NEW YORK — Seated at a white Formica table inside Pershing Square restaurant, Nadia Batool Bokhari waved off coffee and apologized for being late. She had to take two buses to Manhattan from her home in Long Island, but rain and public transportation often don’t cooperate.
Four years after touching down at JFK as a refugee from Pakistan, Bokhari has mastered the city’s transit system. What she still finds confounding, however, is being the focus of a story rather than its narrator.
“When I started in journalism my teacher told us ‘Never be the story. If you become the story you broke the rule,’” she said.
Bokhari, 35, became the story when she was forced to flee Pakistan in 2014 after accusations of being an American spy led to her receiving multiple death threats.
Now, with the help of HIAS, the nation’s oldest refugee resettlement agency, the Muslim journalist continues acclimating to her new life. And so Bokhari arrived to the early-morning interview to tell her story. Alongside was 26-year-old Angela Almeida, a freelance journalist and producer who also volunteers for HIAS.
Bokhari’s narrative is first and foremost one of a refugee striving to survive and thrive in her adopted country. It is also the story of how HIAS has grown from helping refugees because they were Jewish to helping all refugees, no matter their background. It is an organization deeply rooted in Jewish values, whose primary mission is to welcome those like Bokhari who have come to dwell in the United States.
“Nadia and Angela’s story is one example that really demonstrates the potential of community support, and I think that is what we really need today,” said Hadas Yanay, volunteer coordinator for HIAS New York, speaking to The Times of Israel at the agency’s New York City office.
“I think in lacking the leadership at the moment to promote these values and traditions to support refugees and newcomers, it’s really up to each and everyone of us to provide that welcome because they are very much an asset to our communities. We are a nation of immigrants,” Yanay said.
HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was founded in 1881 to help Jews fleeing religious persecution and violence. For next century it helped Jewish refugees resettle, find jobs, navigate an increasingly complex immigration system and connect with their adopted communities. Over time, as the number of Jewish refugees decreased, HIAS refocused its mission.
One of its earliest ventures into helping refugees outside the Jewish community came in 1975 with the fall of Saigon. The US State Department contacted HIAS and the latter found homes for 3,600 Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laoations in 150 communities in 38 states.
But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the new HIAS mission focus took hold. While it still helped Jews from Former Soviet Republics, it also started helping refugees worldwide — including from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iran, Morocco and Tunisia. In 2002 HIAS began operating in Kenya, helping to provide protection for refugees fleeing violence and turmoil from other African countries.
It also helps Special Immigrant Visa holders, or SIV — those from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq whose work with the US government put them at risk. Until the travel bans implemented by the Trump administration in 2017, HIAS had also helped resettle refugees from Iran and Syria.
To date HIAS has helped resettle more than 4.5 million people escaping persecution. Bokhari is one of them.
“I think migration is not going away. In fact, it’s most certainly going to increase due to climate change, increased conflict and a lack of resources,” said Yanay, who previously worked in a refugee camp in Greece as well as with an Ethiopian community in Israel.
“So instead of closing our borders, instead of retracting from the inevitable, we need to think about how we can build these bridges and welcome all faiths and all ethnicities,” she said.
Aside from providing social services and legal advice to asylum seekers, HIAS also helps the newly arrived through its community engagement office. This office helps engage the American Jewish community through synagogue dinners, seders featuring haggadahs that highlight the story of refugees, and encouraging synagogues and other community centers to act as hosts to a refugee family.
Additionally, it has a network of more than 400 volunteers who work with the agency’s resettlement department. They include people of all faiths and ages — college graduates who want to “turn their outrage about the current climate into action” and “retirees whose grandparents were helped by HIAS,” Yanay said.
In December 2017, Yanay met Bokhari at one such welcome dinner — an Iftar meal hosted by Ansche Chesed, a synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I found [Bokhari] to be extremely charismatic. She is very motivated to continue to her career path, very strong. I don’t think she sleeps very much. She has a clear idea of where she wants to go, one of the more self-motivating people I have met in my life,” Yanay said.
Bokhari told Yanay about how in 2010 she was selected for a three-month US and Pakistani journalism exchange program at Oklahoma University. In May 2011 she was one of a small group of women to report on the assassination of Osama bin Laden from Abbottabad. In 2013 she reported about how the Taliban were killing villagers along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. She also posted gender discrimination stories on YouTube when her editors refused to air them.
Pakistani journalists such as Bokhari who cover controversial stories face imprisonment and death. Sixty journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Nevertheless, Bokhari persisted in her work.
“My duty to cover these stories was like offering a prayer up at the mosque. I was no more afraid of doing these stories than a doctor should be of treating very sick people,” she said.
Bokhari first learned she was in peril when she applied for membership in Lahore’s press club. One of the members asked her to lunch. She accepted, thinking he wished to discuss her application.
“We sat down and he said, ‘You are a US spy.’ My food stuck in my throat. I was shocked. I said ‘If I’m a spy why am I still taking buses to get around? Why am I not living better than I do?’” Bokhari said.
Death threats followed. One night police from a domestic intelligence unit came knocking. They interrogated her father about her work and her travel.
“They told him my life was no longer safe,” Bokhari said.
Her father called her at the hostel where she had been staying. She needed to return at once. Bokhari gathered her belongings and arrived home before sunrise. It became clear she couldn’t stay in Pakistan.
“Anyone can throw a grenade or a bomb at my home. They want to kill me, they can kill me, but I didn’t want them to hurt my family,” she said.
Her father arranged for Bokhari to stay with a family friend in America. Fortunately, she had a US visa. She arrived with the clothes on her back, some luggage and no phone. Upon arrival Bokhari said she felt neither scared nor relieved — she was merely resigned.
“There were simply no more options,” she said.
Several weeks later Bokhari contacted CPJ and explained her situation. CPJ then contacted Human Rights First, which helped her navigate the asylum process.
According to international law, asylum seekers must prove they are refugees; the definition is based on the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
While the US isn’t a signatory to the convention, it signed on to the 1967 Protocol, which incorporates the Convention by reference. Anyone seeking asylum must file within one year of arrival in the US. Once granted asylum status they are put on the path for a green card and eventual citizenship.
Granted asylum status in early 2018, Bokhari was still struggling to find work that matched her expertise and ambition. And so after the Iftar dinner Yanay called Almeida.
As a journalist Almeida gravitated toward stories of displaced people. But she’d grown weary of helicoptering in and out their stories and wanted to volunteer for a resettlement agency. She found HIAS.
Almeida considers resettlement work particularly urgent given the current administration’s plans to cap the number of refugees admitted into the US at 30,000. That’s the lowest level in 40 years, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The [Trump] administration’s stance on refugees and the citizens helping them is an assault. I think if there’s a time to get out there and be passionate about it, it’s now,” Almeida said.
If you can make it here…
Through her volunteer work, Almeida said she’s come to appreciate how challenging the journey is for asylees. Most people don’t think about what comes after legal status is granted; there is an assumption that the person is “taken care of,” she said.
“In the case of someone like Nadia — whose identity is inextricably linked to a lifelong career — ‘starting over’ also means mapping out ways to recreate that career in a new place, with a new culture, and a different language. Resettlement is a slow process without a definite deadline, and I think people overlook some of the deeper day-to-day realities,” Almeida said.
To that end, the first order of business for the HIAS volunteer was helping Bokhari polish her resume.
Bokhari needed to emphasize her prior journalism experience, let potential employers know she was authorized to work here and show initiative — like the way she took free classes offered at Apple stores to refine her computer skills, since she couldn’t afford tuition at local schools.
Learning to thrive in a new community means more than just securing housing and health care. It includes things like learning about what to wear to a job interview.
For Bokhari’s interview at Apple, Almeida took her shopping for business casual clothes at Uniqlo in SoHo. Afterwards, they walked up Broadway, heading to Staples where they made color copies of Bokhari’s resume. As they walked, Bokhari would point people out and ask Almeida which type of shoes were job interview-appropriate.
“All things I would ask my mom or friends about; she doesn’t have anyone here to do that,” Almeida said.
It’s that kind of give and take that marks Almeida and Bokhari’s relationship.
“Being entirely honest, I don’t think of myself as a mentor. I’m offering advice and we’re working together, but she’s doing the exact same for me. She guides me on how to be a better journalist, and I share what I know about the rapidly evolving media landscape here. Taking the time out to help one another is what our days have become,” she said.
Almeida’s advice was key in helping Bokhari apply to a health reporting fellowship at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, which she recently completed. As part of the fellowship she published her piece, “Finding Health Care in the Land of Opportunity.”
In between working the overnight shift at Apple’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue and a part-time cashier job at a pharmacy in Queens, Bokhari spends her days doing freelance reporting and producing assignments for both American and South Asian news outlets.
As the interview concluded, Bokhari stood, zipped her black parka and confirmed with Almeida that she should indeed take the No. 7 subway to Flushing. She had an interview for a third part-time job — this one at the Queens Museum.
Bokhari last saw her parents four years ago, and deeply misses them. But if there is a measure of comfort to living a life apart, it comes from meeting different people and learning about different cultures, she said. Until she came to the US she had never met a Jewish person.
“In Pakistan I had no what being Jewish meant. I knew about Thanksgiving and Christmas. I had no idea about Passover, no idea about Sukkot. Now I’ve celebrated Rosh Hashanah,” she said.
“Once when I was working at the pharmacy a man told me, ‘Listen, we have the same blood line. You are from Ishmael, son of Abraham. We are from Isaac, son of Abraham.’ After that, I feel the blood connection with every Jewish person I meet,” Bokhari said. “I see someone and think ‘She is my cousin.’”