By Tara May Tesimu
TribLocal Staff Writer
Sadia Ashraf is a wife, a mother, a sister and a daughter.
She is Pakistani by birth, a woman who embraces the food, clothing and ideals of the culture she grew up in.
She is American by choice, an immigrant who came to the United States 10 years ago to be with her husband and start a new life.
She is all of these—a multitude of identities that were difficult to reconcile as a young woman in a strange country.
“But over the years, the identities have stopped wrestling with each other,” she said. “They’ve come to rest in sync and in harmony. I’ve been able to take the best from each culture. Finding the balance in all of them, it’s helped make me a better person.”
Living in Bolingbrook helped ease the transition, said Sadia, who added she and her husband, Tauheed Ashraf, chose the southwestern suburb specifically because of its large Pakistani population.
The village has become a haven for many of Chicagoland’s Pakistani families, who have found a tight-knit community where they can balance their desire to bring their children up as Americans and still preserve their heritage.
A booming community
Bolingbrook’s Pakistani American population has surged from about 30 families in the ’80s to more than 2,500 families, said Talat Rashid, the founder and president of the Association of Pakistani Americans in Bolingbrook.
“I knew everybody back then,” said Rashid, who has lived in the community for about 25 years. “We could count on our fingers the number of Pakistani American families.
Now we’re a strong, booming part of the community.”
And the Pakistani presence isn’t only residential.
“We’ve seen an influx over the past several years of the Pakistani community opening up small businesses and really becoming entrepeneurs,” said Mike Evans, the executive director of the Bolingbrook Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve really seen a large investment from them back into our community.”
It’s a cyclical relationship, Rashid added. Pakistani American families come into the community and invest into the businesses. The community, in turn, allocates its resources to what’s popular with its residents.
For example, cricket is one of Pakistan’s most popular sports. And earlier this year, the Bolingbrook Park District opened its second cricket field.
The village also hosts one of the area’s celebrations of the Pakistan Independence Day with a flag-hoisting ceremony of the Pakistani flag at the Town Center.
When the village was named one of the country’s top 100 places to live by Money Magazine last month, Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar gave credit to the community’s southeast Asian population.
“The diversity means a lot to our village,” Claar said. “It is one of our great strengths.”
That welcoming attitude draws in more Pakistani American families who find the expression of their culture an enticing reason to move to Bolingbrook — just as the Ashrafs did 10 years ago.
Other suburbs, including Schaumburg, Hoffman Estates and Barrington, have large Pakistani American populations, said Aman Rashid, the consulate general of Pakistan in Chicago.
Part of it, he said, is because of class. The first emigrants from Pakistan were doctors, lawyers and other financially successful professionals.
“So they went out to the suburbs and bought their own homes, started their own businesses,” Aman Rashid said. “That’s the American way of life.
“And, of course, it’s true that ‘Birds of a feather flock together.’ That’s true universally.”
Newcomers are also enticed by local businesses that cater to the Pakistani American business, such as Bismallah Restaurant & Grocery, 475 W. Boughton Rd., a local store where shoppers can find the breads, spices and meats necessary to cooking a traditional Pakistani meal.
The food is “a huge part of our culture,” said Sadia, who tries to cook traditional meals for her family as often as she can.
Her 5-year-old daughter, Elsa, clad in a pink lace dress with a matching bow in her hair, clammered up to her chair at the dining room table for dinner one summer evening.
“Eggplant, please,” Elsa said, pointing at the dish and smiling up at her mom, Sadia Ashraf, as she scooped the food on to her daughter’s plate. Elsa sampled the eggplant curry and wrinkled her nose at the intense flavor.
“It’s too hot,” she said.
Sadia laughed and handed her daughter a piece of roti, a soft bread similar to a burrito that is a staple in traditional Pakistani meals. Elsa is still adjusting to the spices in the foods, her mom said, so she tries to help her adjust with plain rice or bread to ease the shock to her developing tastebuds.
“They have to start trying the foods young —one at a time — or they’ll end up just sticking to the safe foods,” Sadia said. “We don’t want them missing that explosion of tastes in their mouths.”
Sadia and Tauheed say they speak Urdu, the Pakistani language, around Elsa and their son, 7-year-old Emad, so they can begin to learn it.
‘Stereotypes being shattered’
Now that they are getting older, Sadia and Tauheed said they are beginning to discuss a more complex part of their culture: Being Muslim. About 96 percent of Pakistani people belong to the Muslim faith.
“Culture is very different from religion, and a lot of people collapse the two,” Sadia said. “But at the same time, it’s a big part of who we are.”
Sadia also chooses to cover, a Muslim tradition where a woman keeps certain parts of her body covered to men who aren’t her blood relatives or husband.
The clothing she wears is sometimes more typical American clothing that simply cover her shoulders and legs and sometimes the colorful, beaded outfits of traditional Pakistani dress.
Sadia said she and Tauheed have taken time to do presentations in Emad’s classrooms, teaching the students about both Pakistani culture and the Muslim religion.
The couple said like many other Muslim families, they have felt the aftershocks of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — often things as simple as a sideways glance from neighbors. After seven years, they said, the Pakistani American community is just beginning to feel safe once again reemerging into the public spotlight.
“I want people to know more about us and see that there’s nothing to be afraid of,” Sadia said. “We are just a normal family. I love this country, and I wouldn’t harm one brick in America.
“I want to see the stereotypes being shattered. And it’s starting to happen.”
Consulate General Rashid said events such as the flag-hoisting ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 30, help bring the Pakistani community out in a positive light.
Chicagoland has about 80,000 families that are Pakistani American or of Pakistani origin, Rashid said. The number is hard to estimate because Pakistanis are allowed ot have dual nationality.
“America hasn’t been properly introduced to the people of Pakistan,” Rashid said.
Coming together as a community helps, Sadia said. The Pakistani families in Bolingbrook and throughout Chicagoland tend to be close-knit, she added, and often spend weekends and special events celebrating together.
She said Urdu has more than 200 words for relationship — a signal of how important friends, family and gatherings are to the Pakistani culture.
“Our weekends are not spent cleaning the garages or building porches,” she said. “Our weekends are for being together. We’ll use anything for an excuse to have a party.”
It is that same principle that guides the Pakistani respect for the elderly, Sadia said.
“In Pakistan, the elderly are revered,” she said. “They come alive. Their wisdom guides us, and they become the center of the household.”
The close communities also contribute to another tenet of Pakistani culture—arranged marriages. Sadia said she and Tauheed’s marriage was arranged by their parents, though they each had influence on the decision.
“In a way, we chose each other,” she said. “I saw a kindness in him, and I was drawn to it.”
The two wrote each other letters for two years while Tauheed was working in the United States as an electrical engineer and Sadia was back in Pakistan.
She keeps the cards and letters in a box stored in their office, a phsyical reminder of how they fell in love.
“It was just like Jane Austen,” she said. “Very romantic. A lot of people view arranged marriages a certain way, but I feel very lucky. I feel like I’m still dating the man I love. And we know we’re guided by the same moral compass.”
The Ashrafs are planning a trip back to Pakistan to show their children where they came from—a trip that will offer them not only a glimpse of their family heritage, but also insight into the poverty that still plagues many parts of the country.
Sadia looked over at Elsa as she spoke, reaching out to stroke her hair.
"It's natural, culture does diminish over the generations," Sadia said. "But we don't want our children to forget who they are and where they came from — the good and the bad."