In the days and weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. authorities reported a sharp rise in hate crimes directed at immigrants and people of Middle Eastern descent. In one tragic incident, a 46-year-old man from Pakistan was shot and killed as he worked at a Texas convenience store. Now his wife and four daughters face an uncertain future because U.S. Immigration authorities say they have no right to be in the United States.
On the day of his death, Waqar Hasan spoke with his family in New Jersey and expressed concern for their safety because they were living so close to New York City. His 19-year-old daughter, Nida, says he was less worried about himself living in Texas, where he had gone months earlier to work. "He just told me to be careful and to be safe when you go outside. Don't go outside when you don't have to," she says. "I think that's pretty much what he wanted to say to everybody. He didn't mention anything about himself."
Mr. Hasan was in the country on an immigrant visa and had taken steps to become an American citizen. He was expecting his family to join him at the end of the year. That never happened. Now, according to U.S. law, the Hasan family may have to leave their home in New Jersey.
Mrs. Hasan says she cannot understand how something like this could happen in America, referring to the heinous murder of her husband but also to the bureaucratic complications that have arisen since his death. What she and her daughters are understanding a little better, however, are U.S. immigration laws. "My husband filed for us as a family for a green card in '97 and the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] office said that when a petitioner dies, their file is automatically closed and you have to do it all over again within 60 days, and after 60 days you are illegal," she says.
New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt is working to keep the Hasans in the country. He has helped them obtain temporary work permits, valid until April, and has introduced legislation in Congress to grant green card status to the family. Only four such bills passed in the last congressional session.
In the meantime, Nida, a biology student at Rutgers University, says she and her sisters get on with their lives. "I think the attitude about that is pretty much all the same in this house. We are not sitting at home biting our nails. We are living our lives, but there is still a possibility that we go back [to Pakistan]," she says. "We might be forced to go back but we're just hoping it doesn't come to that. We all want to stay here. We like it here."
All but the youngest sister work part-time jobs and all four girls have aspirations to be independent, career-oriented American citizens. Nida has a part-time job at a local college and 17 year old Asna works at a day-care in the afternoons. She wants to be a teacher. Fifteen year old Anum holds a job at the local supermarket and loves math. She hopes to be an accountant one day. Twelve year old Iqra doesn't work but she says she would if she had to.
Durreshahwar Hasan bares the burden of her family's financial situation. She works overnight shifts at a factory. She says she was looking forward to quitting that job and joining her husband in Dallas. Now she wants to keep her family where they are, and if and when they get green cards, she will find better work. "I want to stay here in New Jersey. Here in Milltown everyone knows me and my kids, especially now, and they are very kind, very helpful and I don't want to change that for my kids and my family. If they go back, I think it will disrupt their lives. For their education, it is better if we stay here," she says.
In the Hasan family, education comes first. The girls know they will have to work hard and study for years if they are to realize the American dream. They know the decision about their fate is not up to them, but they are hoping U.S. officials will somehow find a way for them to stay.
Iqra says she has a message for the U.S. Congress. "We've tried hard to stay here and going back would be like having to relive our lives all over again," she says.
Iqra was four when she came to the United States in 1994 with her mother and sisters; she says she doesn't even remember Pakistan. Her father came ahead of them in 1990 after he was robbed at gunpoint on a Karachi street.
The man who shot and killed Waqar Hasan also murdered an Indian man and shot another Pakistani man in a spree of shootings after 9-11. Mark Stroman later told the police he did it to "retaliate on local Arab Americans or whatever you want to call them" and was only doing "what every American wanted to do but didn't."
Fifteen-year-old Anum says she and her family understand that the vicious acts of one man do not reflect the attitude of Americans. "That's what he did. He judged one person for another person's actions and we're disagreeing with him. So if we were to do the same thing, then we wouldn't be any different than he is," she says.
And very different they are. Even among themselves, the girls differ. Nida, who wears a headscarf in public, likes punk rock, Hollywood movies and drives a convertible. Anum, the more western dresser, prefers eastern music and Hindi films.
But on one thing they all agree, their home is here in the United States. And while they express a desire to visit their birth country and keep connected to their heritage, they are hoping the U.S. Congress will agree too.