Elsa Khwaja: The Quest to Find “Home”

This story was produced in partnership with American Pakistan Foundation .  


What brought me here was the American Pakistan Foundation retreat. I recently joined, Shamila recruited me. I wanted to be a part of this organization that I felt very connected to. The idea of bridging an understanding between the US and Pakistan and collaborating among people who care about that narrative. 


My dad was actually born in India, one year before the partition, in 1946. They were a part of the population that migrated from India to Pakistan, at that Partition time, and they settled in Karachi. My mom is from Karachi, she was born in Karachi. So, largely my entire extended family is in Karachi. So they came to the US, in the eighties. I was one of the privileged people, where my parents did everything possible to keep me intact with my culture. So we would always go back ever since we were young. So, I would say, when I was very young, probably when I was three or four, they would go back every two or three years. So, I’ve been traveling there ever since I was young, every two or three years, for about two or three months, staying connected with my relatives there. 


I grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which is like the heart of White America. I guess there was confusion, since growing up, having my childhood in small-town Wisconsin, where you don’t see many brown people, and then having to travel to Pakistan, I would have culture shock both ways. Eventually, I would assimilate in Pakistan, but I would never feel like I belong in either country, I think that’s the case with a lot of children of immigrants, to not have that sense of belonging. I always put quotes when I refer to the home. I don’t feel like there is a sense of home, at the moment, for me. I always consider DC my second home, and I do consider Oshkosh my home, even though I only live there the first half of my life. But, it’s where I grew up, it’s where I was raised. I always considered Karachi my second home, because I would always travel to Karachi, I’ve had that opportunity to do that with my parents, one of the lucky ones to do that. But, it’s always been in quotes, for me. So, I don’t think there’s a sense of home for me. There is a saying that, “Home is where your heart is”. I think it’s always going to be a quest to figure out what that is. 


I think the number one misconception, that I’ve wanted to challenge before I got into the AID story, was actually about the perception of women in Pakistan. The level of education empowerment and Pakistan has some of the highest violence against women rates in the world. I think there is a misunderstanding about the culture and society, that’s one thing that I wanted to clarify. Especially from my recent fieldwork, I think I’d like to clarify the idea that Pakistan is not the most dangerous country. There’s more to it then just danger or fear. I could, as a woman, travel around the country, independently, and I did that in certain areas where a lot of my family have not visited, in Pakistan. So, I’d like to be able to clarify on the ground realities, about the country, how warm and loving people are, in the most remote and vulnerable areas in Pakistan.


I like people to remember me as a compassionate person, someone who is ambitious, and a fighter. I think compassion and resilience are the two words that I would love people to remember me as. What I would want people to know is that they are unique and that they matter in their own unique way. Because I think when you lump people together in that category of, “you are not alone, everybody goes through this, everybody does this”. You minimize their unique challenges, and I think that for me, it would be the most important thing to tell me because I always felt different. I’ve always felt that there is something wrong or different about me, from whatever group I interact with. 


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