Rukshana and Me: A Story of Family Ties from Pakistan

By Donald Lieber
Web Exclusive

Pakistani womanIslamabad. March 2004.

The spicy varieties of fresh tea served to me during my recent visit to Pakistan, in numerous cafes and street stands throughout this diverse and misunderstood nation, made me realize that there was, finally, much more to a cup of tea than Mr. Lipton and a slice of lemon.

My epiphany of tea was among many fond memories I recall from my first visit to Pakistan – a venture made necessary when my six year old daughter moved there with her mother, an American aid worker.

While enjoying the exotic teas, the hospitality of the Pakistani people, and the joy of being with my daughter for the first time in six months, I thought about the unpredictable events that led to my visit here: a divorce; the need to travel around the world to visit my only child; and a lifelong involvement in world affairs and human rights issues.

I pondered the ways in which world events – often with huge international implications – can also create profound connections between individuals that otherwise would not occur.

I began to think deeply about my relationship with Rukshana – the nanny taking care of my daughter in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city.

That’s why Rukshana watches my daughter…

Some 3 million Afghani citizens, maybe more, are estimated to have fled their homes in desperation over the past two decades.

A succession of violent and oppressive foreign interventions created one of the most largest, rapid, and forced population shifts in history. In just over twenty years, three distinct historical events created recurring surges of massive civilian displacement, nearly unprecedented in history. The 1982 Soviet invasion, the 1996 Taliban takeover and, finally, the massive American military assault of 2002, caused millions of Afghani citizens to flee their homes in fear and misery.

By the end of 2002, some 2.5 million displaced Afghanis accounted for one quarter of the entire global refugee population, according to the U.S. Committee on Refugees. Over one million of them fled to neighboring Pakistan.

That’s why Rukshana watches my daughter…

Rukshana and her husband Rustan used to live in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city. Rukshana looked forward to raising a family in the land their family called home for generations.

Rukshana, her husband and their 7 children (five girls and two boys) now live in a one bedroom flat in an overcrowded section of the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi known as “Muslim Town.” A majority of the residents of “Muslim Town”, she said, were illegal Afghani refugees.

Rustan was a high school teacher in Afghanistan. Now, as a refugee with no permanent legal status in Pakistan, he cannot find significant and legal employment.

Rukshana, however, is paid the equivalent of about $60 US dollars per month to care for the four-bedroom, three-bathroom, security-perimeter home where my daughter lives with her mom – an American relief worker – in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city.

Everyday Rukshana keeps the marble floors clean, washes the clothes, cleans the dishes, buys groceries, cooks upon request – and cares for my daughter after school. Sometimes she helps my daughter start her homework.

Watching my daughter is the only source of income for Rukshana’s family.

Rukshana’s understanding of written and spoken English is self-taught and intelligible, if elementary and awkward. Her native tongue is Pashtun, a common language among many of Afghani refugees now living in Pakistan.

My 6 year-old daughter, Tess, is now learning French and Urdu. She previously knew a little Tigrinian – a result of her previous foreign living experience in the African nation of Eritrea. Tess has repeatedly been placed in advanced reading classes.

It would be dishonest to claim I have not been not bothered that my daughter could read and speak English better than her nanny. The mindset of a protective daddy, hardened further through divorce, fought very hard to guilt me into believing that this would somehow stunt my daughter’s intellectual potential. This has been largely balanced, I wish to believe, by my awareness of the immeasurable benefits afforded to children when exposed to different societies and cultures. Tess is happy and as bright as ever.

It takes Rukshana one hour each way to commute between her home to my daughter’s house in Islamabad. She uses public busses.

Rukshana calls me “Sir” unless I ask specifically not to.

In the month that I lived in Islamabad I saw Rukshana almost everyday. During this time, she initiated conversations with me a grand total of two times. Once she scolded me for not locking the door of the house when I left. The other time was to report to me that Tess pushed her away, physically, when Rukshana tried to hurry her before school one morning.

Rukshana came across to me, initially, as a plastic figure – not quite real. She’d enter the house every morning where, from one of the upstairs bedrooms, I would hear the monotonous tapping of her slippers, dragging, with dirge-like reluctance, against the hard marble floor as she plodded into the kitchen to clean the previous night’s dishes.

Rukshana, I had thought, was a human appliance, merely performing a necessary function that fit neatly into a job description – common to many western-aid worker’s homes around the developing world.

I was bothered. I wanted to get connected to her. She cared for my daughter, after all, ever since Tess moved to Pakistan with her mom some some six months earlier. Tess and I had always been extremely close and I felt it was somehow viscerally necessary to be connected to anyone who would now play a large role in my daughter’s young life.

It was awkward and frustrating to feel that Rukshana and I may have, in the end, nothing in common.

One afternoon towards the end of my stay in Pakistan, I asked Rukshana to tell me about her previous life in her homeland, Afghanistan.

She was clearly surprised by the question – and for a minute appeared offended at this personal intrusion.

After a confused moment of silence, her eyes widened, and I felt a noticeable energy, instantly, forming between us. It was as if a button was suddenly turned on. Or, rather, as if some barrier between our connection was turned off. For the first time, Rukshana let me see the actual person who was watching my daughter.

“Afghanistan was beautiful” she said in a voice already gaining in intensity. “People used to have what they needed. People walked and talked freely.”

“My husband worked and we lived among our extended family. The children were looked after by sisters,” she said, “…or by aunts or grandparents.”

“My five daughters might have different people watch them on any day but they were all our family”, said the woman who, from over 8,000 miles away from my own home in cushy Portland Oregon, watches my own, and only, daughter every single day.

Prior to the Taliban takeover in 1996 “women did not have to be covered head-to-toe in the veiled Burka” said Rukshana. “They could do mostly what they wanted. It was like this for generations. This was the Afghanistan of the past…”.

She paused, making a whispered reference to Afghani schools destroyed by American bombings following the 9-11 al-Qaida attacks in the U.S., then continued, “…but Afghanistan is now destroyed”.

As she began to tell me how the Afghani people “used to not need anybody’s help”, I noticed, for the first time in the entire month I’ve known her, the awakening of a passionate soul. Rukshana’s voice had meaning in it, a sense of identity far deeper than the daily, soft tones of implied obedience I had only witnessed before.

Tears welled up as she told me with a rising voice, “I am proud to be Afghani. But look now at what has happened. It will never return, never get better, and I will never go back. I have no future.”

That is why Rukshana watches my daughter…

The flood of tears I was expecting, however, was never quite released. The wide-open beam of a vulnerable sadness gave way to a gradual, impenetrable, almost zombie-like stare of determination.

“I left Afghanistan” she said, now utterly stoic, “…because no girls could go to school; no girls could ever just play outside…all girls could do was just stay inside (sic). My own daughters would have no life in Afghanistan” she said.

“I knew that here (in Pakistan) I could earn Rupees and send them to school.

“So I left my home”, her voice rising as her eyes again swelled with sadness, “….only for my daughters.”

“It may be a poor school but at least it gives them a future.”

I listened to the woman who watches my daughter in Pakistan, just as I have listened to the women in other countries near and far who also have watched my daughter.

I thought of my own efforts, of my own hard determination to do whatever I can to see my daughter, to be present in her far-away life regardless of the distance involved and the difficulties inherent in such travel. I quit my full-time position with an established non-profit organization in order to pursue freelance journalism which would free me to travel overseas to be with my daughter. Such a lifestyle change altered the structure of my life forever, in some ways causing significant hardship.

Yet my choice, like Rukshana’s in Afghanistan, was never negotiable.

I then realized, for the first time, that I could in fact relate well to Rukshana.
Indeed, she and I had lots in common.

Some things are truly universal.

That’s why Rukshana watches my daughter.

Don Lieber is a freelance writer and journalist based in Portland, Oregon. His works on Africa, the middle East and Asia have have been published by the Associated Press, the United Nations, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, The Oregonian, Relief Web, NervyGirl Zine, and others.