The partition of India in 1947 created some 12 million refugees. My parents and grandparents were among them. They were part of a mass, and bloody, migration in which people lost their homes, family members, and dignity. Like the Syrian refugees of today, they’d have preferred to stay in the cities in which they were born, to hold on to their family homes, and to avoid the possibility of rape, disease, or death—all dangers of crossing borders.
Less than a week after the attacks in Paris, the House of Representatives voted to pass a bill that would make it virtually impossible for any Syrian or Iraqi refugees to enter the United States and start a path similar to my parents’ journey in 1947. They, too, were caught in a struggle rooted in religious differences and colonialism.
What I know of the partition of India comes from reading books, or coaxing one small detail at a time out of my parents, who belong to a community of Indians called Sindhis. My mother was 3 years old when she became a refugee, my father 5, and yes, they were young. But their voices still break with loss and longing when I attempt to glean any information about those years.
My father’s family—Sindhi Hindus—exchanged their home in Karachi for a flat in Mumbai that was owned by a Sindhi Muslim. My mother and her family members fled their home in Hyderabad, leaving her father behind, in boats crammed with other Hindus. They all feared what lay ahead for them if they remained in a country billed as an “independent Muslim state.” Karachi and Hyderabad were in pre-partition India. But by today’s geography, my parents’ birthplace is Pakistan.
Nearly 20 years after moving to different parts of India, my parents met, married, and in 1971, moved to Belize, then a colony of England. Ten years later, the country gained independence. Residents were able to keep their British passport or choose to get a new Belizean one. My parents opted for the latter. Over time, their retail business in the small Central American nation generated resources to send their children to school in the United States. The risks they took, the welcome they received in their new homelands, and the sacrifices they made painstakingly set in motion my American story.
To move from Belize, I had to prove I could afford my US education. That meant hours of waiting in line at the American embassy in Belize, showing bank statements, proving family ties, and being humiliated by a visa officer. These officers are generally junior State Department employees who are too often inflated with power from sitting behind bulletproof glass and barking questions at cowering would-be immigrants and students. In America, the political discussion can make it seem like visas are being given away in the villages of India and the towns of Colombia. But when you are abroad, getting an American visa is rare—like winning the lottery.