Coming to America: The Muslim American Experience
Editor’s note: Sabir Rahman will participate in a discussion about challenges of immigration in the On the Move tent on July 9. He sent us this story of his own journey to the United States.
I came to the United States from Pakistan in 1964 for graduate studies at University of Maryland, College Park. I had applied to Maryland, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Stanford. All accepted me. I knew nothing about America, but the name “College Park” intrigued me.
I came here on a Fulbright grant after graduating in 1962 with an M.S. in mathematics and having taught in college for two years. After attending a two-week orientation in Bloomington, Indiana, I took a Greyhound bus to College Park. Unsure of what to do with my bag, I asked the driver. He looked at me strangely and said, “I am sorry, sir, but I only speak English.” The lady standing behind me told the driver, “He is speaking English,” and helped me out. I wondered about that driver’s comment a week later when the barber, talking to me while cutting my hair, said, “You speak English like a native.” I guess some people must be unable to listen to a person who does not look right to them.
My early American experience caused a great cultural shock. With a severe pain in stomach, I ended up in the infirmary. The doctor must have concluded I was homesick. He called the foreign student advisor, who helped by placing me in group therapy. Over time, I was able to adjust.
Muslims and Pakistanis were generally regarded well in America. Except for a couple of unpleasant encounters, I never faced any negative experience. We started a Muslim Student Association at the university and a region-wide Association of Pakistani Students. I witnessed a rapidly changing American society. I witnessed the civil rights movement. I also witnessed the anti-war movement that began in College Park. I was there and still remember the tear gas.
As the Muslim community began to grow in the 1970s, it felt the need to create Muslim institutions. The Muslim Community Center (MCC) was the first such center, established in 1976. I have participated in this project since the construction of the second building in 1984. I have also been active in the interfaith area ever since, participating in a number of organizations.
My wife, Saeeda, and I became naturalized citizens of the United States in 1979. Our son and daughter were both born here after we became Americans. They went to University of Maryland, College Park, following the tradition of their father. My son operates my construction business and my daughter works for the state of Maryland.
We lived a life of respect and dignity in America, as did all American Muslims, until 2001. Then 9/11 changed everything. Other immigrants had to suffer but survived. We will also survive.
Sabir A. Rahman is the Chair of the Bylaws, Policy & Procedures committee at the Muslim Community Center (MCC) of Silver Spring. MCC will be in the On the Move tent on July 9 to discuss the challenges that new immigrants and minority communities face in the United States.