actually tracks the two in one lump group. Whether that is a good thing is a matter up for debate, and I just hope that the debate currently underway thrives long enough for us to find some answers for preventing such atrocities in the future.

Listen in and let me know what you think. It’s a tragic issue, and I am grateful that I was able to contribute in some way by discussing some of the political issues at hand.

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Filed under The Marginalized

On the day of my birth

It’s my birthday today, and for some reason my mind is drifting to another birthday six years ago. Not mine, but Shagufta Ahsan’s. Then 16, the petite, smiling teen was a student in my class. I was teaching computer and English courses at a nonprofit school in a slum outside of Karachi, Pakistan.

She walked into the classroom that morning, announced that it was her birthday and said she would like to share a poem she wrote for the occasion. She asked everyone, and especially me, to close our eyes as she read it.

And then this is what she said:

A precious year has passed of my life.
And I don’t know how many expectations
And hopes and wishes have grown up with me.
And it’s not the foremost wishes because
They are coming from sixteen years with me.
What are my wishes?
Only these that I want to catch butterflies
And then I put them in my peaceful books.
I am to count the stars.
I am bound to the sunlight.
I am always to take flowers fresh.
But these are only imaginations.
And the wishes which were my necessities
That I want to go in Air Force.
I want a computer.
I want to read good books.
My these wishes are too stupid for rich persons.
Because they don’t know about poverty.
But can these rich persons provide me,
My dreamy things?
No they don’t.
So, I think my all these wishes
Will go with me the next year too.

— “A Precious Year,” Shagufta Ahsan, Umer Maingal Goth Class 10

I hope she is somewhere safe and stable, catching butterflies.

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Filed under Pakistan, The Marginalized

Hidden in plain sight

Oak Hill Cemetery

I have a new idea for a photo essay, and this is my first contribution. I realize that the city looks completely different on a bike than it does in a car or even on foot, and you notice things you would not otherwise. I hope to collect and post more photos of discoveries made on my bike.

But let’s start with the photo above, taken of a cemetery dating back to the 1840s.

I was inspired by my neighbor, an avid cyclist, to take a ride this weekend through the city. I rode through Rock Creek Park, a beautiful stretch of trees and water that serves mostly as a highway for commuters. But the parkway looks completely different on a bike or on foot, and you start to notice things you may not otherwise.

I had caught a glimpse of this graveyard once before, but it was only on the bike trail that I got a chance to get up close. I noticed a placard, which said that this section of Oak Hill Cemetery was reserved for freed slaves and is one of the oldest black cemeteries in the area. I have a fascination with cemeteries as it is, and the history of this one really gave me pause.

Who knows what lives the people buried there lived? We can have some idea by looking up the history of those buried there: People such as Isabella Baumfree, who at the age of 9 was sold away from her family along with a herd of sheep for $100.

Her owners beat her, including once with, in her own words, “a bundle of rods, prepared in the embers, and bound together with cords.” And she was sold again, into conditions that seem even worse. She was forcibly separated from a lover and made to marry someone of her owner’s choosing before she finally ran away.

She went on to become a great spiritual leader, changed her name to Sojourner Truth and helped the Union during the Civil War. She lived in Washington D.C. after the war and helped freed slaves settle there and in the Western territories before passing away in 1883.

And there she lies, facing Rock Creek Parkway, where thousands drive by every day without noticing. Not to get too melodramatic here, but I believe it’s worth a moment of reflection.

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Filed under Beltway Beat, The Marginalized

Women’s plight and other everyday tragedies

KristofBookFollowing up on my post about rape on domestic tribal lands domestically, Nicholas D. Kristof has written a new book with his wife that details some startling statistics about the worldwide oppression of women. I’ve heard plenty of criticism about Kristof’s “parachute journalism” on global poverty, but that doesn’t make the truth about these atrocities — and most of media’s neglect of them — any less real. These are from Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide:

– Every 4 minutes, an Indian girl dies because of lack of medical care.
– One-third of all women are victims of domestic violence.
– There are at least 10 million child sex slaves worldwide.
– Male violence causes more injuries and deaths among women ages 15-44 than cancer, malaria, car accidents, and war combined.

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Filed under The Marginalized