By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer
He had done only “what every American wanted to do,” Mark Anthony Stroman said.
Four days after the World Trade Center collapsed, he walked into a Dallas convenience store and fired a bullet into the face of its Pakistani owner, killing him.
More than a year later and a thousand miles away, on a tree-lined block in the middle of New Jersey, the only house with an American flag hanging outside belongs to the man shot in the face.
Waqar Hasan – the faithful son, the father of four, the one who paid all the bills – is gone. But the flag still stands, as if silently staking a claim to his adopted country for the family he left behind. His death uprooted that claim.
Hasan’s wife, Durreshahwar, and teenage daughters have lived in their white, one-story frame house in a New Jersey suburb for nearly a decade, their stay tied to his business visa.
Before he was shot, he applied for a green card, a gateway to U.S. citizenship. He had moved to Texas to start a business. The family was to follow.
Now, his wife and children are without him.
And, when their temporary work permits expire in three months, they could be deported.
Congress soon will have an opportunity to intercede. Rep. Rush Holt (D., N.J.) plans to introduce a special bill later this month to make the Hasans permanent residents of the United States.
Lawmakers have granted green cards to survivors of World Trade Center victims – the wife of a British stockbroker from Chatham, N.J., and the husband of a Russian computer specialist from New York.
But Holt’s effort is the first on behalf of the family of a post-Sept. 11 hate crime victim.
“In a very real sense, Mr. Hasan was a victim of the attack on America,” Holt said last week. “He didn’t die in the collapse of the Trade Center… but he was very much a casualty of that day.”
Bias against people who have or seemed to have origins in the Middle East claimed about a dozen lives, according to advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch. The Hasans are the only survivors who lost their right to stay here as well as a loved one.
“For this family to face deportation because of a hate crime… would be a real injustice,” Holt said. “They are just the kind of people we want in America. They’re hard-working, conscientious, proud to be in America, and grateful to be in America.”
The Immigration and Naturalization Service declined to comment. Kerry Gill, a spokesman for the agency in Newark, said he could not discuss specific cases.
The walled-in, gated house in Karachi, Pakistan, where Nida Hasan, 19, spent her childhood is rented out now. Strangers live there, amid all the furniture and clothes the family had to leave behind eight years ago. And Nida can’t help but feel that, if she had to return to Pakistan now, she would be a stranger, too.
“I don’t see myself living there,” the Rutgers freshman, a biology major, said. “I don’t see myself having a life there.”
With her sisters and mother, she came to America to join her father in 1994. He had already been here for four years. A robbery by gunpoint on the streets of Karachi had jolted him into emigration – and to a modest life running gas stations in this Middlesex County suburb.
Nida’s first memory here was a sensation – the taste of Ruffles potato chips at the airport.
Since then, she has collected a set of other sensations to associate with her adopted country: the seismic sounds of punk rock, the cold metal of the keys to her black Nissan convertible in her hands, the more intangible feeling of freedom “to be yourself.”
Cousins her age in Pakistan send her instant messages over the Internet about their lives – the schools segregated by gender, the need for a male chaperone every time they leave the house, their limited options for work.
“It’s pretty boring [for them],” Nida said. “Like, my cousin, she’s old enough to drive, but she doesn’t.”
It’s not that Nida and her sisters – Asna, 17; Anum, 15 and Iqra, 12 – reject the country of their birth. Their lives there as descendants of landowners, poultry farmers and gas station owners were relatively prosperous. And they were securely enfolded in the warm circle of friends and family praying and practicing their religion.
“It’s a part of you, yes,” said Nida. “But I’m used to living here now.”
She wears a black head scarf, as observant Muslim women do whenever they leave the house or are around men to whom they are not related. But she combines it with the uniform of American college students – one day last week, a gray Aeropostale sweatshirt and jeans.
Durreshahwar Hasan, 37, has lived without her husband before. He journeyed to America alone, after Karachi became too corrupt and too dangerous. And he went to Dallas by himself, to establish a convenience store and stake out a new life for the family.
But for Durreshahwar, this solitude – with only the memory of her husband as a place keeper – is different. Every time she sees a green van like the one he used to drive, she thinks it might be Waqar, the cousin who became her spouse when she was still only 16.
Now she has become something she had never imagined becoming.
“I’m a single parent, a woman,” she said. “I don’t know how to do that in Pakistan.”
She barely knows how to do it in America. She works 12-hour night shifts at a factory in nearby Metuchen, packaging plastic-foam cups for McDonald’s. Her three elder daughters also work: Nida at the dean’s office at Cook College, Asna at a day-care center, and Anum at a local supermarket.
However hard that routine, it nonetheless is a gift, the widow said.
“Here, they’re used to working. They can go to any office,” she said of her daughters. “It would be hard for them to do that in Pakistan.”
She does not want to take her four daughters – an aspiring accountant, scientist, teacher and artist – to lives as gated and walled-in as the house where they spent their first years.
“It’s not Islam,” she explains. “It’s the society and culture. It’s not fair for us to go back. We built everything in the U.S. We’d go back there empty-handed… .
“In America, they just take their car keys and go where they want to go.”
In America, an ex-con who belonged to a white supremacist prison gang killed their father while he stood behind a counter at his store, Mom’s Grocery in Dallas, cooking the hamburgers his killer had ordered.
Stroman, 33, is now on death row in Texas.
A jury convicted him last April for the killing of an Indian-born gas station owner near Dallas. During the penalty phase of the trial, prosecutors described a spree of shootings by him in the weeks after Sept. 11, including Hasan’s.
Stroman never expressed remorse.
He told a Dallas television station in a prison interview that he killed the two men and blinded a third – all three from South Asia – to “retaliate on local Arab Americans or whatever you want to call them.”
“I did what every American wanted to do but didn’t,” said Stroman, who would later wave a small U.S. flag at his sentencing. “They didn’t have the nerve.”
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