In 1990, Afshan Malik had no concerns more pressing than where she might travel for college.
She had just graduated high school and was weighing her options. Her family lived on the ninth floor of a luxury apartment building in Kuwait, which she filled with watercolor landscapes and pencil drawings. Her parents were expats from Pakistan, and had moved to Kuwait when she was a baby. Although Afshan was always keenly aware that Kuwait was not her home, it was the only home she had ever known. She filled pages of her diaries with romantic poems, and designed and sewed clothes for herself and her friends.
But then Saddam Hussein invaded. The invasion changed everything.
At first, expats were confused about what would happen to them under the new regime. The televisions stopped broadcasting news. Her parents would go into their car in the evenings to listen to BBC over the radio. Many Pakistani families began to flee. Her parents had their money and assets tied up in Kuwait and considered waiting it out.
Then they started hearing stories of girls being raped by soldiers. That night, her parents told Afshan and her younger brother and sister they would be leaving in the morning. “Pack a small bag,” her mother said.
Afshan asked if she could take her paintings. Her mother asked her if she was crazy. The car was going to be loaded with canned food and a few sets of clothing. Her father saw her crying and suggested she take a small journal so she could record all the countries they were going to pass through. Their plan was to drive from Kuwait to Mosul, Iraq to Turkey to Iran, where they would cross the border into Pakistan.
The next morning, they filled the trunk of their maroon Crown Victoria and started driving toward a border.
They lived out of their car for the next 28 days.
Afshan’s mother would take some of the cans of chickpeas, tomatoes and red beans out of the trunk and put them in a bag in the front seat every night. She would make just enough room for Afshan to curl up and sleep in the trunk of the car, with the door slightly ajar, to shield her from unwanted attention. Her parents slept on the ground on either side of the trunk. Her younger brother and baby sister slept in the back seat. There were refugee camps along the way, and sometimes, they slept in those.
When they finally got to the border of Iran, there was a military bathroom they were allowed to use. Afshan was walking back with her sister when her father handed her a rare piece of chocolate he had somehow gotten.
“Happy birthday,” he said to her. At first, she argued with him. It couldn’t be her birthday. But she had lost track of days, and it was indeed her 18th birthday.
They finally made it to Pakistan, where the five of them crammed into one bedroom of a relative’s house for months. Afshan remembers crying the first time she was able to sleep with her legs stretched out instead of curled up inside the trunk of a car. Her father went back to Kuwait to work, while Afshan tried to fit into her parents’ native country. She started college, but was bullied and isolated because of her upbringing abroad. Their living situation was far worse than Kuwait, but the sense of not really fitting in was familiar.
“You felt like a lost soul, like you didn’t belong anywhere,” she said. She finished her bachelor’s degree and then started an MBA program. A semester before she graduated, she was married in traditional Pakistani fashion. She finished her degree and two years later, in 2000, she left Pakistan to join her husband, who was working in America.
She had all her possessions with her in three suitcases when she arrived at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City. During the 18-hour flight, she thought to herself how long it would take to reach her family if anything ever happened to them.
When she arrived at customs, she approached the official at the counter. He took her passport and smiled as he said to her, “Oh, it’s your birthday! Happy birthday. Welcome to America.”
He noticed her birthday, she thought. She felt different in America than she had anywhere else.
“For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged somewhere,” she said. It was an indescribable feeling for someone who had been displaced and homeless and rejected by people in the countries of her birth and of her childhood.
“I felt like I was wanted and accepted.”
This is where I was supposed to come, she thought.
The woman who took her paperwork at immigration complimented her long, black hair and noticed her birthday on the documents, too. She wished her a happy one, as did the next official Afshan encountered.
She caught the connecting flight to St. Louis, where she settled and eventually had two children. She went back to school to get her master’s in counseling and now works as a therapist. She thinks about how she was only a few years older than her teenage daughter when she was forced to leave a comfortable, middle-class life at a moment’s notice. And then, having to leave her family thousands of miles away to start over again. It was in this new country that the first people she met all welcomed her.
Some people take the long way home.