Friday, October 10, 2008

LAHORE, Pakistan

When their daughter turned 23, Qaisra and Ibrahim Sheik, who manufacture packaging machinery, began to look for marriage proposals for her.

Saira Sheik, the eldest of their three children, had just received her bachelor’s degree from the Lahore School of Economics. The mother’s ideal son-in-law would be a well-settled, highly educated man who could compete with her daughter´s 5 feet, 10 inches; the father wanted a liberal Muslim.

Both parents were adamant about one requirement: They desired a suitor living outside Pakistan.

“Considering the political and economic conditions in this country, both my husband and I were interested in finding a husband for our daughter who was settled abroad,” Mrs. Sheik said. “We realized that given how the political situation was spiraling downward, keeping our daughter here would be unfair to her.”

Saira Sheik was married July 20 to Naghman Azmat, who works for Macro Technologies in Boston.

According to her mother, Saira was even more eager than her parents to move abroad after marriage.

“She would constantly tell me it´s not worth it to live in this country,” said Mrs. Sheik. “She believed salaries were not increasing while inflation was peaking, leading to a horrible quality of life.”

The Sheiks aren´t alone. Anxiety over Pakistan´s future is making many parents of prospective brides uneasy.

The country has been ruled by the military for most of the time since independence from Britain. There is a new civilian government in Islamabad, headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. But militant violence on the border with Afghanistan and the growing influence of Islamic extremists have led to tensions with the United States and lowered investor interest in the country.

Shahrukh Jehangir, who runs a marriage bureau in Lahore, says the marriage trend has changed in the past five years.

“Earlier, parents wanted to see their daughters settle down close to home,” she said. “Now, they just want to send their daughters as far away as possible.”

Ms. Jehangir says every third family that comes to her looking for a groom is eager to push the daughter to greener pastures.

In some cases - like Kaukab Perveen, a housewife in Karachi - the search is for brides abroad who could help the sons settle down in a country other than Pakistan.

Mrs. Perveen’s 22-year-old son got engaged last year to a 19-year-old in Saudi Arabia whose father manufactures elevators.

The rate at which Pakistanis are flocking abroad is unprecedented, said Lahore-based lawyer Hina Jillani.

“Previously we would only see economic migration amongst low socioeconomic classes, but nowadays even well-off sectors of society seem to be rushing toward greener pastures.”

Pakistani brides are heading to Canada, the U.S., Europe, Singapore and, more recently, Australia.

The Pakistani Embassy in Washington estimates there are close to 500,000 Pakistanis living in the United States, with a high concentration in the New York-New Jersey area. According to 2004-05 estimates provided by Pakistani embassies from around the world, there are about 3.97 million Pakistanis living outside the country.

Many would-be mothers in Pakistan, meanwhile, don’t want to wait to send their daughters or sons abroad. They are rushing abroad in their seventh month of pregnancy to ensure that their child would be born with the “dearest of all gifts - a U.S. passport.”

“The future seems so awful in Pakistan that after I got pregnant, everyone began pushing me to head to the United States of America,” said Mariyam Ali Ahsan, cuddling her 3-month-old son.

Mrs. Ali Ahsan said she and her husband spent $10,000 on the airfare and hospital bills in New Jersey.

“It´s the best investment we could have made in our child´s future,” she said.

For Fiza Mustanzil, whose husband owns an electronics business in Lahore, the decision to have her first baby in the U.S. was difficult.

“I wanted to be with my mother and my family for the baby´s birth, but my husband was adamant the birth should take place in America so the baby would receive U.S. citizenship,” said Mrs. Mustanzil, who has just returned from Houston with her 2-month-old daughter, Anaya.

In retrospect, Mrs. Mustanzil thinks they made the right choice for their child. “At least our daughter now has the option of fleeing the country if the situation worsens.”

Gynecologists all over Pakistan have also begun witnessing this trend.

“Those who are affording and those who have the privileges tend to make the choice to travel abroad for the delivery in order to obtain [other] nationalities for their children,” said Dr. Ghazal Mehmood, head of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad.

Though it´s hard to put exact numbers on the trend, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is definitely on the rise.

“The brain drain the country is currently facing is unlike anything we have encountered in the past,” said Muhammad Hafeez, chairman of the sociology department of the University of Punjab. “The push factors are evident: Political instability and the plummeting security situation are scaring many away.”

Mr. Hafeez also attributes the atmosphere of fear in Pakistan to both the local and international media.

“The media [are] worsening everything,” he said. “If you look at the TV screens, it´s a surprise that anyone is living in Pakistan.”

The climate of fear is also scaring away investors.

Many Pakistanis with some money to spare are investing in property in the United Arab Emirates, hoping it will lead to permanent residency status in the oil-rich Persian Gulf state.

“Out of every 10 investors who I´m in touch with, at least four have either moved to Dubai or started purchasing property there,” said Sheik al-Abid, who advises Pakistani investors on real estate in Dubai. “This has all happened in the last two to 2 1/2 years.”

Almost every businessman who can afford to invest $1 million or more has turned his sights to the Emirates, Mr. al-Abid said.

Those who can´t afford to buy a condo in the Gulf look toward countries that favor highly skilled immigrants.

Suhail Amir, an immigration consultant, said the number of people searching for a way out of Pakistan has definitely doubled in the past few years.

“Simply looking at my clientele and the clientele of a few colleagues, at least 2,000 people immigrated last year from Lahore [alone],” he said.

Saira Sheik, who has changed her name to Saira Naghman, is on the verge of receiving her U.S. green card - permanent resident status - in a couple of months. Her mother regularly browses her daughter´s Facebook page to view pictures she has uploaded.

“See how happy she looks,” said her mother, pointing at a picture of her daughter and son-in-law. “I think we definitely made the right choice in sending her away.”

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