The Seven Year Delay

Photo by gothopotam/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Photo by gothopotam/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

“Ammi, there’s a letter here,” Jalwa said, speaking rapidly to her mother in Pashto.

Irshad had barely walked inside her family’s small basement apartment when her teenage daughter thrust an envelope into her hands. “I found it in the mailbox after I came home from school,” Jalwa said.

Irshad smiled to hear Jalwa’s accent. Time had stripped away the fluency of her mother tongue, leaving behind fragments mixed with the English.

Turning the letter over in her hands, Irshad saw that it was from the immigration office, and her heart began to ache that familiar ache of so many years. Would this be the document that would bring her son Sohail to the U.S. after a seven year delay?

She read aloud, her voice quivering, “January 12th, 2010. Mohammad Sohail, we are pleased to inform you that your application for visa has been processed and approved.” Hot tears rushed to Irshad’s face. She sank onto the sofa in their tiny living room.  

“Ammi, that’s great. After Sohail comes, we will be whole as a family again.”  

Irshad held her daughter tightly and began to sob into her shoulders. Sohail had become separated from Irshad when the family had emigrated to New York in 2003. His visa had been cancelled and he was forced to stay behind in Pakistan because he had turned twenty-one years old, past the age limit for children to be sponsored with their parents.

Irshad released Jalwa and wiped her tears. As her body relaxed, she registered her aching feet. She had stood for twelve straight hours at her security guard job at the airport. Her husband Shamoon would be coming home at midnight from his job and she couldn’t wait to share the news with him. They would finally be able to use the chunk of their minimum-wage salary that they had set aside for a lawyer to handle Sohail’s immigration paperwork.

Irshad got up to make herself some chai, black tea, which was an after-work routine. Their kitchen was cramped and dank. There was no ventilation and the sun rarely touched this corner of the house. She took in her surroundings, wondering what Sohail would think of their home.

She and Shamoon had not worried him with such details. Instead, they had supported and encouraged Sohail to work hard at pursuing his bachelor’s degree. When his graduation date arrived, they had reluctantly told him that they wouldn’t be able to come because there was no one to watch over Jalwa, Sana, and Noman, their kids who were in school in the U.S. But the truth was that they couldn’t afford the airplane tickets. They had sent their meager savings to Sohail, supporting him as best as they could from seven thousand miles away. There was nothing left for visits.

Irshad poured herself a cup of hot chai and went back to the living room. Jalwa was at the kitchen table, doing her homework. Her daughter’s smile sometimes reminded her painfully of Sohail, who she saw only in her dreams.

Irshad had been an innocent girl of seventeen-years-old in the year 1973, attending her friend’s wedding, when Shamoon had noticed her. He was the troublemaker of Tangi, Pakistan, with low prospects of finishing his schooling. He had laid his eyes on her big brown ones, framed with thick sooty eyelashes, and had fallen in love. He wanted to marry her from the moment he saw her.

Irshad had four other sisters, and only the eldest one, Apajan, was married and living with her husband in America. One day Irshad had come home from her assistant teaching job at the local elementary school, and her mother had told her about the rishta, marriage proposal, that had come for her from Shamoon’s mother. Shamoon came from a good family, with land and wealth, and Irshad accepted, not knowing what the implications were. It was expected for girls to accept good rishtas.

Within a month, Irshad and Shmoon were engaged and a month after that, they had their nikah. The whole town gathered for the wedding feast. Children ran around, tearing down the decorations that the two families had labored over. Irshad tried not to feel mournful. She loved her teaching job and knew that moving in with Shamoon’s family meant she would no longer be allowed to help her mother around the house. Irshad focused on keeping her composure and reassuring herself that she was born ready for this day.

Irshad hadn’t been with Shamoon for more than a week when his mother stirred up trouble. One day, as Irshad was leaving for her job, her mother-in law stopped her in the hallway.

“Who told you that you could leave this house? Matter-of-fact, who said you are allowed to work?” Amajee yelled.

“I’m sorry, I- I didn’t realize,” Irshad cowered, shocked by such hostility.

“I wondered what he saw in you, you ugly black bitch,” Amajee spat.

Irshad ran to her tiny room in the huge house and locked herself in. She cried and cried over her horrible situation. She cried about moving to a new home and being given a dirty room with broken tiles on the floor. She cried over being forced to do everyone’s dishes and laundry by hand in the house. Shamoon had three other brothers who pretended she didn’t exist at the dinner table. She could have been the servant. She was no one to them. She didn’t get the respect that the other daughter-in-laws seemed to receive. What had she done? Despite her feelings, Irshad felt she couldn’t complain to Shamoon about his mother. She would have to carry the burden so as not to strain the new relationship.  

After a month of marriage, Shamoon left Tangi to finish his associate’s degree at a nearby university. Irshad was glad that he was maturing and focusing on his studies, but Amajee’s abuse only got worse while Shamoon was away.

Irshad developed a new coping strategy. When Amajee would get riled up, Irshad would gently ask, “Amajee, may I take leave? I have to go prepare dinner.”

If she could sense that Amajee was dozing off or distracted, she would say assalaam-u-akaikum and leave the room as quietly as possible.

Shamoon came back after two months and walked right past Irshad, who was sitting in the courtyard, washing his brother’s clothes.

“Where is Irshad?” he asked his mother.

She gave him an annoyed looked with a raised eyebrow. “Over there washing clothes,” Amajee said, flicking her hand.

Shamoon swiveled around on his feet, and turned red in shocked outrage. What he saw looked nothing like his Irshad. She was almost skeletal, extremely thin. And her face had a ghastly yellow tone, as if there were no blood running through her body. When he caught her eyes, they were filled with a sorrow he couldn’t comprehend. He knew he had wronged her by leaving her behind with his family.

After that scene, Shamoon sold some of Irshad’s dowry gold and combined his money to buy a small house for the two of them, far away from his family. Irshad had never been more relieved in her life.

Every day when Shamoon came home from searching for jobs, Irshad had dinner laid out for him. Ten years had passed since their marriage celebration, and Shamoon’s beard had become peppered, gray hairs overshadowing the black ones. Irshad had good news for him, but he looked so haggard and worn out from his constant battle with his family and the pressure to find a job, that she felt guilty telling him.

“Shamoon, I got a promotion to become Principal at the elementary school,” Irshad said nonchalantly. She wasn’t supposed to be the breadwinner in the house. She wasn’t supposed to leave her kids with a babysitter while she worked. Amajee resented her for this. Her brother-in-laws made her life hard by always pitting Shamoon against her. They fought with Shamoon for giving Irshad so much freedom. They told him that he wasn’t worthy of being called a man.

But Irshad knew that Shamoon’s brothers greedily wanted all the land that their father had left for themselves. His brothers had never allowed Shamoon a share of the profits from the wheat and corn that was produced by the family’s mill. Irshad didn’t fight with them over the shares, and Shamoon had too much pride to pander to them.

“That’s good news, Irshad. Hopefully I will find a job soon, and then we’ll start paying off the debt to your sisters,” Shamoon said. He had stopped eating his rice. His eyes were focused on his spoon, unconsciously swirling it around and around his plate. He sat back on the chair and rubbed his face with his hands. When he looked up at her, there was exhaustion and weariness in his face that she had never seen before. She wished she could help him adjust to his joblessness. But all she could do was offer him silent support.

One year later, Shamoon finally got a job in the air force. It was located at the opposite end of the country, requiring a plane’s journey. A month after he was gone, Irshad found out that she was pregnant with Sana, her third child. The day she found out, she cried so hard that she thought her eyes might fall out. She was straining to feed Sohail and Noman, and now with a third child on the way, she was worried about their future.

One night, when the boys had gone to bed, she got a call from Apajan, her sister living in America.

“I have finally reached the minimum amount of tax returns I need to sponsor you and your family to America,” Apajan said with an excited and hopeful tone. Through the years, Irshad had kept in touch with Apajan, confiding in her about Irshad’s hardships and trials. Irshad knew Apajan had been battling with her husband from the beginning to try to sponsor her family.

Irshad cried with tears of joy and humbly told her sister, “You surprised me Apajan. You didn’t have to do that, and it will be a lot of work for you to arrange. I don’t want to impede on your life.”

“Oh, Irshad, always thinking about others. I am doing this for you, so that your kids will have a better future.” Apajan implored her to accept the offer.

They talked for hours, laying out their plans. Once the reality of her situation hit her, Irshad smiled. Looking in the mirror, she felt as if she was ten years younger. The grim lines around her mouth had disappeared, and her lackluster brown eyes produced a new gleam.

The world blurred around Irshad as she tightly gripped her daughter’s hand. They stood in the middle of Pakistan’s Islamabad International Airport. After twelve years of waiting for their visas to be processed, the whole family was twenty hours away from reaching their destination. But they all knew it was only the beginning of their journey into the unknown.

People shouldered past Irshad, rushing to get into their assigned terminals. She stood frozen in place, eyes blurring with unshed tears, trying hard to appear collected.

Jalwa tugged her hand, “Ammi, why are we standing here?”

Irshad looked down at her curious eight-year old daughter, and forced a smile on her face.

“We have to say goodbye to your brother, Jalwa Jaan,” Irshad tugged her close to her side. The month that her oldest son Sohail turned twenty-one years old, Irshad got a letter from the U.S immigration office that her family’s visa had been approved. And a month after visa approvals, Sohail’s visa had been cancelled. It was as if the world was pronouncing, “you can’t have everything you want.” Irshad thought that her life was cursed, every moment of joy bringing along hardship. After battling with the embassy for months, Irshad and Shamoon had realized their attempts were futile. They reasoned that they would leave for the U.S. without their eldest son. Their decision was made only with reassurance that they could re-sponsor Sohail once they got their green cards in the U.S.

Shamoon came into the airport, pushing a big cart with their entire luggage. Walking alongside him were Noman and Sohail. Sohail had his shoulders slumped and looked as if someone were dragging him. Irshad took in every detail of him. He looked like a young boy still, wiry and carefree.

The whole family stood together one last time before the world tore them apart. Irshad couldn’t contain her calm anymore; she rushed forward and hugged Sohail tightly, letting her tears break free. She fiercely held on to him as if she could physically drag him with her to America. He whispered, “It will be all right Ammi, Inshallah, God willing, I will be there with you soon.”

The moment that they had been all waiting for was bittersweet. Irshad couldn’t look back at Sohail, who stood on the other side of the gate. Instead she looked at the long corridor stretching ahead of her, hoping something might convince her that her decision to leave Sohail behind was the right one.

The time in the flight blurred past Irshad, she had no recollection of what happened. Before she knew it, she was standing beside her family in JFK airport on the immigration line. When their turn came, the white woman behind the clear window at the desk looked at them curiously. Apajan had told Irshad that airport security had increased tremendously after 9/11 had happened two years ago.

Irshad had a big shawl around her head, and it covered most of her body. The woman observed her but then focused on Shamoon, who was wearing the traditional white Shalwar Kameez with his brown hat. Irshad imagined the woman saw a Taliban. Her heart started to pound in her chest as she waited for the woman to say something.

A security man stepped in front of Shamoon, “Sir, will you please follow me, we are going to do a quick routine check.” Irshad grabbed Shamoon’s arm. She saw them pat down Shamoon and calmed down. Apajan had said they might do that.

After three hours of inspections, they were all emotionally and physically exhausted. They had never imagined the extent to which Americans were scared of foreigners. And as they finally walked outside the terminal, their eyes scanned the passing foreigners and sparkling shop windows displaying expensive-looking gifts.

“Ammi, look it’s snowing outside!” Jalwa yelled out.

Immediately, they all looked out the airport’s glass windows, mouths wide. After the first few seconds, Irshad’s heart ached for Sohail again, wishing he were here with them to witness such a wonder.

Two hours passed, waiting outside the airport, fearing the unknown, fearing the world outside. The misery lifted when Irshad saw the familiar faces of Apajan and her husband coming toward her.

Two months after Sohail’s visa approval came, and seven years after they left him behind, Irshad went with her family to pick up Sohail from the airport.

“Come on everyone it’s getting late, let’s go!” Irshad shouted. She couldn’t wait to see Sohail. How will he be? She thought to herself.

After driving for two hours in Queens traffic, they arrived at terminal five in JFK International Airport, holding flower bouquets and welcome balloons.

“It’s Sohail!” Jalwa shouted.

Sohail was pushing his luggage cart down the aisle, his eye darting through the crowds. They ran in his direction and Irshad was the first to reach him. She shook with tears of joy as she cried out, “Oh my dear boy, my heart is finally whole now that you are here with us.”

Now twenty-eight years old, Sohail looked weathered by time and circumstances. His eyes had a hard-set gleam that left no trace of his formerly carefree nature. Irshad processed his maturity. He was here with her, in flesh and blood, yet physical distance had also created an emotional distance between them.

Irshad was startled to see Shamoon begin to cry as he embraced his son. She listened to her family’s cries and whoops of joy and knew that everything would be alright now that Sohail was home.

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