How I helped a Pakistani woman obtain her citizenship (and an arranged marriage)

A few years ago I helped a Muslim woman from Pakistan become an American citizen. It was 2008, and my church needed volunteer tutors for people in our city who wanted to learn English for life skills. I remember an older woman standing up during the announcement portion of our church service to share why such a ministry existed. “There are women who can’t help their children with homework or even go grocery shopping,” she said. “Imagine how their life might change if they knew English.”

I’d spent a few summers tutoring kids and figured the volunteer commitment wouldn’t be difficult. A few weeks after my Saturday training they matched me with two Pakistani women—sisters-in-law. They lived together in a lower income neighborhood less than two miles from my own. What I didn’t realize is that several streets within the neighborhood consisted of mostly Muslim families.

On the first day, several little boys in traditional white shalwar kameez clothing greeted my car and led me to the house where I’d tutor. The man of the house spoke English and worked a full time city government job. He’d been the one to call for a tutor, and I found him formal but friendly. If anything, he didn’t fit my stereotypes. He wanted his wife and sister to receive an education, and this seemed counter to what I thought I knew about devout Muslims from Pakistan.  

Over the course of a year, I spent several hours each week with Sajida and Khalida. We’d sit in a small, sparse room seated on each side of a card table, and I’d point at flash cards and workbooks. Children filtered in and out of the room, and the women took turns tending to them. They’d often sent me home with steaming plates of spicy foods.

Eventually, the man of the house asked me to stop tutoring his wife and focus all my time with his sister, Khalida. Her English was still very weak, but she was making faster progress than his wife, so he wanted her to receive more of my attention. He also asked me to spend less time on conversational English and focus on studying for the U.S. citizenship test instead. Khalida had taken it before and failed, but he believed with a little more studying she could pass.

To be honest, at the time, I didn’t give much thought to all of his requests. I didn’t know anything about the immigration process, and how long many people wait for an opportunity to become citizens. I didn’t wonder why this family, this woman, was being given a chance to receive her citizenship when other families with more education and US work experience had been waiting years. If anything, I jumped at the chance to be part of, what I believed, was giving someone a better life. A citizen?! I could help her become a citizen?! How cool is that?

And so we spent weeks and weeks memorizing and cramming for Khalida’s citizenship test. We could barely have any type of basic conversation beyond “Hello” and “How are you” and “My name is Khalida” but she could memorize and recite how many stripes are on the American flag and who signed the constitution, and everything about all the branches of the government. On an early spring day, Khalida’s brother picked me up from work in their run-down minivan and drove me to the citizenship office where she’d take the test, and pass.

When they dropped me back off at work, it would be the last time I saw her. She wasn’t sticking around for the big, official swearing-in ceremony. Instead, she’d be heading back to Pakistan, where her brother informed me that her citizenship would make her a very eligible bride. I thought he wanted her to receive an education, when really he wanted to marry her off. Eventually, she’d return to the United States with an arranged husband and a life spent at home. A citizen with freedoms, but not enough English to even grocery shop by herself. Needless to say, I felt defeated.

So when I read more about the San Bernardino husband-wife shooting, and marriage-for-visa rackets, my ears burned a little bit. When I read commentaries about the need to strengthen our borders and reconsider who can enter this country, I feel conflicted. I now have first-hand observations that our system is probably flawed, and while I won’t jump to conclusions that thousands of criminally minded men and women are entering our country through shoddy marriages, I can also understand the concern.

To be honest, I often don’t know what to believe or how our President should act when it comes to immigration laws.

But there are a few things I do know.

This is America—that a Muslim family had the ability to call a local church for tutoring services, and that church didn’t turn them away despite very different beliefs.

This is America—that the church did not ask me to do anything besides teach with love. No formal preaching. No formal discipleship, simply praying for opportunities to show them Jesus through my actions and consistency and love.

This is America—where I, an unaccompanied Christian woman not wearing a headscarf, could go into a Muslim home and use my education to teach other women, who in many Muslim countries are not allowed access to such privileges.  

This is America—where I am welcomed by a Muslim family with smiles and conversation, sent home with warm plates of spicy foods, and treated with respect despite our very different beliefs.

And this is America—that I was able to help a non-English speaking woman receive her citizenship so that she could return to Pakistan, a highly valued potential bride, who in theory was able to bring her new husband back to the land of the free and the brave.

Without a doubt, our current immigration system isn’t working correctly. But, despite a broken system, when I read about hateful, fear-based rhetoric about Muslims in our country, I can’t help but think I’m living in a different America than the one I believe in so strongly.

Border control, to me, starts by getting to know our neighbors. It begins by literally leaving our homes and going into theirs, eating their food, and offering our gifts to each other despite sometimes very different religious and political viewpoints. When I went into the home of two lovely and kind Muslim women, I saw our commonalities. They are no longer “those Muslims” but Khalida and Sajida. I picture their faces when people like Jerry Falwell Jr. stand up to give a public charge to arm ourselves, and I worry about them when I hear of people targeting Muslims with hate language or violence.

I wonder, all these years later, if Sajida and Khalida are safe and well. I wonder if they’ve learned English. I wonder about Khalida’s new husband and if he was allowed to cross our borders, and if so, should he have been allowed to do so? I hope he came here for opportunity and peace; not to cause destruction or harm.

I also wonder when we’ll stop throwing love out first? Could we make less sweeping generalizations? Could we commit to getting to know Muslims in our community before speculating what religious codes they do or don’t follow? Could we possibly start by pursuing friendships, while also civilly discussing reasonable laws and safeguards?

Yes, our system is broken, and I’d like to see it fixed. It will take more than dialogue and tutoring and warm plates of food. But what would our America look like if more people started by opening their doors and kitchens and hearts rather than closing them so tightly?