For over 20 years, Noorullah Khwajezada of Pakistan traveled to the United States to spend six months working from a food cart in New York City.
He rented an apartment in Queens and woke up each morning at 3 or 4 to take his cart into the heart of the city to sell coffee and hot dogs. His days lasted 12, 13, sometimes 14 hours. All the while he endured over 6,800 miles of separation from his wife and four daughters, who still lived in Pakistan.
He sent money home to keep his girls in school and protect them. He paid for a van to transport them to and from school, so they wouldn’t be molested by men on the streets.
Eventually, he sold the food cart and used the money to move his wife and daughters to America; the family landed in Schenectady in 2011, where prices were cheaper and things less hectic than the city.
Six years later, his eldest daughter, Aqila, is prepared to don cap and gown, walk across the stage at Proctors and become the first person in the family to earn a high school diploma.
“That is why he wanted to move here, because we are girls,” Aqila said, referring to the limited education options girls and women have in Pakistan. “He wanted a good education for us.”
Sitting in the living room of their Schenectady home, Aqila translated for her parents, who primarily speak Pashto. But her dad speaks enough English to express his long-held goal of getting his daughters – now five of them – to America, where they could receive an education unlike what was available in Pakistan.
“Of course it was,” he said of working to get his daughters and wife to America. “That was my plan for them: education. I believed it, I just had to believe in it.”
Before she moved here, Aqila long envisioned what life in America would be like. It turned out differently, she said – the schools are less “fancy” than she expected – but she jokes with her dad that if she were still in Pakistan she would probably be married by now.
“America for him was like a freedom,” she said. “That’s what I thought too. There’s not freedom for girls [in Pakistan]; if I had been there, I wouldn’t be in school now.”
While 18-year-old Aqila embraces her role as the oldest of her sisters – ages 4, 11, 15, 17 – she is also eternally grateful to the sacrifices her father and mother made for them.
“They say school is not for women, women cannot achieve anything,” she said. “He did not believe that. That’s why he wanted us to come here.”
Aqila plans to take general education classes in community college next year before transitioning to a university to finish her college degree. She wants to go to medical school and become a gynecologist.
She said it saddened her that more students in Schenectady don’t value the educational opportunities they have. From her experience, she said, it’s a valuable thing not to be taken for granted.
“It’s a free education. Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of that?” she said. “I guess they haven’t seen what I have seen in my childhood.”
Aqila applied for citizenship in January but hasn’t heard anything yet. Her father has applied for citizenship multiple times but struggled to pass the tests that stand between immigrants and citizenship. The family’s youngest child, who was born in the States, is the only American citizen.
“I hope I become a citizen this summer, it will be the biggest day in my life,” Aqila said. “I will be the happiest girl in the world.”
For now, Aqila and her family will have to settle for a high school graduate – with more to come.
Speaking for her parents, Aqila attempted to translate their joy, which with beaming smiles was evident in any language.
“He said: ‘I’m feeling really happy that I have the chance to see her graduate in America,’” Aqila said, voicing her father’s sentiment and then her mother’s. “She said we are dreaming really big.”