Afra Ahmed shares how growing up around the world helped shaped his identity, as well as his perception of others. Afra is of Pakistani descent, born in Iran. At a young age, his family moved from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, a country where he felt accepted due to its diversity. He describes his boarding school years in England, and his journey moving to the US to pursue higher education. He looks past race and religion as divisive labels, and shares his journey in achieving the American Dream. This story was recorded in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps. Production credits: Hannah Barg from StoryCorps Chicago.
“So both my parents are Pakistani. My father had studied here in America in Hawaii. Actually did his doctorate and his post-doctorate in Iowa. He went back east to Pakistan where he is from. He got married and left together and then I was born in Iran after that. After Saudi, we moved to Bahrain. So Bahrain it’s a special place. My school was full with everyone. People from all over the Middle East, south Asia, from Far East Asia, from Europe, from America. It was a big melting pot.
Both my parents, just as they learned Farsi in Iran, they learned Arabic during their course of stay in Bahrain, and they assimilated with the people very well and both my parents have a great love of language which is where I get it from them. I then went at the age of sixteen to boarding school in England. It came with its own struggles. What’s interesting about growing up in Bahrain is that generally one did not feel especially as a child racism. When I went to England, racism was very direct. It was very in my face. The people in my boarding school that would, you know, shout abusive attacks, such as ‘Paki’, this and this. So this was a very different world to me.
I was very homesick for the first six to seven months. Having said that, I still know many good friends in England and I visit them regularly. People are people in the end of the day. Having grown up in Bahrain, I’ve really grown to look past race or religion or anything like this and just know the person for who they are. This is one of the best things and most ironic things. Since the media does not paint that kind of picture of that area of the world. After two years of boarding school in England and I came to New York State for university to complete degrees in philosophy and computer science. I had the great image of America, you know, I remember my father telling me, England and Europe is very nice. Americans are much nicer. They are more accepting and less nationalistic and more into acceptance and immigration, everyone is like an immigrant there.
After university, I moved to Chicago. I had met a businessman in New York. Who was interested in starting up a business with education. Honestly, it felt like living the American dream. Here I was in this man’s apartment and we were just plugging away. Eventually, the company over a period a right years grew to about 10 employees. Just before I left, I decided I needed to do something outside of the tech space. And I wanted to learn a spoken language like those learning computer language. So at the University of Chicago, I enrolled in standard Arabic classes for about two years. I did not go to a religious school to learn Arabic purposely. Because I knew there, they would make me recite things I would never understand anything. And I think, this is one of the big problems of Islam that, we face today is people do not understand what they are reading. They learn purely from what someone has told them.
And after 9/11, I feel like the Eastern world took a shift to the right, it was us divide them attitude. But this I also blame on the administration of that time too. They had these axis of evil, they had this dividing language. But overall, I do like America is very accepting. I’ve never felt like a direct threat. In fact, I feel more welcomed in this country than in many parts of the east. Definitely don’t try and generalize Americans as one. For every person whose spray paints a mask, there are two hundred that show up the next day to clean it off. That is what America is to me. It’s not the lone racist, it is the collective amount of people in this country who come from a wide variety of religions, faiths, and races. So I always feel, accept and approach the diversity in openness and America has.”