Interview: Khalida Kareemi, Founder of Pakistani American Cultural Studies Institute

Khalida Kareemi has been teaching English Composition Writing at the De Anza College for the last 15 years. She is also coordinator for the Urdu program that is offered through the Intercultural /International Studies Division. She has also just started a non-profit organization called the Pakistani American Cultural Studies Institute (PACSI) with a dedicated youth wing called Generation Pakistan (GP). Khalida is dedicated to promoting the Urdu language to provide Pakistani-Americans with a way to maintain their linguistic culture and to introduce Urdu to non-Pakistanis. She is also dedicated to introducing and promoting literary works in English by Muslim authors to dispel negative stereotypes associated with Muslims. Her work and thoughts are highly relevant to people in our community who are striving to balance a dual identity, and we hope our conversation with her will provide you with more inspiration.

1. How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I have just started a non-profit organization called PACSI: Pakistani American Cultural Studies Institute. The purpose of this organization is to provide Urdu language and cultural education to Pakistani-Americans at the university level. Almost all ethnic groups have support for their languages and universities have included these as part of their programs. PACSI’s objective is to begin small and grow gradually in the academic environment. For now we are focusing on strengthening the Urdu Program at De Anza College. This is an institution that has shown much interest in us and I feel very fortunate that I have maintained a strong relationship with them. We have access to everything here and it certainly helps us in promoting our program. The website is www.deanza.edu and information about the Urdu Program can be reached by going into Schedules and clicking Urdu.

2. Who else is associated with PACSI?

I have set up a team with three other professional women and hope to include more as we progress. My daughter, Seema who has worked in Washington DC at the Pakistan Embassy and on Capitol Hill will be heading the youth organization called Generation Pakistan (GP). This is part of PACSI will conduct research. She has her own dedicated team of college graduates working to achieve goals we have set for the business. Since PACSI is a non-profit that is concerned with the youth, their representation is imperative to the growth and understanding of what we do

3. What was the motivation for PACSI?

I have been in the US for more than 26 years.  I am of Pakistani origin and was raised in Europe since my father worked for the Embassy of Pakistan.  Having lived outside Pakistan, I understand very well the challenges that Pakistani youth face in a foreign country. My parents were very diligent in maintaining the Urdu culture in our home; however, at the same time, we were allowed to maintain our “European culture”. Thus, when I began my teaching career in the US, I realized that I had to accomplish two things: one to teach Americans about Pakistanis and two: promote and establish Urdu language and culture to second generation Pakistani-Americans.

I believe that if a community loses a language, it loses a culture, and when it loses a culture, it becomes isolated and begins the early signs of deterioration. That is the worst result for any ethnic group. Thus, the study of Urdu became my true passion. Now that we have developed the Urdu program at De Anza College in Cupertino, students have come to realize that ethnic understanding is crucial. Furthermore, Americans have also come to understand this because of the large Pakistani-American groups at universities. Students come from many different universities to attend our Urdu classes. One student’s commute was a 2- hour drive. I had another student who claimed that “I wait all week for the Urdu class. It is the only class that makes me feel so happy.” Those kinds of testimonials truly make my work worth the time.

The reason why teaching non-Pakistanis about Muslim culture is so imperative is because of so many negative images the mainstream Americans have about Muslims and especially Pakistanis. Therefore, I include writers in my English classes from Pakistan and the Middle East such as Naghuib Mahfouz. It provides me an opportunity to teach students who we really are and that we too have a rich culture.

My work will continue to promote the study of Urdu not just as a language, but as a culture because it addresses the needs of so many young Pakistani-Americans. I also will continue to use texts that include Muslim life because it exposes the false negative images.

4. What are the cultural benefits of promoting Urdu studies for Pakistani youth?

This is a very good question. The need to work for the Pakistani youth is extremely important at a time when Pakistani culture is slowly and gradually becoming obliterated at campuses. Most campuses develop a South Asian Program. Pakistani Americans are brainwashed into thinking that when Urdu and Hindi are offered as one core program that they will be learning about Pakistani culture. It is exactly the opposite. Hindi and Urdu culture is taught as one with the Indian culture being the dominant culture. For example, the Hindi script is taught, not the Urdu. Indian nationalism and religion is at the forefront of every program, not Pakistani culture. To add to this, Bollywood has slowly penetrated our children’s lives and since Muslim and Hindu ceremonies are shown intermittently, Pakistani-Americans feel it is one and the same. Furthermore, when students have complained to departments, Urdu is brought into the schedules but with little Pakistani focus. Even the professors are hired from India and not Pakistan. The first course taught is Urdu, but then Hindi overpowers it. This is detrimental to our youth. The purpose of our organization is to change all that. I have the experience of working with more than one institution in promoting the Urdu language. Our pilot program was at Canada College in Redwood City where Urdu was part of a program called Humanities 680. It was all new and all my friends sent their children to the program. That was the greatest support that could have ever happened for Urdu. We were out in every newspaper and people called from as far as Los Angeles inquiring about the program. Observing the success at Canada, De Anza promised its support. It has never wavered.

5. What obstacles if any are you facing in your work?

We have many setbacks with developing Urdu at colleges. In most South Asian departments, Urdu is simply on the surface, but is soon swallowed up by Indians. The problem is not just that Pakistanis don’t believe in themselves; unfortunately, many lack fresh ideas. If they see something is good, instead of supporting it, they just go right ahead and copy it in some other form or shape. This is detrimental to our community because it takes away from what could be something very positive. For example, ever since I have begun this transferable Urdu program, many copycats have emerged. They use the same slogans, idioms, and language that are taken from my fliers that my students have distributed around the community vendors. However, if they simply supported the program and became a part of it, the program would have already taken a much larger shape. Understanding these setbacks has now allowed my team and myself to strategize ourselves in a way as to make our business successful. We have organized ourselves in a way that is conducive to PACSI’s success. This is primarily because this non-profit is an organization with active and educated professional women who feel the need to take our community’s children to the next level. We expect to grow rapidly and have much support, but we need a lot more as we begin to grow.

6. How will the Pakistani youth benefit from PACSI?

PACSI’s focus in on the Pakistani language and culture taught at colleges. Students who enroll in these courses receive transfer credit to any 2 and 4 years institution. Students receive GED credit or can transfer these units and fulfill the foreign language requirement. Currently, under university and college guidelines, a one-year program is necessary in order to fulfill the requirement for the foreign language. This does not include the foreign language that students take at high school. Universities have their own requirements for the foreign language. In addition, Pakistani students already have some background in their own language. It is easier to learn a language one is somewhat familiar with. If other ethnic groups are observed, they all speak the language and have a confidence that our students lack. This summer, De Anza College is offering an intensive Urdu program where students earn 10 units of university credit.

7. How can the community support PACSI?

Both physically and financially. We are available at www.svpacsi.org. People can also email me at kkareemi@svpacsi.org. Any amount of donation would be welcome. We are also working on federal aid. Setting up programs at colleges requires money. In order to make this successful at De Anza College, I gathered with my friends to brainstorm ideas and we spent our own money on marketing, planning, and media awareness to make people aware of our focus. It took four years to get the Urdu accepted by the administration. Since I am an English instructor too, it has paved the way a little easier. However, none of this could have been possible had the Dean of the Intercultural/International Studies Division, Duane Kubo not spent many hours guiding me. He always said working with the community is the toughest for any community, but mostly the Pakistanis because they do not yet understand its benefits. They will do that when their children begin a downward spiral path. I never want that to happen because it is much easier providing help at a time when students are willing and able, then to pull them out of situations that are impossible.

8. Let’s switch gears to your teaching career – tell us a little bit about it...

I teach English Composition Writing courses at the De Anza College.  I also coordinate the Urdu program.  When I began to teach, I tried all the different colleges and universities. I found that the universities had mostly rich students who were not in need of immediate help. However, I found that at the community colleges, it was different. Marginalized students who came from such diverse backgrounds were very needy. It was a challenge sometimes to help them, but I always did and still do. The results are amazing. In my mind, there is no profession that can replace teaching because so many students suffer without others knowing about it. I think especially the Pakistani students who have more serious challenges to deal with because they are isolated, alone, and many cannot communicate with their parents. Teaching is a career that has taught me many things about life. The greatest lesson is that these are our children, and we have a responsibility. Most Pakistani students understand I am there for them. It has made a huge difference in their lives. Moreover, they are not the only ones who benefit. Teachers and students help each other all the time. One gets to teach and the other to learn. In that process, learning continues for both. It is a very unusual relationship.

9. What has been the inspiration behind all this community focus in your life and career?

The community is very important to me. I learned at a very young age that supporting a community is vital to our growth. My parents were very instrumental in teaching that aspect to me. When we were living in Europe, my parents organized events at the Embassy of Pakistan and my mother also established a Muslim, young girls’ weekly club. This was a club devoted to the understanding of Muslim cultures in order to assimilate with the different Muslim communities. She believed in the brotherhood and sisterhood of Islam. It comprised of the families at various Muslim embassies. It met at different locations every week. The most enjoyable aspect of it was that sometimes it would be a hiking trip and at others a boat trip. Most of the activities were centered around what the girls enjoyed. It felt very good watching these ladies (my mother always in a saree) climbing hills and walking long trails in valleys. Sometimes the mothers would have their way and walk the girls through an array of rose or tulip gardens. It was always a fun trip. I was taught that our religion is the core focus of what a community should be. I think those great women made every effort to make that a reality

10. Tell us about your family…

I am married and have two college age daughters. My husband attended MIT and Stanford and earned his Engineering degrees. He ventured on starting three companies with innovative high-tech creations and then saw one of them go public. The company that became public was Penware, and Canesta his latest startup is doing very will and expected to also be a great success. Currently, he is mentoring several early stage startups; in the past two years, he has assisted three entrepreneurs in getting their start ups off the ground successfully.

My older daughter is at UC Berkeley and is majoring in Business and Economics. My second daughter, Seema graduated form UC Davis and has worked in DC at the Embassy of Pakistan under DCM Mr. Sadiq and then later for Congressman Mike Honda and .Congresswoman Cynthia Mkinney. She spent last summer doing volunteer work for the earthquake victims in Kashmir. She is currently enrolled in graduate courses at UC Berkeley and intends on entering law school.

11. Anything else you would like to say to our readers?

First of all, I am very grateful and honored that you have been so gracious and kind as to interview me for my organization. This kind of support is what PACSI needs. I do want your readers to know that students will benefit from this program. Firstly, their academic needs will be met in ways that they did not think possible. Also, contact with the Pakistani culture maintains the Muslim religion. This is very necessary in order to keep our children focused. I would like your viewers to visit us at our site at www.svpacsi.org. Our website is going to become more elaborate as we get funding. For now, I have created this organization with my own funds and am still in the process of working with the different aspects of the organizations. My students in my English Writing classes have helped out in every possible way. I am very grateful to them. However, any donations by the Pakistani community would be greatly appreciated. Any support people could give in marketing our program and our organization, we would accept in a heartbeat. We are a new organization and would love the Pakistani community to support us at any level. No amount of financial or physical help is too small to be recognized. Also, please give us any comments and suggestions on our website! Again, thank you for time and interest.

(Posted from The Saturday Post)

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