The most life-changing moment of Abdul’s life was the day he got accepted for the Pakistan Presidential Scholarship to study in the United States. Abdul had grown up in a remote village in the mountains of Northern Pakistan where “there were no roads, electricity, or any other facilities except the natural.” Every morning he would wake up before sunrise and walk over an hour through the mountains just to go to school. He didn’t have much time to study as the rest of his day was filled with milking buffalo and gathering plants. Coming from a poor family, he knew that the scholarship would be his only chance to get a higher education.
Despite getting the highest score in all of Pakistan, immigrating to the United States was not an easy process. It took a long time before Abdul was actually allowed to come to the United States. He says that “getting the visa was very difficult because [he] had to go through rigorous testing and interviews to satisfy the US embassy to get a visa.” He remembers borrowing a suit two sizes too large for him just so that he could have something adequate to wear for his interviews. As the process continued, Abdul felt feelings of both excitement and fear about going to a new country at the age of 18.
When Abdul landed at JFK, a family friend picked him up and drove him through New York City. One of the first things his friend told him was to keep his windows up. Driving past the streets of Harlem, Abdul could see why. In the 1970s and 1980s, Harlem was one of the most dangerous places in NYC. Up until Giuliani brought forth the “broken windows” theory, crime was rampant in NYC. In his first few weeks in the city, Abdul learned to never carry more than $10 on him in case he got mugged. He also learned from the constantly fearful-looking people in the filthy, graffiti covered subway, that the trains were where he had to stay the most alert. Abdul says “this really surprised [him] because [he] thought [he] came to a rich country where everything should be peaceful and safe but it was contrary to [his] belief.”
For the first month, Abdul was able to live with a group of men from Pakistan who had already settled in the city. On his first night he remembers one of the guys telling him that “If you stay on the path that you’re going and work hard you will be successful and achieve what you came here for.” After 38 years in the city, that man is still his best friend to this day. But quickly, this rent-free month came to an end and Abdul had to learn to make his way in the city himself.
Although his scholarship paid for his tuition, he had to earn his own money for food and shelter. Since the economy in NYC wasn’t so great in the 1980s, there weren’t many jobs available in NYC. One day Abdul and his friend decided to go from one end of the street to the other, going into every store asking for a job. He ended up getting a job bringing frozen food from the freezer to the cooks in a fast food restaurant. Things were going okay until one day his manager told him that starting tomorrow he would have to start mopping the floors. This was a huge culture shock to Abdul. Back in Pakistan, “as a boy [his] family would never let [him] do any kind of cleaning or cooking in the house.” That day all Abdul could think about was how “[he] came here to study to get a high level job, not to mop the floor and clean the dishes,” so he made an excuse that he was sick to leave early that day and never came back. Still determined to make it in the city, Abdul found a job in a corner store a few days later where he felt much more comfortable.
As he started to earn some money, Abdul was finally able to get a cheap two-room apartment in Elmhurst, Queens. This would’ve been a very comfortable living situation if it wasn’t for the fact that he shared the place with six other Pakistani men in the same situation as him. Abdul doesn’t remember too much about Elmhurst since most of his day was spent in Manhattan. What he does remember is that everyone seemed to be busy with their own jobs and cultures. This was especially strange to him because in Pakistan he lived in a small village where everyone knew each other and would meet each other all the time. Nonetheless, he was appreciative of the diversity in New York City; “You get to meet people of all races from all over the world with different cultures and languages and living in NYC feels like you are living in the whole world. There is not place on earth where you can get this kind of exposure to people all over the world. Before coming to America I had seen very little diversity. Now I know how people from other countries are and how they feel and how they behave. I learned that everyone in this world has basically the same inside” he says.
As he got more comfortable with his living situation, Abdul was able to focus on his studies. Coming from a school in a third-world country like Pakistan, Abdul found the American school system difficult to adjust to, but he knew that if he kept trying and stayed responsible he would be able to succeed. Initially, Abdul was studying business administration until his friend pointed out that he was very good in mathematics and told him to try actuarial science. The problem was that in order to graduate with that major on time, he would have to take Calculus 2, Calculus 3, and Statistics all in the same semester. Abdul has a clear memory of going to the mathematics department to get permission to take these multiple prerequisites at the same time. After explaining his situation, the department chair hesitantly agreed under one condition. He told Abdul that if he did not get an A in all of the courses that he would be dropped out of the actuarial science program. Abdul eventually did end up getting all A’s and the department head never questioned him about any of his courses again. This was a very important moment in Abdul’s life because it gave him confidence and the reassurance that he was going to succeed in New York City.
Eventually, Abdul got into a routine. Every morning he would wake up early and go to work until 4pm. He also worked an additional twenty hours a week advertising his school to various big companies around the city. Then he would take the train for an hour and fifteen minutes to downtown Manhattan to take classes. After class he would buy some groceries so that he could cook an authentic Pakistani dinner at home. Then, after eating, he would study until very late at night and finally go to sleep. On weekends he worked a different job from 9am-9pm. This lasted for three years without a single day off. In his little free time, Abdul would take the train to Central Park and go boating in the lake. Central Park helped with his homesickness because it reminded him of the beautiful nature that he had left in Pakistan.
Upon passing his seventh and final actuarial exam, Abdul was able to finally see his hard work pay off. The high-level companies that he used to advertise to for his school job were now the ones sending him extravagant job offers. He fondly remembers getting invited to visit high-level insurance companies by CEOs everyday. He could now finally say that he made it.
As for his immigrant experience as a whole; “I remember this period as a challenge. I came here to accept a challenge so I don’t feel bad about it. It was a rough time and hard time but it gave me a great sense of achievement that I could do something on my own without anyone’s help. It was a great experience dealing with people, learning language, living on your own, and achieving your goals. New York City is truly the land of opportunity” he says.
“Boating.” Central Park History, 11 Jan. 2018, www.centralpark.com/things-to-do/sports/boating/.
Leonhardt, David. “The Economy Is Bad, but 1982 Was Worse.” The New York Times, 20 Jan. 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/01/21/business/economy/21leonhardt.html.
Sterbenz, Christina. “New York City Used To Be A Terrifying Place .” Business Insider, 12 July 2013, www.businessinsider.com/new-york-city-used-to-be-a-terrifying-place-photos-2013-7.
“Pakistan vs United States Education Stats Compared.” NationMaster.com, www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Pakistan/United-States/Education.