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‘Becoming American’ Story # 7

DR. AZIZA SHAD

Dr. Aziza Shad MD serves as the Ellen W.P. Wasserman Chair in Pediatrics and Chief, Division of Pediatrics Hematology/Oncology at The Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. However, her medical journey started many moons ago during a turbulent year in South Asia. In 1971, then seventeen-year-old Aziza was the only woman selected in her native country, Pakistan to attend medical school through an exchange program in the Eastern wing of the country, called East Pakistan. It was the same year that the ongoing ethnic conflict in the region turned into a war and led to the separation of East Pakistan, which is today, Bangladesh. Aziza had to flee Bangladesh, fearing for her life. But there were people and friends who helped her along the way to arrive safely in Pakistan. The generosity of friends, at a time of vulnerability for her, taught her lifelong lesson in empathy.   

Aziza attended Dow University of Health Sciences in Pakistan. After completing two years at the college, she started wondering; “why are so many kids dying? They would all come with diarrhea and dehydration. In the midst of all that, we also had kids with cancer.” The plight of children led her to consider a career in Pediatrics. 

Once Aziza started practicing medicine in Pakistan, she had the opportunity to study cancer patients and research in greater detail. She realized that there was a 50-60 % survival rate of children with curable leukemias. “In Pakistan it was 0% at that time,” said Aziza. 

Inspired to change the lives of children with leukemia in Pakistan, Aziza went to England to further her training in pediatrics and cancer related ailments. Little did she know that a chance encounter in England would lead her to “Becoming American.” It was during her time in England when Aziza met her husband Tahir Shad who was a Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States. 

In 1985, Aziza moved to America with her husband. After a brief stay in Washington, the Shads made home in Pittsburgh, Pa. “The neighborhood we lived in was an old Italian neighborhood. We were the youngest people on the block. They were very suspicious of foreigners,” said Aziza while talking about her residence in Highland Park. Eventually, the neighbors came around and even took a liking to the Pakistani couple, whom they thought of as “Middle-Eastern.” The couple’s Muslim dietary restrictions for “halal” food were not easy to understand for their Italian neighbors who shared “meatballs” with them all the time. It was in the Highland Park community where Aziza found some of her first “American” friends, many of whom were immigrants themselves. One friend taught her to dress in appropriate Western clothing while another imparted instruction on the etiquette of eating pasta. She also met the first Jewish person in her life. “It started from eating bagels and lox together to really understanding what Judaism was all about.” 

 The next few years were some of the busiest of Aziza’s life. She moved to Hershey, Pa. to pursue residency training in Pediatrics at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. She also became a mother during this time and her first child was born with a chromosomal anomaly. “I also dealt with my own grief during those three years, “said Aziza. However, she persisted against all odds and held on to her dream of treating cancer patients. 

A fellowship opportunity in Hematology/Oncology with National Institute of Health (NIH) in 1989 brought Aziza and her family to the Washington Metropolitan Area. Here she was introduced to International Oncology and had the opportunity to travel to and work in many developing countries, including Pakistan, along with the NIH Team. 

Today, Aziza resides in Potomac, Md. “Did I miss what I had left behind? Of course!” She found a way to stick to her cultural roots and “became known as the person who came in Pakistani clothes [at formal events] with a ring in her nose.” Over the years, she has served in leadership roles and top positions across several hospitals in the region. She credits the American medical system with teaching her “the value of compassion and empathy.” She keeps the goodwill going by teaching the same to her students.” Still today, I teach communicating bad news. I teach how to talk to families,” said Aziza. 

Watch the attached video for Aziza’s reflections on building bridges across communities in America. 

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat 

Author: American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Funding for ‘Becoming American’ has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC)

Partners include:

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Becoming American: Story # 6

Selina Doroshenko

In 2014, then twenty-four-year-old Selina Doroshenko left her hometown of Montreal, Canada to pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, Md. “I really choose Baltimore because my dream since I was a young child was to study art and to study in the US. Even though there are so many things happening in Canada artistically, I always felt I was missing out on something, especially the New York art scene,” said Selina. She found New York to be too expensive and opted for Baltimore that is not too far from New York. MICA’s excellent reputation sealed the deal for Selina. 

Selina’s early days of navigating the City of Baltimore were a mixture of adventure and a sense of loss. She opted for “on campus” housing, which she later realized was situated in East Liberty, at 30-minute walking distance from the actual campus in Station North Arts District. Selina did not mind the walk and sometimes enjoyed biking as well. However, she had “interesting” experiences while commuting, which once included a group of teenage boys on bikes who tried to intimidate her. But she was most surprised at the lack of diversity in Baltimore. “It was very desolate when I was walking,” said Selina. As she would head out from her predominantly Black neighborhood, she would pass through “White pockets” and “Black pockets” of community. “I am missing Middle Eastern people, African people, Indian and Greek people in my neighborhood,” remarked Selina. “I didn’t see any small businesses along my route as compared to back home [in Montreal].” During those early days in Maryland, Selina felt “isolated.” She missed home. 

Over the years, Selina realized that Baltimore does not lack diversity. The problem lies in “geographical segregation.” She now knows that if she goes to the Patterson Park neighborhood, “there is a huge Mexican community over there. There is also Ukrainian community over there,” which has helped Selina connect with Ukrainian roots of her paternal family.

After completing her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree from MICA, Selina started teaching at Baltimore area schools. She has taught art intensives at public, parochial and independent schools in the area. She is also looking forward to college teaching opportunities. 

Though Selina could not find permanent employment at Baltimore-area schools, one of them could sponsor a work visa for her, because of her exceptional artistic talent. She loves working with children but feels that non-permanent employment opportunities and part-time work has taken her away from her goal of becoming a “professional artist.” “My goal and my dream were to come [to the US], complete my master’s degree in the States. Once you have a Master in Arts, you can get gallery shows, museum shows and that is how you become a professional artist, on paper. That was my big, big dream. But, when I finished school, I had to find a job because you have to be working in your field,” said Selina. She added that she was also was also required to work for an employer to maintain her visa status. 

Today, Selina lives in Waverly neighborhood of Baltimore with her husband, whom she met as a student at MICA. The couple loves to explore the great Maryland outdoors and goes on extensive hikes and bike rides. 

Selina feels that though the United States and Canada border each other, the two are culturally and socially very different. While commenting on differences, Selina mentioned that she always finds it amusing that “when you bump into someone [in the US] instead of saying sorry or excuse me, people say, you are good, or you are fine. But I wonder, how do you know I am good?” 

Selina recently became a permanent resident of the United States of America. Check out the linked video for Selina’s message for ideas on supporting new immigrants to the United States. 

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat 

Author: American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Funding for ‘Becoming American’ has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC)

Partners include: 

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‘Becoming American’ Story # 5 Jay Polaki

Jay Polaki and I spoke on July 21, 2021, which was exactly twenty-three years from the time Jay had found the guiding principle of her life. It was a quote by William Shakespeare, which read: “The choices we make dictate the lives we lead.” 

The Bard’s words took Jay from Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), Ill. and eventually brought her to Maryland. 

Jay arrived in America in August 2001. Her initial days were not easy, but they put her on fast track to ‘Becoming American’. “I discovered a lot about myself; how resilient I am, as well as, how vulnerable I am,” said Jay while alluding to her first few months in the United States. She supplemented her graduate assistant stipend by working at the campus dining service, where she learned to cook foods, such as Philly Cheesestake Burgers, that she had never tasted in her life. She learned to navigate the American lifestyle, from doing her own laundry to paying for college.  She had arrived in Illinois in August, but Summers in the Midwest were too cold for a girl born and raised in an Indian coastal town. She bought a warm winter coat for herself and wore it all through her first semester in fall. “People were surprised” to see her in the big winter coat in September. 

After completing her master’s in Industrial Organizational Psychology (IOP) Jay wanted to stay and work in the United States. “After 9/11, it was very hard to find employment for immigrants, especially those who needed visa sponsorships,” noted Jay.  In 2004, she received an offer of employment from Maryland Department of Transportation. She relocated to Maryland and has since then, called it home. Her supervisor at the transportation department later shared with her details of opposition that Jay’s application faced, as she was a “foreign” candidate. 

Today, Jay is an entrepreneur, Founder and CEO of HR Geckos. Her company works at the intersection of technology and human resources, which she believes has gained prominence in today’s “hybrid workplace.” Jay also runs a nonprofit organization, “Global Indian Professional Network” which provides a networking space for the international South Asian diaspora. Though the organization is open to people of all ethnicities and genders, Jay is personally invested in the growth and development of immigrant women from India. She believes that most immigrants face hardship in establishing careers in the United States, but it is even harder for women. “Most women come as spouses and for them the opportunities are even lesser.” Added to it are intensive processes related to educational and professional credentialing in the United States, familial obligations of raising children, and keeping a house without a “support network.”

During our conversation, Jay talked about the importance of cultural competency, and looking beyond ethnic stereotypes and myths. Check out her message for all Americans at this link: https://youtu.be/sCmPzOXRNOE

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat @sitwatsaima

Funding for ‘Becoming American’ is provided by Maryland State Arts Council

Partners Include:

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‘Becoming American’ Story #4

Zeyneb Sayilgan

Zeyneb Sayilgan came to the United States of America in 2006 to further her studies in Islam and interreligious dialogue. Born and raised in Germany, to Kurdish parents from Turkey, Zeyneb saw herself as a bridge-builder; someone who can help build community connections and facilitate dialogue because of her “hybrid identity.”

As a Muslim by faith and daughter of Muslim parents who immigrated to Germany, Zeyneb is well-aware of the internal and external biases that haunt Muslim communities in the West. While growing up in Germany, she was constantly made aware of her “otherness” through curious glances and questions. While acknowledging “the challenges of living as a Muslim” in America, Zeyneb believes that “the secularism in the United States acknowledges your need to live out [according to] your religion.”  The fact that religious freedom is a constitutional provision, makes it one of the important aspects of the American democracy. 

Zeyneb choose to study Islam at the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn. “America always has this appeal to students,” said Zeyneb while speaking of her choice. United States provides one an opportunity to be “creative in their thinking.” 

Today, Zeyneb serves as the Muslim Scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies (ICJS) in Baltimore, Md. She has found home in Howard County, Md. but she continues to engage with the traditional notions of home through her work. According to her, home cannot be defined by territorial boundaries alone. “Home is where you have like-minded connection with people, which cultivates a sense of belonging,” said Zeyneb. She believes that human beings are far too “expansive” to “fit into one country or territory.” 

Zeyneb came to the United States of America with an “openness to engage and dialogue” but mentions that some American peculiarities can be hard for those born outside of the United States to embrace. One of them are bumper stickers. She finds it “interesting” that Americans do not hesitate to express everything from their political beliefs to emotional views and love for their pets on the back of their cars. “I think it speaks to the freedom [in the United States]. In some countries if you put these statements out there, they will not be well-received.” Another American peculiarity that Zeyneb finds hard to adapt to is ice-cold water. “There is always ice in the water. I always have to tell people, that I would like water, without ice, please.” 

Check out attached video message from Zeyneb on the evolving notions of home, and her opinion on the added value that new immigrants bring to America: https://youtu.be/0qv5FvDbrAs

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat  Author: American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Funding forBecoming American has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC)

Partners include: 

‘Becoming American’ Story # 3: Anne Calinger

Anne Calinger was only 7 months old when she arrived from South Korea at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, with her adopted parents. Yet, as she journeyed through life in America, she was constantly reminded that she was an ‘immigrant’. Her gender role was also defined along the way, as she was gently geared towards liberal arts by well- intentioned teachers, when she faced slight challenges in science and math.

Anne’s adopted parents moved to the Washington Metropolitan Area (DMV) around 1987, within a year of bringing her home. The DMV area is considered one of the most diverse parts of the United States but still, Anne started becoming conscious of her differences from other kids at a young age. “It was around second grade that I came home from school and asked my mom what color I was,” said Anne. She also had to address myths, such as, the presumption that all Asians were “Chinese.” Many people were also “taken aback by how good” her English was, to which she would respond; “That’s the only language I speak.”

The identity conundrum continued for Anne and her classmates throughout school years. “In middle school, a lot of kids started giving me a hard time for what they called trying to act white. I think people were confused by how they act, my mannerism, how I carry myself and it seemed to offend some people,” said Anne. High school was more tough. The student body at her high school was diverse but “people segregated themselves to people who looked like them. I was kind of this weird outlier of where do I fit in, and I spent some time trying to figure that out,” said Anne, while alluding to the fact that she was considered neither Asian nor white enough to fit in with either of the student groups. 

Finally, during the college years, Anne had a sense of “belonging.” “I realized that maybe there is not a homogenous group I fit in, but I fit in the larger part of society,” Anne said, while commenting on fully embracing her identity. Other positive forces in her life that brought on this realization were her adopted parents and extended family. They all welcomed her in their homes and communities with open arms. 

Anne said that though she was no novice to verbal attacks and biases, 2020 was different. President Trump dubbed COVID-19 pandemic as “China Virus” which elevated the level of hate-crimes against the East-Asian community.  It was after a long time in Anne’s life that she felt “otherness.” “This is the first time in life when I felt unsafe,” said Anne, while commenting that she was scared to go out in public and was happy that, because of the pandemic, she could cover her face with a mask and hide her ethnicity behind it. 

Anne believes that our success as Americans is in remembering that we all come from different places and have different experiences, but we are all playing our part in building a collective American story. Check out Anne’s video in the link for her message to all Americans: https://youtu.be/zFHDk4Uyhn8

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat  Author: American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Funding for ‘Becoming American’ has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC)

Partners include: 

‘Becoming American’ Story # 2 : Ale Balcazar

“I didn’t know how privileged I was in my country, until I moved here”, said Ale Balcazar while reminiscing about her initial days in the United States of America. “You are labeled as Latina, you have an accent so you might not be smart enough,” she added while talking about her initial struggles in America which ranged from filling gas in car to trying to culturally fit in. 

Ale landed in the US on Sept. 12, 2012. Born in Colombia, she was raised by a single mother who told her that she gave her “wings to fly.” At the age of twenty-four, Ale came to the United States to study English at the Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore. As a student of world languages, Ale understood and spoke some English, but it was far from the American English that she heard around herself. She stayed with another immigrant family in Baltimore which further complicated the situation; “I had my Colombian English, their British English that I had with the family that I was living with, and then the Baltimore accent on streets. And, I had no idea what was going on with that last part,” said Ale. 

Linguistics was not the only factor that Ale had to battle. There were cultural differences as well. Her days of fiesta like Christmas celebration on the streets of Colombia were replaced with somber “cold and quiet” Christmas in the United States. Objectification of Latina women in the United States was another barrier Ale had to overcome. “Colombian woman is usually seen as a woman that is curvy, sexy and is very sexualized,” said Ale while adding that such a stereotype “takes away the intelligence, all the value of a woman’s brains.”  

How does one find belonging amidst such a cultural shift? “I had to create it. It didn’t come easily,” admits Ale. A resident of Towson, Baltimore County, Ale now hangs out with a diverse group of friends, who have helped her find her own place in the community. It has come with an acceptance that she does not need to “fit in.” She is respectful of the North American traditions but does not try to repress her identity anymore. “I welcome all those traditions, but I also bring my own things, my own identity. Now, I am not trying to hide it anymore,” said Ale as she commented on making home in the US. 

Today, Ale teaches Spanish and French in the World Languages program at a Baltimore-area independent school. She uses her platform as a teacher to take her students beyond the language classroom, to culture and communities of South America. 

Check out the video for Ale’s message to all Americans: https://youtu.be/VPuu9iB2t5g

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat  Author: American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Funding for ‘Becoming American’ has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council

(MSAC)

Partners include: 

#herstory

#welcomingamerica #immigrantstories  #betterstories #americanstories 

‘Becoming American’ Story #1: Fariha Hashimi

In 1974, twenty- four year-old Fariha Hashimi came from Afghanistan to the United States of America, to visit her fiancée. Little did she know that events in her country would unfold in a way, that she would not be able to return until 2003.

Fariha was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1948. She trained as civil engineer and worked for the United Nations in Afghanistan until she received a scholarship to attend engineering school in Holland. She decided to visit the United States before returning to her home country. While she was in America, there was a military coup and regime change in Afghanistan. She delayed her return to Afghanistan while waiting for the political situation to get better. Eventually, her yearning to return home turned into a distant dream.

In 1974, there was no formal refugee program in the United States for people from Afghanistan. “I didn’t know too many Afghans at that time,” said Fariha, while talking about her lack of resources and access to information. There were also no programs to guide immigrants about professional opportunities or life in the United States. Language was another challenge. Though Fariha was no alien to English language, the accents and mannerism in America could be challenging. Despite initial hardship, Fariha found home in America, in the city of New York. She married her fiancée and had two children. She helped her husband, Said Hashmi, with the logistics of their deli and grocery store.

In 2003, Fariha’s daughter, Nadia, who was a medical student, wanted to work in Afghanistan. Fariha and Said accompanied their daughter as they felt that “for a girl it’s not easy” to be alone in Afghanistan. The death and destruction that Fariha saw during that trip filled her with sadness. “We couldn’t even find where my house was”, said Fariha, while talking of the extensive damage done to the infrastructure in Afghanistan, after years of war and bombing.

In 2018, Fariha moved to Gaithersburg, Md. to be close to her daughter, Nadia Hashmi, who is pediatrician and writer. She calls Maryland her “last landing place.” Today, Fariha and her family are part of efforts in welcoming Afghan refugees, as many are anticipated to come to the United States in the aftermath of the recent takeover of the country by Taliban.

Check out the video for Fariha’s story on finding home in the United States and ways to help Afghan refugees: youtu.be/1aiV07lAktA’Becoming

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat

Author: American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Funding for ‘Becoming American’ has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council

Partners Include:

#herstory#welcomingamerica#immigrantstories#betterstories#americanstorieshttps://

Introducing ‘Becoming American’

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? /

The world would split open.

            I read these profound words by the American poet, Muriel Rukeyser, last year, which was much too late in my life. But they had a profound impact on me. As a non-white, minority woman in America I have thought about this multiple times, every day. A time of Pink Tax, violence directed at the East-Asian community and specifically Asian women during the COVID-19 pandemic and the social media movement #herstory, planted seeds for the ‘Becoming American’ project.           

Becoming American is by women but it is for all Americans. It documents stories of resilience and hope, of breaking barriers and achieving success. It also tells of loss, pain, and hardship. Additionally, it acknowledges the silence of women who had the opportunity to share their fears and apprehensions through this platform but decided to stay quiet. At times, the cost of raising voice might outweigh its benefits. 

            Each of the 10 women featured in ‘Becoming American’ had to overcome one singular barrier before they could take on more: They were all born outside of the United States of America. All storytellers are residents of the State of Maryland. Why so, you would ask? It is because of my belief in the power of local journalism in connecting neighbors with each other. My years of working with local communities in Western Pennsylvania has strengthened my belief in storytelling as a crucial tool for information as well as reconciliation.             

Join me on the below mentioned social media pages, every Wednesday, Sept. 1- Nov. 10, as I introduce you to these powerful stories of what it takes to ‘make it’ as an immigrant woman in America? Each story is unique, just as the woman it belongs to is, in her country of origin and journey to America. We all can learn something from these stories. I feel humbled for the trust with which these stories were shared with me and pass on that trust to you; the readers. Please help share these stories, pass them on and help build a movement for more women to shatter ceilings. 

            Thank you for your help in documenting better stories. 

Writer and Producer: Saima Adil Sitwat 

Author: American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey

Follow, like and share from: 

Facebook: @betterstories4all   Instagram: @saimasitwat_author    Twitter: @SaimaSitwat  LinkedIn: Saima Sitwat

Funding for Becoming American has been provided by Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC)

Partners (listed in alphabetical order)

#herstory #welcomingAmerica #immigrantstories  #betterstories #americanstories

Available for sale @ Amazon.com

PRAISE FOR

AMERICAN MUSLIM

AN IMMIGRANT’S JOURNEY

American Muslim captures a remarkable odyssey of an audacious woman, an immigrant, a mother and a brilliant leader. It’s powerful and honest. It reminds us all what it means to be an American, how it’s up to each and every one of us to make America meet its promise and ambition, no matter where we came from, no matter where we work or where we pray. Saima’s writing is captivating and engaging. It’s a beautiful memoir, nuanced and honest. In this book, you will learn a lot of things: about American Islam, about being a first-generation immigrant, about being a mom and a good neighbor. And if you read carefully, I guarantee it — you will learn a few things about yourself. I know I did. 

~ Mila Sanina, executive director and editor of PublicSource.org

A profoundly honest account of the immigrant experience that confronts preconceived notions heads on. It never idolizes or vilifies either the culture left behind or the newly adopted one but looks for a gracious and graceful understanding of both. You’ll fall in love with the narrator as she discovers herself.

~ Kornelia Tancheva, Ph.D., The Hillman University librarian and director of the University Library System, University of Pittsburgh 

Saima’s memoir, American Muslim, captures autobiographical details of her life, as an educated, professional girl from Pakistan who migrated as a married woman to the United States of America. The vivid descriptions of the initial difficulties that she faced make an interesting read. The book also details racial disparities systemically rooted in the American society.  Motivated by her desire to be part of the movement to do social good, Saima has found her calling in building bridges across identities and cultures. 

~ Sayeed Hasan Khan, former BBC journalist, author and a social activist who marched on Washington in 1963, with Martin Luther King Jr. 

American Muslim written by Saima Adil Sitwat illustrates the process of cultural assimilation of an immigrant in the New World. The landscape of this journey is painted with the brilliant choices of otherwise minor events selected with deep observation. The journey of a physician’s young wife begins with a Karachi- Chicago flight in 2003. Gradually unfolded are the family’s bright and hazy days, which are a delight to read.  Sitwat writes with sensitivity the struggle with sweet memories of her old home and contrasts it with the loneliness of the new home. Depressive and jolly, the high and low swings of life are depicted with keen insight. As our narrator exchanges her place in life— from a humble library volunteer to a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, she meets limitless possibilities of the American dream – one of them becoming the first woman president of one of Pittsburgh’s leading mosques. Sitwat’s prose is straightforward, concise, fluid and engaging. It is difficult to put the book down and it’s well- worth the read. American Muslim will warm your heart and fill in a much-needed void in immigrants’ stories.

~ S. Shaukat Ali Zaidi, Pakistani- Canadian author, essayist and poet

Saima’s story is the story of her own experiences, her own voice.  But it is also a story of common heartbreaks, common jolts of happiness, and the hope, and pride, that ties all of us to each other. 2020 has been a year for awakenings, none all that great, but all necessary.  At the heart of these communal awakenings is the belief that diversity is not to be feared of but to be celebrated. It is not a weakness but is the only form of strength we need to survive.  And, in this diverse country, until we start treating each other as equals none of us will be truly free.  Saima’s story of her life in the U.S., her education in Americanization, her continuous struggle to learn, unlearn, and relearn, her daily inner struggle to juggle her multiple roles and responsibilities, truly show immigration to the United States of America is not for the faint of heart.  It takes constant effort, endless perseverance, and yet remains fragile and can be broken by a slight comment of a coworker or a neighbor.  Saima’s story illustrates how the definition of a migrant in the textbooks as one “seeking permanent residency outside the country of origin” is truly understated.  Through her story, as much as our own, we affirm that ‘origin’ is anything but one single place. And, that is a really good thing for all of us. 

~Dr. Müge Finkel, Graduate School for Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), University of Pittsburgh