Many disillusioned Pakistanis look beyond U.S. for work, travel and education

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By Tara Bahrampour and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010

A series of international terrorism incidents linked to Pakistanis, including a failed car bombing this month in Times Square, has prompted many Pakistanis who once had deep ties to the United States to look elsewhere for work, education and travel. It has also left some Pakistani Americans feeling uneasy in their adopted homeland.

The stress of living under suspicion has had a palpable effect, Pakistani American community leaders say. Travel agents say bookings between Pakistan and the United States are down, and U.S. visa applications for travel from Pakistan appear to be dwindling. Though the U.S. government has ended a policy implemented after an attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing that involved extra scrutiny for travelers from 14 countries, including Pakistan, many Pakistanis still feel they are being watched.

Times Square bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad "has put us all in this situation where everyone will look at us Pakistani Americans and wonder if they have any connection," said Shaista Mahmood, 54, a community leader who lives in Mount Vernon.

In Pakistan, increased scrutiny of visas and more stringent U.S. airport searches have exacerbated feelings of rejection and discomfort. Many Pakistanis say they do not want to travel to the United States anymore, whether to study, visit relatives or take once-desirable jobs.

Anger and anxiety

"All these U.S. policies have given a whole generation of Pakistanis the psyche that the United States doesn't want us," said Arsalan Ishtiaq, a visa adviser in the city of Rawalpindi who has not received a single U.S. student visa inquiry in two years. "Not only is it much harder to get a visa now, but the few who do get them worry they may get in trouble or implicated in something if they go."

A dozen technology students in Islamabad and Rawalpindi who once would have given anything to work in the United States said they were instead seeking jobs in Britain, Australia, Canada or the United Arab Emirates. Several said they had heard about humiliating searches at U.S. airports and spoke angrily of Pakistanis being branded as Islamist radicals. The Times Square incident, they said, was the last straw.

"Now the Americans will think we are all terrorists," said Asalan Khan, 21, who recently completed a course in cellphone technology and plans to work in South Africa. "Why should we study so hard, take all those tests and pay all those expenses if they are not going to respect us?"

The Times Square incident has generated hundreds of comments by bloggers, columnists and others in Pakistan. Some were perplexed and angry that an apparently successful Pakistani American might be connected to the bomb plot; others warned of new crackdowns and humiliations.

Some younger Pakistanis said friends in the United States have told prospective employers that they are of Indian origin to avoid problems. Others said relatives who are longtime U.S. residents have faced criticism from friends still living in Pakistan, whose views have become much more anti-American in recent years.

"My uncle has been living in the United States for years," said Akmal Abassi, an English language instructor and visa adviser in Rawalpindi. "He still admires the American values of freedom and equality, but now it is much harder for him to convince people here at home." Abassi says the majority of his students now seek advanced degrees in Britain.

Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have relatives in the United States, and several said they have decided not to visit them for now, to avoid unpleasant encounters.

'As a parent, it gets scary'

There has been no shift in the number of U.S. citizens of Pakistani origin seeking visas to travel to their native land, said Nadeem Haider Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. But he said that such a shift would be hard to gauge until this summer. "Most travel to Pakistan during summer vacation, so we'll have to wait and see," he said.

None of those interviewed in Pakistan said their family members in the United States had encountered personal problems with U.S. authorities. But Adnan Khan, who has lived in the United States for 28 years, said that this summer, for the first time, he will send his wife and daughter alone on the regular family visit to Pakistan and keep his 19-year-old son with him in Walnut, Calif.

"Reports coming out now are that it's five or six hours in the airport," he said, referring to tales of Pakistani travelers, usually young men, being detained for questioning. The last time the Khan family returned from Pakistan, three years ago, the son was pulled aside for questioning. It unsettled the father. "Why is he being separated and why am I not included?" said Khan, president of the Council of Pakistan American Affairs. "As a parent, it gets scary."

The effects of the negative publicity could be lasting, Khan said. "We're going to have a whole generation of kids . . . growing up seeing their parents sitting down every night and the discussion was this whole terrorism thing," he said. "I think they'll need therapy, once this war ends, telling them they're not terrorists."

Constable reported from Pakistan.


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