Aasma Aziz dreamed of leaving Pakistan to attend college in the United States. Her parents didn’t think that was such a great idea. After all, life in America and the South Asian country are radically different.
“It’s challenging for a woman in Pakistan. When I went out, my head was covered and I needed male chaperones; my brothers or father had to go with me, for safety reasons.”
Her parents balked, even though she already was the first woman in her town to earn a graduate degree (in political science) at a co-ed university in Pakistan.
“I was unstoppable. I was determined,” she said. “People told my parents they had to control me.”
Finally, they relented. “My family was concerned about the cultural differences. Pakistan is not a safe place for women. Women are not allowed to wear short dresses, not allowed to drink alcohol.
“I’m glad that my parents trusted me. They knew I was a good daughter who would study,” Aziz added. “I knew English was the key to opening doors. I learned the language by watching YouTube.”
She was accepted by several U.S. colleges, but she chose Salem State University, where staff at the Center For International Education helped her negotiate the labyrinth of forms and paperwork.
Aziz certainly made her mark at Salem State. Last month, she graduated with a master’s in social work and earned a standing ovation as commencement speaker. She also received a Leadership Recognition Award from the School of Graduate Studies, was one of two Northeast Massachusetts students chosen as student leaders to attend the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders 2016 in Washington, D.C. organized by American Association of University Women, and met with SSU President John Keenan to discuss starting an International Students Scholarship Program.
Aziz has founded a small business, Aasma’s Dream, and a non-profit, One Little Light, that aims to increase access to education, promote social justice and empower women. The Beverly resident also interns at The Haven Project in Lynn, working with down-and-out young adults.
It wasn’t easy and it almost didn’t happen. Aasma Aziz had to first overcome homelessness upon her arrival in America.
Aziz said her dad had a business relationship with a family in Massachusetts who agreed she could stay in their home while she attended college and became established in America. They would pay her tuition; she would work for their company to earn money to pay them back.
But things didn’t work out as planned.
In August 2015, traveling alone, she flew to the U.S. She arrived at the airport, but no one was there to pick her up. Three hours later, the host family finally arrived. “I thought everything was set. But things were different. I slept (in their home) that night, and the next morning they told me ‘You have to go now.’ It was because of religious differences.
“I knew nobody in America. Where was I to go?”
A member of her host family instructed one of their employees to “drop her off anywhere.” Churches and shelters either had no beds or weren’t safe for a young woman.
She knew once she connected with Salem State administrators, she’d be OK, but it was a Saturday.
Exhausted and desperate, she and her driver ended up at a police station for guidance. It was suggested she reach out to the family to see if she could stay there for just two nights, until Monday rolled around.
“They were not happy to see me. They called my parents: ‘We are sending your daughter back to Pakistan,’ and they wanted them to pay for the plane ticket.”
Aziz talked with her parents and assured them that once she arrived at Salem State everything would settle down. “I convinced them I would be fine, but I really was not fine.” Her parents persuaded the host family to allow her to stay. “I cried for two days. I stayed in a small room and was not welcome to walk through their house.”
At 6 a.m. that Monday she left and was told to never come back. They did not want a Christian girl in their home.
The university found accommodations for her on campus for one week. She ate at the university’s food pantry. Salem State’s Center for International Education contacted Highrock Church just down the street on Lafayette Street, and Pastor Aaron Engler invited her to live with his family. She has since stayed with various host families, usually for three months at a time. “I didn’t want to be a burden.” She has lived in Beverly with the same “lovely” family for more than a year.
She paid for school herself, working odd jobs and selling goods, such as scarves and jewelry, handmade in Pakistan. Her student visa limited her to a 20-hour workweek.
Proceeds from that business will be invested into One Little Light, her non-profit.
“You don’t need a super power to achieve your dreams. You just need to believe you can do it,” she said.
Aziz’s parents did not attend her graduation; Visa issues have prevented them from visiting. Aasma has not been home to Pakistan since that 2015 flight. “I miss them,” she said.
She has shared her story to inspire others. “I want to help women and girls improve their lives. I want to be an active citizen of the world and be an instrument of change for my fellow women.”
One Little Light, she said, has a mission to empower women, support children’s education and establish scholarships. It is committed to providing children in need in South Asian countries with school supplies and hygiene kits.
“I started One Little Light so women in Pakistan do not think they can only be housewives. I want girls to dream of a life where they can be whatever they want without thinking their gender disqualifies them from achieving that dream.”
Aziz is in the process of registering One Little Light as a non-profit in the United States.
Aziz laughed when asked if she ever relaxes. “Yes, I do fun stuff, too. I’ve gone bowling, (gone) to the beach, played golf. Karaoke is fun.” She hosts a show, “Jai Ho,” on Salem State’s student-run radio station WMWM. “‘Jai Ho’ is a sound of victory. My show is about people who have faced obstacles in their lives and reached victory. Between stories, I play Bollywood music as well as Pakistani and Punjabi music. I invite students to share their stories of struggle and victory.”
Just as she has.