Parents Talk Back

The day the president signed an executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. was eventful for my Muslim family.

For starters, it was the day my 3-year-old nephew got his “meeting.”

My sister and her husband, both attorneys, frequently mention meetings to their two preschoolers, and the word took on a certain mystique. The 3-year-old began begging for a “meeting” like it was a rare Hatchimal on sale at Target. They agreed to set up a meeting for him -- a brief conversation with a local judge -- and it was scheduled for that fateful Friday in January. Both the 2-year-old and 3-year-old got dressed in suits early that morning, the older one excitedly dancing a jig.

At the courthouse, the judge asked my nephew what he wanted for his birthday, and he said a lawn edger. (The child is obsessed with lawn care.) The courtroom laughed. Post-meeting, the boys headed to their Montessori school with an exciting tale for Show and Tell.

Meanwhile, my father was substitute teaching in an urban school district with a fair number of struggling students, as he has nearly every day since his retirement. He’s in his early 70s, and drives nearly an hour each day to sub wherever he’s needed. He came to America from Pakistan in the late ‘60s on a stroke of luck -- the winner of a visa lottery. He had aspirations to become a teacher here, but spent more than 20 years as a car salesman before buying a convenience store.

My mother helped him run that store for nearly a decade. They woke up before dawn, drove 60 miles to the store and returned home late, sometimes near midnight. She worked as a sales clerk at Macy’s after that business folded, and retired less than a year ago. Not one to sit still, she became a full-time volunteer for refugees resettling in the Houston area.

That Friday, she had already made some calls and raised grocery money for a Syrian family. She was planning her shopping for the next day, hunting for the best sales at different stores to stretch the dollars, when she got another call: A Somali family needed some help with rent this month. She’s gotten to know several refugee families -- offering to take in children when their mom was hospitalized, driving a pregnant woman to her checkups, earning the nickname “Grandma” from young kids.

They know her, and they trust her.

But her thoughts on that Friday were occupied with my youngest brother. She was waiting to hear the results of his board exams, the last hurdle before finishing medical school. She had been praying for him relentlessly, this youngest child of six, all born and raised in America. All of us are college-educated and most beyond, but none had fulfilled her dream of having a doctor in the family.

In the sixth-grade English class where my father was subbing, the students were being unruly. He talked to them the way he would lecture his own children.

“Listen, the people who really love you in this world are your parents,” he said. “They want you to learn; they think you are here in school learning, but that’s not what you’re doing right now. If you don’t keep your eyes focused on what you are supposed to be doing, you’re not going to be successful.”

They immediately changed their attitudes, settled down and got to work. It’s speeches like this that earned him the nickname “abuelo” from children he sees regularly.

He and my mom have mastered parental guilt. Children of immigrants internalize the sacrifices their parents made to give them better opportunities. It’s partly why second-generation immigrants tend to outperform their peers academically. The unspoken standard is one of trying to pay back the debt you owe to parents who left their families, their culture, their lives because they believed in something better.

Back at home, my mother offered her Friday prayers and stayed longer on the prayer mat, wondering why she hadn’t heard from my brother yet. She knew the board results were coming.

Less than an hour later, my siblings and I received a WhatsApp message from my brother, who was working at the hospital: “I passed both boards. Can someone tell mom and dad? I am in surgery.”

When I called my mom to say, “Congratulations, your son is a doctor now,” she cried.

After our call, she went back to figuring out how to divvy up the donations she had gathered among the refugee families.

The day Muslims were blocked from entering America, my family remained busy -- giving back to the country that is our home and to the people who are its greatest strength.

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