Written by: Katelyn Joshy (21-U1)
Designed by: Lay Kai En, Ashley (21-O1)
‘Please report to the nearest San Francisco police department to verify your citizenship status.’ My eyes halted at the last line; it was at that moment I realised that the jig was up, no more running from the truth. No more- My life was about to change forever, and there was no turning back.
For as long as I can remember, America has been my home. I was raised here in San Francisco and had the typical American childhood: sleepovers, trick-o-treating- you name it. I grew up singing the national anthem. I recall proudly reciting the pledge of allegiance every day in school with a hand over my heart. There was never a shred of doubt in my mind that I belonged here until this came along: A letter from the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. It mandates my family show proof of our documentation. It quickly reminded me of my real place in society- an undocumented immigrant nobody and suddenly home was not home after all. My parents came from Pakistan, at the time a war-torn nation. The instability and political strife were what drove my parents to make the bold move of escaping with little me, just a few weeks olds and swaddled in a washcloth in the dead of night. I don’t know what happened that fateful night; my parents never spoke of it- like a horrible truth they wish to suppress. All I know was that we could have died that day, and it is a miracle I’m even here. We’ve been hiding from the authorities for all these years- registered under fake names and addresses to avoid detection. All this while, I thought we were in the clear- ‘Life is going to be normal,’ I said. Yet, with this letter in my hand- it seems we are finally on their radar.
“Maawa? What happened, child?” the sound of my mother’s voice echoed from behind me. My hand shot to my eyes, drying them off the tears that came streaking down my face. “Nothing, Ammi,” I said, shoving the letter behind my back. My mother insisted on seeing the letter, and soon panic set in as she glanced through the letter’s contents. “I will tell your Abba.” She said, trying to sound strong as she strode off to find my father. A plethora of thoughts plagued my mind; ‘What proof are we going to show when we have none?’, ‘What is going to become of us?’ and ‘What if we get deported?….’ are just some to name a few. Yet, the most important question remaining was; ‘What now?’, of that I had no clue of where to start. The decision laid in the hands of my father, who for years had furiously protected us and kept our family safe from any discovery. ‘Abba will know what to do.’ I reassured myself and waited with bated breath for his decision to be made known.
That night, after dinner, my father called for a family meeting. “As you probably know, this morning we received a letter from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement… They are ordering us to show proof of our documentation as legal immigrants here within a week of notice… I know this is a shock for you as it is for me…” pausing, he tried collecting his thoughts; “The truth is, I don’t have a solution. We can’t deny they sent the letter to the wrong address, not when they’ve sent it to this address… All that’s left is to leave this place because it’s not safe here anymore… I know someone that can house us in the neighbouring city till we get this situation sorted out. For now, pack your bags. We leave tomorrow morning.” Those words caught me off guard, leaving me dumbfounded- ‘Abba doesn’t have a solution?’ Suddenly, my world turned upside down, and the future was uncertain. That night the house stirred with activity as everyone scrambled to pack their whole lives into a tiny suitcase. The stripped bare beds, fallen over the bookcase, and half-emptied cabinets gave the impression we left in a hurry- but we weren’t interested in impressions. All that mattered was we got to our new hideout safely.
The next thing I knew, we were packed off into a black jeep sent for us and drove miles away from San Francisco. We crossed highways, interstate lines, and borders- putting a distance between our old lives and edging closer towards our new ones. It took us days to get there, and of course, not without some close calls. At last, we finally made it. I peered out the window and caught my first glimpse of the small suburban neighbourhoods of Sacramento. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city were colonies of modest family homes lined up in neat rows. The jeep halted before a quaint red-bricked home that stood steadily at the end of the street. Its porch had all the perfect elements, complete with a porch couch and swing. It was made of limestone rock and cream walls, giving a sense of calm to the abode. A lush green garden bounded by a white picket fence grew out front, giving the home a sense of vitality. Just as I was taking in the splendour around me, a man came rushing out the front door: “Come my dear Anwar and family! We have been anxiously waiting for you!” ‘This must be the person Abba was talking about hosting us yesterday.’ I pondered to myself as I watched him help my mother with the baggage in the trunk- eyeing him suspiciously the whole time. ‘Why would anyone want to help a couple of strangers?’ was the first thought that came to mind. However, all those questions disrupted once I heard his backstory; His name was Hussain, and he happened to be a close friend of my father. Turns out, he was once an illegal immigrant himself till he managed to gain US citizenship years ago. Then, he settled down here in Sacramento with his wife, Mira. Suddenly, it all made sense, and I let my guard down.
Once inside, we were warmly welcomed by Aunty Mira. “Make yourself at home, dear”, cooed Aunty Mira as she led me to would-be my room. “I’ll fix you something to eat. Are you hungry?” she asked. I shook my head, shy of asking favours from a stranger. “Are you sure? You must be ravenous after that long journey. Come, tell me, what would you like to eat?” she insisted. “That’s alright Aunty, I’ve just eaten. Thank you for asking me.” I said. She gave me a warm smile: “Let me know if you need anything at all, dear.”, and she left me alone to unpack my things. As soon as she had gone, I shut the door and threw myself onto the bed. ‘Hello new life, goodbye old.’ I thought to myself woefully. Time went on, and we ended up living with them for several months before father could find us a stable home just a mile away from Uncle Hussain’s home. “It’s a single-story house; 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and half furnished!” father announced as we tucked into dinner that chilly September night. “I’ve made the down payment already. We can move in next Thursday,” he said, beaming. Those words were met with much joy by all at the dinner table. “Allahu Akbar!” cried Uncle Hussain. Lady Luck was looking upon us at last. ‘We’re finally getting our lives together, and everything will be just as it was.’, I thought to myself with a grin.
In the blink of an eye, Thursday rolled around, and it was the day of the big move. “Call us anytime you need something, buddy. We’ll always be here.” Uncle Hussain choked back tears as he held father in an embrace. Soon, the trunk was filled, and the car doors slammed shut. “Have a safe journey!” they said before our vehicle zoomed off, turning the couple and their lovely home into tiny specks in the distance. As I gazed out the window, my thoughts drifted to our new home, and for the first time in a long time, I let out a sigh of relief. Yet, little did my family know that we were far from safety…
As soon as we arrived at our new home, we were ambushed by a group of officers. It was a trap! We were never safe! They’d been watching our every move, baiting us with the home to catch us in the open. I still remember that moment of anguish when the officers pinned my father to the ground and cuffed him. The sound of my mother’s hysteric voice still rings in my ear whenever I recall that moment. They shoved us into the back of a squad car and drove us to the immigration and customs headquarters. Now, deportation was a very real reality for us as the court order was being processed. “The court declares you must leave this country by 11:00 P.M. tomorrow night.”, said our caseworker. I was gutted, blinking away angry tears. I yelled: “THIS ISN’T FAIR, AMERICA IS MY HOME! YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO US!”. Yet, she said nothing, just gave us a rueful smile and walked away. My parents tried to console me, but it was futile. “It’s alright, Mawaa. Everything will be fine.”, said my mother as she placed an arm around my shoulder, squeezing it tight. “No.. no, it won’t..” I replied through my sobs. “Aren’t you devastated?” I asked, looking up. “We have to leave our home..Why aren’t you sad?” I said as my eyes searched theirs for any sign of despondency. “No, we aren’t, Mawaa. That’s because we have you,” they replied calmly. “I.. don’t understand,” I said, looking quizzically at them. With a sigh, they said: “Mawaa, you are our home. When we left Pakistan, you were all we brought along- the only memory of our former lives. That’s why we named you Mawaa- meaning home in Arabic. So, no matter where we are, as long as you are with us, we will always be home.”
Definition of culture specific terms used:
Ammi- the Urdu word for mother
Abba- the Urdu word for father
Allahu Akbar- phrase meaning ‘God is most great’, used by Muslims in prayers and as a general declaration of faith or thanksgiving.