War Wounds | Our Town | Chicago Reader

War Wounds 

Naheed Qayyum faces the new mood of the country.

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When Naheed Qayyum came to the U.S. in 1978, the first American she saw was an immigration officer at O'Hare who had curly hair and a dark complexion. "I thought all Americans were white and blond," she says, giggling. "I was surprised to see the diversity."

Qayyum had grown up in Pakistan. Her father, who had fought with the Allies during World War II, was an ardent supporter of independence from Britain, but he'd been worn down by the inefficiencies and corruption he'd seen as an administrator in Pakistan's government. Qayyum attended King Edward Medical College in Lahore, where, she says, the professors were "omnipotent," and their children were almost always guaranteed admission regardless of merit, then got the best jobs after graduation. She saw the nepotism as one more thing that had contributed to the decline of her country. Her father encouraged her to move to America, where he thought she'd have the chance for a better life. Finally she decided to take his advice, though she says it was difficult--she knew she'd be adding to Pakistan's brain drain.

It was then that she met a surgeon, Ijaz Qayyum, who'd been living in Chicago and had his own private practice. His family lived next door to Naheed's aunt in Islamabad, and they were looking for a nice girl for him. Her aunt recommended that the two meet, and they did--the first time surrounded by family members. Naheed had very little time to decide what to do because Ijaz was about to go back to the U.S. But her family was very fond of him, and so within a month they were married.

After she arrived in Chicago, Qayyum completed her residency at Cook County Hospital and a fellowship at Grant Hospital; she's now an internist who specializes in allergies, asthma, and immunology. She recalls being the only Pakistani woman in the building where she and her husband lived, but she didn't mind. She wore saris and a nose ring, and she loved the attention they brought. "To me, if someone gives extra attention it is not always negative," she says. "I never tried to blend in too much. Everybody has been an immigrant, so I always thought I belonged. I never thought I was an outsider."

Soon they made friends among other Pakistani immigrants. Qayyum became a member of the Pakistan Physicians Society in 1978, its treasurer in 1985, and is now its president. She's also on the board of the Human Development Foundation of North America, which was set up to improve literacy, health care, and economic development in Pakistan. "You do have a guilty feeling for leaving your country the way it is," she says. "There is an obligation to help our country." The oldest of her four children, her daughter Mehr, is now doing an internship with the organization in Islamabad.

Qayyum saw America as a place where immigrants could both maintain their cultural and religious standards and integrate into the dominant society. On a table in her large home in Burr Ridge is an ornate black-and-gold plate that looks like it's from the Middle East. Sitting next to it is a miniature Statue of Liberty.

Since the attacks of September 11, Qayyum seems eager to dispel misconceptions about Islam, but she also insists that Muslims must accept some of the responsibility for the stereotyping of them in this country. "We are Americans, we are law-abiding Americans," she says. "We pay our taxes, we make contributions to society--but we have to make that recognition come forth for us."

Despite the anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan, Qayyum wasn't afraid for Mehr. "The American media is blowing that way out of proportion," Mehr said in an E-mail two weeks after the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan. "There are still Americans of non-Pakistani origin here for whatever reason."

Qayyum says Mehr was more worried about her family's safety than about her own because she'd been reading about the anti-Muslim backlash here in the Pakistani papers. Qayyum hasn't experienced any of the backlash and neither has her youngest daughter, Afaf, a sophomore at the University of Chicago. But she admits that her daily life has been altered. Where she was once confident about wearing her native clothes to work, she now consciously reaches for her Western clothes. "I don't want even to be a part of a negative comment," she says. "Whether we admit it or not, we are thinking about the possibility every day. We do not want to be a statistic." She has friends who are afraid to go to the grocery store in their hijab scarves, and the mosque her two sons attend was closed during the week after the attacks because of a threat. The next week their teachers didn't show up, presumably because they were afraid.

"We've seen the pain doubly," says Qayyum. "We're looking at everything on the TV, we're feeling for them--for those mothers and families who've experienced loss. And then suddenly people turn around and look at you as if you've done all that. You don't want to feel responsible for something you had nothing to do with. Guilt by association is so unfair. We are just as American--maybe more, because we've sacrificed a lot to be Americans.

"Our life has been changed forever," she says, "but it is our job to make it the change for the better."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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