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Asian-American: Chicago Zindabad!

By Michael Kugelman
April 14 2013




If you think of the Asian-American communities making major contributions to American politics, culture, and economics, which ones come to mind?

Certainly the Indian diaspora. And the Chinese and Korean ones as well.

But did you think of Pakistani-Americans? If not, then you clearly haven’t been to Chicago.

The Illinois city  is home to nearly 100,000 Pakistanis, and to a major thoroughfare called Devon Avenue — part of which is named Muhammad Ali Jinnah Way. A New York Times portrait has depicted the range of colorful characters inhabiting this Little Pakistan — from booksellers and cab drivers to gay-rights advocates. Chicago is also the US headquarters for two of the largest Pakistan-focused NGOs — The Citizens Foundation and Human Development Foundation. Back in 2010, Chicago’s Pakistani organisations united to organize flood relief funding for Pakistan. Not surprisingly, Chicago has a sister-city arrangement with Lahore (though some say Karachi would be a better match).

I recently visited Chicago to give several talks at the University of Chicago, and I was blown away by what I discovered.

It’s one thing to experience the diaspora’s global spread. I remember walking through Oslo several years back and feeling like I had been transplanted to Pakistan (Pakistanis, incidentally, constitute one of Norway’s largest immigrant communities).

Yet, it’s quite another thing to witness a range of Pakistanis at the top of their respective fields — and all in one city.

Chicago’s medical community features Teepu Siddique. He teaches at Northwestern University Medical School, conducts research on ALS, and is described by his peers as a future Nobel Prize winner.

Chicago’s business world features Mehmood Khan. He’s the chief scientific officer and a senior executive at Pepsico, and one of the highest-ranking Pakistanis in corporate America. M. Zia Hassan, dean emeritus of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s business school, has an endowed chair of business in his name. I’m told no other such chair is named for a Pakistani anywhere else in America.

And then there were my hosts — members of the Pakistan Club, an initiative of the University of Chicago’s ultra-prestigious Booth School of Business. Many are Pakistani-American Booth alums, and now highly successful Chicago investors and financiers. One of them, Rizwan Kadir (to whom I’m grateful for sharing many of the names mentioned here), worked for several years as a trader — and was urged by Pakistani-Chicagoans to run for the US Congressional seat vacated by Rahm Emanuel. Alas, he didn’t take their advice.

Other Pakistanis in Chicago, however, have opted for public service. Tariq Malhance is CFO of Cook County (which encompasses Chicago, and is the second largest county in the US), and was previously comptroller of Chicago—making him the highest-ranking Pakistani city official in America. The current comptroller is another Pakistani, Amer Ahmad. Within the legal realm, Pamela Leeming — a Christian Pakistani-American—is a Cook County judge, and the first Pakistani in America to be elected or appointed to a judgeship.

How about architecture? Chicago boasts two of America’s most iconic skyscrapers — the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) and the Hancock Building. Both were designed by Pakistan-born Fazlur Rahman Khan.

And then there’s cricket. This is not — as I’ve written previously — an institution synonymous with American culture. Yet, Chicago boasts an unusually dynamic cricket scene — and the Pakistani-American community plays a key role in sustaining it. Back in the 1970s, the US fielded a team (with associate status) in the Cricket World Cup. The squad was captained by Masood Chic — a Chicagoan of Pakistani origin.

Admittedly, the story of Pakistanis in Chicago has a dark side. David Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana, both now imprisoned for their involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, are from the city. And a Chicago cab driver, Raja Lahrasib Khan, was charged by the FBI with providing funds to al Qaeda. Several years back, as these allegations surfaced — and as news emerged of a Pakistani-American’s attempt to bomb Times Square — some Pakistanis in Chicago admitted to being embarrassed or apologetic about their heritage.

Yet these are anomalies. They don’t take away from the larger theme at play — Pakistani-Americans making positive, high-visibility contributions in a major American city.

So what’s the takeaway from this tale? The optimist will say it’s a powerful validation of the success of the US-based Pakistani diaspora — but the cynic will lament it as a sign of Pakistan’s immense brain drain.

To that end, let’s hope these successful Pakistani-Chicagoans will give back to Pakistan (I imagine many already do). Philanthropy is something the diaspora does famously well. Even better would be visits to Pakistan to offer training and advice to young Pakistanis interested in their fields.

Of course, the risk is that these young people, mesmerised by the heights the Pakistani-Americans have attained in the US, will decide they’re better off abroad too.

But that’s a discussion for another day.

Originally published by Dawn Pakistan

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