NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 24, 2012

'Where else but America?'

From immigrant from war-torn Pakistan to state representative

By Angeljean Chiaramida
STAFF WRITER

---- — SEABROOK – On Dec. 5, when Aboul Khan takes the oath of office as a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, it will be a remarkable step on a journey that’s taken him from civil war in his native Bangladesh to the No. 1 vote-getter in November’s election.

Khan, 52, earned 2,644 votes in Seabrook’s Nov. 6 election that brought out 78 percent of town voters. More Seabrook voters cast their ballots for Khan than for either presidential candidates Romney or Obama, or for gubernatorial candidates Ovide Lamontagne or now governor-elect Maggie Hassan.

When pointed out to Khan, he smiles and thanks Seabrook voters for having faith and confidence in his ability to represent them well in the State House.

“I just always try to do what I can to help people,” Khan said. “I cannot say enough about Seabrook voters. They’re wonderful. I’m so proud.”

It isn’t the first time voters put Khan in responsible roles. They elected him to the planning and budget committees, and he’s serving his second term on the Board of Selectmen.

When this convenience store owner, husband, father, and extremely proud naturalized citizen stood at the polls the night residents first chose him as their selectman, he said this is a nation like no other.

“I still feel that way,” Khan said. “There is nowhere else where someone like me, born in another country, could come, run for office and be elected. It’s amazing.”

According to Khan, his experiences growing up in what was then East Pakistan and now Bangladesh, leads him to treasure the United States. America has its challenges, he said, but here no one asked him what his religion is or what caste he’s from. Khan said that’s why the United States is still the hope of so many seeking the one thing that makes it unique.

“It’s the freedom,” he said. “I always wanted to come to America because of the freedom the United States offers.”

He’s lived in the United States since 1981, when he came as a young student and attended New York’s Columbia University for a time. Khan insists that in the United States, if a person does the right thing, plays by the rules and works hard, “the whole world is open to you.”

“I lived 20 years in New York in the Bronx before I came to Seabrook,” Khan said. “Most of the people living in the Bronx were Jewish, there were very few who were Muslim, like me. But there weren’t any problems; we were neighbors.”

Owning the Route 1 Richdale Store since early in 2001, even when Muslim terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, his experiences never altered his opinion about the basic fairness he’s found in the culture of the American people. No one retaliated against him, his family, or his business, he said.

“This is a wonderful town, a wonderful country,” Khan said.

Witness to history

Khan’s personal story gives him the experience to recognize fairness and opportunity when he sees it. Khan was born the son of a government magistrate in East Pakistan, located in the northeastern corner of the Indian subcontinent. For the first decade of his life, Khan lived in East Pakistan before it won its freedom from what was then West Pakistan, more than 1,000 miles away on the other side of India.

The odd division was the result of the partition of India after it was given its independence from Great Britain in 1947, Khan said. Both East and West Pakistan are mostly Muslim in religion, but East Pakistan lived under the thumb of West Pakistan with little say over governmental rule.

“If you were considered for a government job, you had to go to West Pakistan for the interview,” Khan said. “We spoke different languages. East Pakistan spoke Bengali. West Pakistan spoke Urdu.”

It was language that brought the first signs of friction, Khan said, when West Pakistan passed a law that everyone had to speak Urdu.

“That’s when everything started to break down,” Khan said. “It started a student movement. My uncle was part of it. It was the 21st of February, 1952. There was a protest of the language movement. The police opened fire. Many students were killed in the streets.”

With unrest growing for decades, by 1970 things came to a head when the Awani League, the major political party in East Pakistani, won the majority of seats in the 300-seat Pakistani Parliament.

The results of the election changed the balance of power from West Pakistan to East Pakistan, Khan said. On March 25, 1971, as the two sides were supposedly negotiating the transfer, the West Pakistan-controlled army invaded East Pakistan. The day after, East Pakistan’s leadership declared independence and the war was on.

“We were living in Dhaka, the capital; I was 11 years old,” Khan said. “I tell you, there was shooting everywhere. It was like what you see on television in Syria today. Everyone went into hiding.”

With the cloths on their backs and a few things they could carry in a sack his mother made, the family fled Dhaka for its native village of Bahndaria. But getting there was the tricky part. It took days, ingenuity, and the loyalty of the family pet.

Driving on the roads wasn’t safe, boat travel was the only way, but thousands were trying to get on the same ship, he said, which would have sunk if they’d all gained passage. The ship was moored in the water off shore.

“My father got a dingy and we all got in, but my father said we couldn’t take my dog, Licia, because he couldn’t fit in the boat,” Khan said. “I was crying for my dog. Then Licia jumped in the water and started to swim after us.”

In exile with Licia for months as the war raged, the family watched as hundreds of thousands of people died. But finally, East Pakistan was liberated and became Bangladesh.

“It was the 16th of December, 1971,” Khan said. “A nation was born right before my eyes.”

His parents remained building the new nation, and when his father died he was the Senior Deputy Secretary of Military Defense in Bangladesh.

But Khan knew the United States was the country he wanted to call his home, emigrating in 1981, a citizen by 1988.

With his wife Nanni, he’s run a successful business here, they started and raised their family here. Their 24-year old daughter, Nusrath, a general accountant at Raytheon, is working on her masters. Son Atik, 18, is a college student at Bryant.

“They’ve both made us so proud,” he said.

And all of it – his youth in Bangladesh, his life here – gives Khan perspective to appreciate what he has more than most.

“When I was in Concord at the State House this week I met the new (Republican) Minority Leader, Gene Chandler,” Khan said. “He said he looked forward to working with me. Where else could this happen. Where else but America.”