One finger reaches out to press against the black outline of the map. "This is where I grew up," junior Zohra Khan says, pointing to a space just inside the Pakistan border. "This is where I spent 15 years."
Two years ago, Khan's father gathered up the whole family — her mother, four siblings and grandmother — to set out from their home in Peshawar and make a new life in America. The main reason for the move was to take advantage of the educational and economic opportunities in this country, Khan says. Many people leave Pakistan for America to open doors for their children, says Nadeem Kiani, press attaché for the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, D.C. "The United States is an attraction for people living in Pakistan," he says. "They only want the best for their children."
Khan was born in Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. With a growing population of almost three million people, Peshawar is one of the largest cultural and political centers in a country at the crossroads of conflict.
Pakistan has been in a state of turmoil for quite some time, thus far unable to keep a civilian leader in power for a full five-year term in its 62 years of independence, according to Kiani. Recent terrorist activity has added to the chaos, leading the Pakistani government to launch an offensive against the Taliban and al Qaeda militants in the southern Waziristan area in October. Still more recently, a series of attacks on Peshawar by the Taliban has torn through the country.
The transition from Peshawar to Silver Spring was startling for the Khan family. Being thrown so suddenly from a modest Muslim community into the day-to-day American teenage lifestyle was a challenge for Khan and her siblings. "American teenagers have so much more freedom," she says. "Back in Pakistan you have to obey your parents and teachers, and basically everyone older than you has the right to boss you around."
Though society is radically different here, other aspects of the new culture weren't as difficult to absorb. Aside from the language barrier, Khan finds school in the U.S. easier than in Pakistan. That may have something to do with the eight textbooks she had to haul 1.5 miles to and from school every day in Pakistan, she says. And hers was an easy commute Khan says, compared to some of her classmates. "One of my friends had to walk maybe three or four miles to school every day," she remembers.
Khan's commute was just one of the many differences to which she had to grow accustomed. Kiani says another distinct difference is that Pakistani public high schools end in the 10th grade and therefore have a more fast-paced curriculum. "Study is much tougher in Pakistan," Kiani states. "The Pakistani students have to put in more effort."
The national literacy rate in Pakistan is approximately 50 percent, with 26 percent literacy rate for girls, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. With conditions like these, Khan considers herself lucky to have grown up in Peshawar, where more girls than average received an education.
There were only two public schools near Khan's home, she says, one for boys and one for girls. Khan explains that the schools were segregated because of Muslim tradition and that all of the teachers at her school were women as well.
There is more of an emphasis on education here in the United States, Khan says. The United States government supports education throughout high school, and while the Pakistani government does the same to a certain extent, Khan says, most of the people who took their education seriously and had the means to do so hired tutors and paid for instruction outside of school.
Khan also found that the social dynamic in American society transfers to American classrooms.
In America, Khan has noticed that students can talk to their teachers and older students in a very free and casual manner. That wasn't the case in Pakistan. "There was always a kind of distance between you and the teachers," Khan remembers. "You even had to be politer to the older students."
Because Khan's parents never received an education, it means a great deal to them that Khan and her siblings are properly educated. She hopes that the education that she is receiving here in America will help her achieve her dreams. "It's the ones who are educated that get the better jobs and go farther," she says.
Khan explains that it is fairly rare to gain even a basic education in Pakistan, but the situation is slowly improving. "People are becoming more educated with each generation," she says.
Kiani states that the Pakistani government is trying its best to improve the education system and to reach out to girls and people living in the more remote parts of Pakistan. "Barring the border areas, you'd be surprised at the number of girls that are getting a good education nowadays," Kiani says.
Grateful for her opportunities, Khan plans on making the most of her education here in the U.S. After high school, she hopes to attend college and had hoped to return to Pakistan to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. "I have a lot of sympathy for others," she says. "I like helping them."
Unfortunately, getting an advanced education in America prohibits her from becoming a nurse in Pakistan, because an American degree won't be accepted in a foreign setting.
A sad smile flits across Khan's face as she recalls her life in Peshawar. She hasn't yet had a chance to go back home, but if presented with one, she knows she would take it in a heartbeat.
Although Khan longs for her home in Pakistan, she says that if she were to go back, she wouldn't be able to stay for an extended period of time. "I would like to stay," she says. "But my family, my faith, my education, everything is here now."
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 17 edition of Silver Chips Print.
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