Member Spotlight: Khan

We often say DSA is a “big tent”. It’s true that we all come from different backgrounds, but every one of our unique experiences has brought us to the same conclusion: A better world is possible, and it is ours to build. The following is the fifth in a series of stories told by our members about the events and experiences that led them to the Left.

My whole life, I hated being poor.

My parents came from different worlds – my mother from a white, middle class, conservative Christian family in Tennessee, and my father from a Muslim family in Pakistan. From the beginning they couldn’t agree, not even on what my name should be. My mother wanted a Christian name, my father a Muslim one. My given name was a compromise: a character of importance to both biblical and quranic traditions.

That might have been the last compromise they ever came to – within a few months of my birth, they had separated and begun what would become a lengthy court battle. My mother sent me away in secret, to live with distant friends to hide me from my father. My father, a Pakistani man, fighting in a rural Georgia court system, never had much chance at a fair deal, regardless of what the actual circumstances may have been. By the time I was a toddler, it was just my mother and I, working our poultry farm in Oconee County, Georgia.

In 1998, our lives changed dramatically. On the way home from the grocery store, a massive truck collided with us. I was fine, but my mother’s hip was broken in multiple places. She had to undergo a full hip replacement and spend half a year in the hospital. To this day, she can’t walk very far. She had no choice but to apply for disability and sell our poultry farm. She invested in beef master cattle, because she could oversee the work while the border collies and I did the legwork.

Not long after, 9/11 happened. Even though I was only in the third grade, right away, people started calling me a terrorist. I think every person of Arab or Middle Eastern descent in the US experienced something similar following 9/11. I had never been so hyper-aware of my Pakistani heritage. The racism was overwhelming, and universal. White people, black people – everyone hurled slurs at me. I used to try to pretend I was Italian or Mexican to avoid the vitriol.

But for all the turmoil 9/11 caused me personally, nothing could compare to the challenge that poverty had become. My mom received money from disability benefits, but it wasn’t much, and she was terrible at managing what little money she could get. She claimed my father never paid the child support we were owed. She told me he was an awful, scary person, and that the world he came from was awful and scary.

The racism was also horrible, don’t get me wrong. The silver lining, if you could call it that, of living on the outskirts of Oconee county was our access to a wealthy school system. I worked hard, I tried to excel in soccer, and I looked forward to the ways that a good education would lift me out of poverty. But going to school alongside rich, white children from rich, white families was isolating. At least, growing up I had only known other poor families. Now being poor and non-white set me apart irrevocably – I had never felt so alone.

Making it to UGA seemed like the solution I had been working for. I studied insurance because I knew the program was world-class and the industry was thriving in Georgia. Finally, my hard work would be rewarded. But it didn’t take me long to realize that corporate job security was not the reward I’d hoped it would be. I have a “good” job at a “successful” company – but my student loan payments are $700 a month. I still live paycheck to paycheck. I may not be stuck in poverty anymore, but I’m stuck in a corporate world where the work I’m doing is meaningless, and people treat one another terribly. Why did I even bother going to college? I always thought that if I had to sacrifice my happiness, at least I wouldn’t be poor. But is it worth feeling miserable?

Like a lot of other Americans, 2016 wasn’t a great year for my relationship with my mother. Our relationship was already strained, and then I discovered a box in her house – it was full of letters my father had written to me over the years that my mother had hidden from me. I decided I needed to meet him. So, I reached out. We made plans for me to come visit him where he lives now in Connecticut.

Getting off the plane at JFK, my phone buzzed – it was my mother’s sister. My grandmother, a few hours drive away in Pennsylvania, was being moved to hospice care. This was my last chance to see my grandmother and my first chance to see my dad. I didn’t know if I’d ever get a second shot at either. So, I made the impossible decision to carry on to Connecticut to meet my father.

We sat down to dinner together. My whole life, my mother had blamed my father for our poverty. According to my father, though, he had paid child support faithfully over the years, and my mother had sued him to try and get more money from him. (My father had been a lawyer in his native Pakistan. In Connecticut, he drives for a limo service.) Even the poultry farm we had originally owned and run had been my father’s – but he signed the deed over to my mom in the custody battle, hoping at least it would afford some financial security for me.

My mom didn’t teach me to hate as a child. If you knew her, you wouldn’t think of her as an overt racist. But any opportunity she had to gain financially, she took, so if that meant weaponizing race, she didn’t hesitate.

It’s difficult to parse issues of class from issues of race. It’s made more difficult by the influence of liberalism in our lives. Race is weaponized by Democrats as much as it is by those on the Far Right to divide poor white people from poor black people from poor brown people. I’ve experienced this firsthand. Maybe in the absence of racism, I’d have been able to grow up with my dad. But it was institutional poverty that dictated my life.

There is an ancient Chinese fable called “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains”. An old man whose house faced two great peaks, Taihang and Wangwu, decided to remove these obstructions. He led his sons in digging them up. Others mocked him, saying it is impossible to dig up mountains. He only replied, “When I die, my sons will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandsons, and then their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity. High as they are, the mountains cannot grow any higher, and with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. Why can’t we clear them away?” He went on digging every day, unshaken in his conviction. This moved God, and he sent down two angels, who carried the mountains away on their backs.

Today, two big mountains lie like a dead weight on the American people. One is capitalism and the other is racism. Communists have long made up their mind to dig them up. We must persevere and work unceasingly, and we, too, will touch God’s heart. Our God is none other than the masses of the American people. If they stand up and dig together with us, why can’t these two mountains be cleared away?

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