By Riya Bhattacharjee
For Northwest Asian Weekly
Thirty-five thousand feet above San Francisco, Rozina Babul recounted the story of her life — one not unlike those of the 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims who have overcome personal and historical circumstances to emerge as a thriving global community.
Born and brought up in Karachi, Pakistan, Babul moved to the United States more than a decade ago with her family to find refuge from the violence under former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government. Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007 after a Pakistan Peoples Party rally in Rawalpindi.
“It was awful,” Babul said, during a flight home to Seattle after picking up her 17-year-old daughter, Neha.
“After Benazir came to power, her husband, Asif Zardari (the current president of Pakistan), openly accepted bribes. He was known as ‘Mr. Ten Percent.’ There was corruption everywhere.”
Babul said that her father, a successful textile manufacturer in Karachi, constantly received threats from the local goons. Around the same time, members of the Taliban were slowly creating a stronghold in Peshawar.
“Children were kidnapped and placed on the sidewalk after having their organs removed,” she said. “We could hear gun shots outside of our house. There was a curfew most nights. Robberies were rampant, but the police were corrupt as well and only pretended to chase the culprits.”
One day, Babul’s sister’s car was taken at gunpoint. Babul herself was grabbed by a Pakistani man in daylight at a marketplace. She states that women in her country continue to go through this.
“You can get harassed. You can get touched right in the middle of the street,” she said. “Women are abused in so many ways. Why would you want to live in a place like that?”
When Babul and her husband, Ameen, decided to come to Washington on a U.S. business visa in 1998, they faced many hurdles. This included losing all of their savings on an auto repair shop business, but they soldiered on.
“Yes, we had problems, but we had finally found a safe place to raise our children,” she said.
Like the Babuls, many Ismailis emigrated to Western Washington around that time to escape the political strife in their home countries, sometimes working at fast food chains or starting small businesses.
The Ismailis, who belong to the Shia branch of Islam, don’t have their own country or language, and, as long as anyone can remember, have never wanted one.
Their spiritual leader, Prince Karim Aga Khan — the sect’s 49th Imam and a direct descendent of Prophet Muhammad — is the only living Imam among the Shias.
Despite being a minority within the larger Muslim community, Ismailis have a rich cultural history, one that has been threatened by frequent persecution stemming from geo-political conflicts that have existed for centuries.
Today, although they have a presence in more than 25 countries, Ismailis remain a little known immigrant community.
However, this doesn’t prevent them from being progressive. Ismaili women generally don’t wear burqas and are strongly encouraged to pursue education and a career.
The Aga Khan — one of the world’s richest Muslim investors — lives in the Paris suburbs and is just as comfortable wearing a suit and tie and breeding expensive racehorses as he is interpreting the Quran. He heads the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of private development agencies focused on helping poor families in developing nations.
In 1972, when Asians were evicted from Uganda under the regime of the military dictator Idi Amin, the Aga Khan arranged with then-Canadian President Pierre Trudeau for his followers to be relocated to Canada.
Vancouver, B.C. became a hub for Ismailis, and since the 1970s, the population has expanded to the Pacific Northwest, from Bellingham to Portland, Ore.
Because their jamatkhana, or place of worship, was located in Bellevue (it has since moved to Kirkland), a lot of Ismaili families, including Babul’s, settled there.
In an interview with New America Media, Babul said that she felt secure and welcome in America, even in the current climate of hostility toward Muslims.
“At least we haven’t felt any kind of discrimination in Washington,” she said. “I know there are Pakistanis out there who will call themselves Indians just to avoid awkward situations, but I would still call myself a Pakistani because I want to change the perception that all Muslims or all Pakistanis are terrorists. It’s good that we have settled in the land of opportunity — and America has been kind to us — but we should never forget our roots.”
However, Babul admitted that there are times when it is impossible to ignore that the world has changed for all Muslims after the 9/11 attacks.
For example, every Muslim male between the ages of 18 and 45 born in Pakistan, including Babul’s son, Zain, a student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, is required to register at the border every time he enters or leaves the United States.
“That means that every time he comes home from school, he is taken aside for special screening even though he has a Canadian passport,” Babul said. “There was this one time when he said he doesn’t want to come back home because it’s so frustrating waiting in line and being asked weird questions.”
The tiny Subway franchise that the Babuls opened in Kirkland with a $100,000 loan about 10 years ago has expanded to three restaurants today, with the newest one overlooking the upscale Bravern shopping mall in downtown Bellevue.
A good location has the potential to make $500,000 annually, Babul said.
“But we couldn’t have done it without the help of the Ismaili community,” she said. “The basic thing about our community is volunteering — and we always reach out to each other in times of need, whether it be for career advice or help with your child’s SAT scores.”
Babul herself devotes a few hours every week to the Catholic Community Services in Bellevue, helping a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis with her daily chores.
According to Anita Parpia, a member of His Highness the Aga Khan Ismaili Council for the Western United States, volunteering is ingrained in Ismailis from a very young age.
“It’s a way by which we give back to the community,” said Hafiz Lalji, an Ismaili who owns a business in Bellevue. “The Ismailis have always been loyal citizens of whichever country has given them citizenship. We don’t seek publicity for the work we do.”
Nor do they see conflict in mixing business with charity.
“The idea is for you to make money so that you can take care of your family, and with whatever is excess, you help other people,” Lalji explained. “Islam is about the balance between din (faith) and duniya (wordly life). We let our work speak for itself.”
Members of the Ismaili Community Engaged in Responsible Volunteering help out in soup kitchens, senior homes, and environmental conservation in their cities. Some, like Lalji, don’t hesitate to stay up all night to organize a convention or a Fourth of July parade.
Globally, more than 100,000 volunteers assist with the various projects of the AKDN.
Lalji, who hails from Mumbai, came to New York while he was teaching at a prestigious business school in Tehran in the 1970s. He stayed on after the revolution broke out in Iran. In 1990, he moved with his family to Renton.
“I have seen the Ismaili community in the Seattle area grow from a handful of families to maybe a few hundred,” he said, acknowledging that the numbers are higher in bigger cities like New York and Atlanta, sometimes reaching several thousand. “A lot of them are young professionals — doctors, lawyers, and software engineers who work at Microsoft. People come here looking for a better quality of life. Most stay on. We feel welcome here. For us, this is home.” ♦