What Muslim Parents Tell Their Children ( Syndicated by Common Ground News Services)

Chicago – Like all parents, Muslim parents have their fair share of do’s and don’ts for their children. Unlike most parents though, terrorism and how to handle its misguided association with Islam figures in some of our talks.

In the wake of the Boston bombings and given that one of the suspects was only a few years older than my own boy, the need for us to talk with Yousuf took on even greater urgency. Conversations usually begin with “most Americans recognise that not all Muslims are violent just because a few are,” and progress to “but I still don’t want you to talk about bombs, guns or shooting, even if it’s a game you’re discussing”.

These are tough conversations to have with an 11-year old, but they’re discussions we cannot avoid. As Muslim parents, we recognise just how vulnerable our children are.

The harder conversations go something like this: “If you are harassed or teased and called a terrorist, tell a teacher.” When my 11-year old insists that is tattling, I explain that even if it makes him look weak, it’s wiser to tell a teacher than to navigate these waters alone. I don’t want him to get into a potential argument because there’s a chance it could escalate. Best-case scenario, my child could put up a brave front, maybe while fighting back tears. Worst-case he could push back and end up suspended.

Like the rest of the nation, I feel such regret and sadness that the Boston bombing suspects, both well-liked seemingly well-integrated young men, came to be so terribly misled. As a parent, I also recognise the agony their mother and father must have felt, watching helplessly, from thousands of miles away, as their children were hunted and gunned down.

As much as I fear I will alarm him with talk of the bombings in Boston, I take on the subject. “If there are Muslims who try to tell you it’s okay to be violent, remember what your parents have taught you. In Islam, war is between militaries alone – no civilians, women, children, schools, hospitals and other civic amenities can be targets.”

A pre-teen, my son actually listens to me and shares his thoughts and concerns. Shielding him from these difficult discussions today may mean losing an opportunity to imprint the idea that, in Islam, taking an innocent life is tantamount to killing all of humanity. Not talking about this may mean throwing away a chance to warn my child that he needs to be conscious of those who may try to lead him astray.

I talk about how terrible the bombings have been for the victims and their families. “If you, as you grow older, have issues with the policies of any nation or differences of opinion, civic involvement is the way to change the status quo, not violence,” I drill into his young mind. I reiterate that there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to address issues and differences of opinions, violence not being an option.

I fear there may be a time when we aren’t there to be a sounding board for our kids. As my son takes in every word, I quietly hope I’m not scaring him.

Frustrated, my son asks, “Why do some Muslims have to go and mess it up for the rest of us?” “Because, somehow, they’ve come to believe that their actions are justified,” I respond. “But they aren’t,” I am quick to add.

But there is more on my mind that I don’t bring up. I don’t get into a tirade about how the media ties this crime to our faith or calls it a return to terrorism to US shores. What about the Sandy Hook murderer who opened fire on little children? Deemed mentally ill, no ties were drawn to an ideology for his actions. Or the white supremacist, who shot and killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin? He was not considered a terrorist by the media. Why are only Muslim suspects’ and criminals’ actions automatically motivated by faith?
These thoughts aren’t far from my mind, but I don’t need to add that kind of baggage to this conversation with my 11-year old. He has enough on his plate.


Her first days in America were lonely, but this immigrant from India built a life here ( Originally published on Public Radio International)

In Bombay, we're surrounded by people — the cook, the cleaning lady, the vendors who come to your door to sell eggs, fish, vegetables or milk. There are uncles, aunts, cousins, second- and third-cousins of your extended family. If you are a friend of a friend, upon introduction you instantly become a friend of mine, and that means you are invited to come home for a meal even if we've just met, are gladly offered a helping hand, and generally live a life governed by the rules of reciprocity. In the US, I discovered, people could be friendly but it often stopped at a handshake.

Like many immigrants, it was marriage that brought me to the US in the early 90s. My husband was an undergraduate engineering student at Northern Illinois University at the time. I wasn't scared or nervous about leaving India. It was expected that girls would move away from their parents' home to wherever their spouses lived. Many people I knew in India had relatives who lived in the US, UK, Australia or Canada. But I was diving into the deep end and didn't even know it.

We lived on campus at Northern Illinois University, an hour's drive from my in-laws' home. While my husband went to class, I sat in on film festivals and theatrical events, took a political science class, freelanced as a writer, worked as a telemarketer and haunted the college library. In a nutshell, I mostly spent my days on my own.

(Naazish YarKhan with her husband and children in the US. Photo Credit: Sarwath Khan)

While I could feel the gnawing emptiness, I couldn't pinpoint where my loneliness stemmed from. Each weekend, my husband and I attended at least two social gatherings with friends of the family. The Indian immigrant communities in the Chicago area are large and connected enough that people socialize with each other frequently. My in-laws had been here since the 60s. They had close ties with more people than I knew even back in India. Though I felt welcome and fit in seamlessly, the need to connect at a deeper emotional level, to be understood for who I was, was missing.

I didn't have the comfort of cultural shorthand. I didn't understand what made David Letterman amusing. I didn't get what made Friends such an awesome show. I had to learn that when someone said, "How interesting," they meant "how odd." "How are you?" isn't really an invitation to tell someone how you are doing and "We must do coffee sometime," isn't a literal invitation. I learned that the norm is to use words rather than emotions. I had to say, “I'm so upset” rather than allow myself the luxury of tears. And if I was excited, it served me better to say, “I'm so excited” than to lose volume control and interrupt a conversation. In India, emotionally rich relationships seemed to have formed on auto-pilot. Here, it was all about scaling walls of others' "alone time" and "my own space" to make friends.

It often fell to my husband to play the roles formerly held by my aunts and grandparents, siblings and parents. My cheerleader, my rock of Gibraltar — he had to be all those things and no one had prepared him to do any of it. How could one man do the work of an entire extended family?

I became committed to creating for myself the support I craved, the security I felt back home, the confidants and cheerleaders I could always depend on. It meant pushing myself to be vulnerable and wholly present in every relationship, just as I had been when I was growing up in India. It meant realizing that I didn't have to have the same interests, the same background or age as someone else to become close friends. It also meant having patience. A beautiful garden grows slowly. In my case, what started out as seeds, has flourished for 20 years.


Global Nation is partnering with the South Asian American Digital Archive's First Days Project to tell the stories of your first days in the United States — or those of your parents or grandparents.


Telling Tales at Work - The Case for Getting Personal

What is it about Facebook that's made it so addictive. Once upon a time, having to look at other people's travel pictures or children's photos was considered an experience to avoid. How things have changed with Facebook! What makes it addictive is the unfolding of stories - they give us the means to get to know each other personally. According to the HBR article, Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams, getting to know your co-workers stories too can result in improved productivity.

What is America built on if not the Abe Lincoln “Log Cabin to White House” story about this country being the land of opportunity? The Rosa Parks story and the Emmett Till story have served as reminders of the injustices of segregation, better than statistics about hate crimes or discrimination, could ever. It was the story of the tenacity and courage of the 33 trapped Chilean miners that held the world's attention and its heart strings.

Similarly, it was insufficient stories from flood hit Pakistan in June 2011, that resulted in the tragedy falling under the radar. 1/3rd of that nation was under water and more people died in those floods than the combined lives lost during the Tsunami, the Pakistan Earthquake in 2005 and the Haiti Earthquake. How many of us know that? These facts go to prove that story has the power to influence and the strength to mobilize or water down both relationships and movements. As Cohen and Prusak assert, this is true irrespective of whether a story is rooted in fact or fiction, or presented as a fable or as a comic book. When there are working groups with members who do not know each other well, divergent opinions could end up creating walls, bad feelings or hostility even. As we get to know each other’s stories, even seemingly inconsequential ones, we discover commonalities. Bonds form. Lunch room conversations slowly become the “connective tissue”.

Over time, exchanging stories has the power to create a work environment where members feel safe enough to express divergent opinions, and take risks, without fear of being misunderstood or devalued. We have the potential to graduate from being working groups to Senge's synergized 'teams'. The trust underlying the exchange of stories, gifts individuals with the latitude to see fellow team members idiosyncrasies as just that, rather than as reasons to take umbrage. 

When interactions are only task oriented, the feeling of being connected that gives team members mutual leverage for use during negotiations or persuasion, is rarely forged. This is exacerbated when working virtually. Instead if we take a few lines in a few emails each week, to also discuss a book we’ve been reading or ask for advice on a non-work matter, we evolve from just being words on a screen. Instead we become someone the other can identify with at some level. We now become more willing to give each others perspective a platform, even if we may disagree with it. The act of simply being willing to hear the other out, conveys respect and oils the wheels of team work.

Are Family Dinners Over-Rated?

Are family dinners over-rated? The question is kind of like asking whether taking the time to add a link in a chain of memories is over-rated. The exchange of stories, the unexpected laughter, the griping about some teacher or fellow student - all footprints etched on the sands of my heart. (Sand that's slipping through my fingers because I know there are only so many dinners left before college comes calling and my baby girl succumbs. She is my baby girl - all of 18 years of being my sweetheart. How did she come to be all mine?)

Today,  unbidden, my Taskeen set the table for dinner. Forks, knives, glassware included. It made me want to buy new table mats -  beautiful, expensive, gorgeous table mats edging our family to gather together for dinner, making it the norm. Rushed meals, standing in the kitchen and eating. This is our norm. Staggered meal times - each when they are hungry, this is our norm. Dinners in front of a TV set that quells any discussion, night after night. This is our norm. These habits, as regular as the beating of our hearts, are our little clicks on "unlink". In their wake, I can hear the unhinging of chains, fledgling memories carelessly aborted. I am supposed to write an article on the value of one-on-one face time on mental health. When even close-knit families like ours consistently leave moments for face-time with each other untouched, is writing any article on its value, worth the words of advice that will flow across my page?

And yet, just as clear as the air that sustains my days, I know it is the sharing of memories and the making of new ones that is the glue that joins hearts. It is the impetus behind what I would like to call a "cheesy-jokes only" WhatApp group that my friends from 9th grade and I are part of. There really is no reason for that group other than those memories created more than 20 years ago. Memories, and emotions, still powerful enough to oil the wheels our hearts today.

If we aren't connecting, if our fingers aren't holding onto each other's joys, tears and fears, if my dreams aren't inter-laced with yours, are we really living at all?

Are family dinners over-rated? I guess yes if the experience of being immersed in love, as a mother, daughter, friend, neighbor, lover too is over-rated.

Being an Immigrant - A Steep Learning Curve

Naazish and Sonia first became friends in sixth grade (left), while living in Dubai. They continue to be close friends. (This essay is the original version submitted to PRI. The final version appears elsewhere on this blog)

"Where is the hot water tap?" I called the transit hotel front desk, feeling a bit idiotic. Perhaps that was one of my first questions fresh out of JFK airport, or was it LaGuardia? Here I was, a big city girl from Bombay, India, not quite sure how to work the faucets at the sink or in the shower. Yes, they were a puzzle - just one faucet, rather than two taps, one for hot water and one for cold.

Like many immigrants, it was marriage that brought me to the US. When I immigrated, it was time to find work, pay rent, adjust to a husband (who had only known the US as home), and find my place in my in-laws' family. It meant discovering that big meals, three times a day, were non-existent; I learned that I spoke too loudly, and when I said I'd do something, or be someplace, by a certain time, I found out my husband expected just that. In India, 'tomorrow' had meant any day but today; 'soon' had meant eventually and 'now' had meant some time today. Yes, as you can guess, drama and miscommunication haunted the early days of my new marriage!

That said, even as a new immigrant, I don't recall feeling like I was lost, or like didn't know what I had to do professionally. In India, given the competitive spirit, and the challenges to getting even the simplest things done, we learn tenacity, by default. Given the relatively limited opportunities at the time, our environment instilled us with a sense of persistence and a willingness to hustle. So, I did just that. I was writing as a freelancer within a couple of weeks.

I worked evenings as a telemarketer, and was the third highest producer. The accent intrigued people. "Where are you from?" "Oh India?" "That must be so interesting." At the end of those conversations, I guess they felt obligated to make a purchase. While the accent may have been interesting, imagine my exchanges at the local Jewel-Osco grocery, asking if they carried lady fingers! Here it was okra not ladyfingers, eggplant not brinjal, and sidewalk versus pavement, sorry versus pardon, pajamas versus nightsuit, vacations versus holidays ...

My husband and I lived on campus, where he was an undergraduate. I took a class, too. One of my clearest memories, was when I was spelling my name, Naazish, at the registration desk. I pronounced the letter Z as 'Zed' and couldn't get why the lady didn't understand me. I repeated it a few times before deciding to write it out. "Ah, Zee," the woman said. "Yes, Zee," I sighed.

In class, I was surprised to see students eating. When the bell rang, they'd leave even if the teacher was talking. Where was the respect? Speaking of surprises, winter was a shock. I hadn't experienced such freezing temperatures before and it took forever to dress, or undress for that matter. I had never had to wear so many layers in my entire life. My gloves didn't do justice at all. I still remember how much my fingers stung as I waited for the bus in the biting cold. Most importantly, I found out it was a bad idea to take short cuts across a field - the wind will freeze the marrow in your bones and, no, you will not get to a washroom in time.

Over the weeks, I didn't know what was supposedly 'out of my league' so there were no doubts and fears to overcome. I pitched to write for the Chicago Tribune, Chicago's largest newspaper, and the dots connected! Within the year, that same naivete worked in my favor as I applied for an internship at Chicago Public Radio, and pitched commentaries for NPR successfully.

What was hardest, however, was the emotional adjustment. Strange considering that my husband and I attended at least two dinner gatherings, each weekend. You see, the Indian immigrant community is large and yet small enough that everyone maintains their connections. I knew more people in my first month here than I ever did back in India.

But though I felt welcome, and fit in seamlessly, there was that gnawing, emotional void. The need to connect at a deeper level, to be understood for who I was on the inside, a short-hand to one's heart and mind, was missing. New husband, new family, new social circle, not withstanding, the void came from not having connections at a deeper level, either intellectually or emotionally. There is something to be said about the comfort of cultural short-hand and common histories, growing up watching the same TV shows, sharing a similar sense of humor. In the early years here, I didn't have much of that.

I became committed to creating the sense of security I had felt back home, nurturing confidants and cheerleaders I could always depend on. It meant pushing myself to be vulnerable and wholly present in every relationship…just as I was naturally, in India. It meant realizing that I didn’t have to have the same interests, or even the same background, as some else to become close buddies. It meant realizing that age was no consideration when picking a friend. It meant being committed to friendship and being an accessible, good friend. And as I now see, it meant having patience. A garden grows slowly. The friends I made 20 years ago, are my inner circle, my emotional and intellectual sounding board, today. Given my loneliness from the early days, I have learned that spending time with close friends is important to my sense of well-being and vital to my existence.