Author Sabina Khan knows firsthand how the unpredictability of a work visa can change the course of an entire family’s path. Her recollections of the uncertainty surrounding the U.S. visa system and how it upends the lives of children and teens in particular was what inspired Khan to write her sophomore young adult novel Zara Hossain is Here, which was released on April 6 by Scholastic.
The book follows a 17-year-old bisexual Pakistani girl named Zara Hossain who moves to Texas after her father takes a position as a physician at a local hospital. When Zara finds her locker covered in Islamophobic grafitti she immediately calls out the football star responsible, setting off a series of events that lead to her father getting severely injured in an alleged hate crime. The family then has to both wait for her father to physically recover while also wondering what would happen if their primary breadwinner could not work anymore.
“It’s all very dicey,” Khan said.
Khan drew on her own experiences with alienation and instability as an immigrant in creating Zara’s story. She and her husband were South Asian parents with two young children living in Corpus Christi, Texas, when their whole world fell apart in 1999. The family had been in the U.S. for several years and were hopeful that their long wait for a green card and permanent residency would soon be over. But things took a turn when Khan’s husband followed up on their application status.
“He was told pretty casually that the lawyer had forgotten to file a critical piece of documentation,” Khan said. “Because of that, the whole process was derailed. We would have to leave the country for a couple of years before we could continue the process.”
Khan and her husband were both devastated and at a loss about what to do next. The couple had met and married in the U.S. and were an intrafaith Hindu-Muslim couple from Bangladesh and India respectively, meaning that finding a new country to call home would be challenging. The family would abruptly move to Canada in order to start over. While the move ultimately turned out to be a successful one, Khan still clearly recalls how traumatizing it was leaving the United States for a country where they knew no one.
“We were literally starting from scratch, and it was really, really difficult and scary with two kids and not having any sort of financial safety net,” she said.
As a result, Khan wanted Zara’s story to explore the multiple ways the combination of racism and visa insecurity can lead families to feel extremely unsafe and unstable while living in the U.S. For instance, Zara has issues at school but doesn’t feel safe enough to speak up. She endures her treatment silently until it becomes too much. Khan believes that attitude is common among visa holding families. Residency status is tied to employment, so the possibility of job loss looms over all major decisions.
“Even [Zara’s] parents advised her, ‘Just keep your head down. Let’s just get through this. Once we have our green card and you go away to college, hopefully things will be different,’” Khan said.
Contrary to fear-mongering by anti-immigrant proponents, getting a green card is a complicated and drawn out process, especially for families. There are an estimated 4 million immigrant workers and family members currently living and working in the United States. Obtaining permanent residency can be particularly delicate for older teenagers like the fictional Zara. Teenagers will automatically age out of the requirements for a dependent visa and automatic citizenship when they turn 21 years old. They then have to go to the back of the line to gain residency status for themselves and aren’t included in their parents’ applications any longer.
“Imagine waiting for 12-13 years [for permanent residency] and in the meantime your children turn 21,” Khan said. “So, all of a sudden, those children can’t be part of that process which you’ve been waiting for so long for.”
On top of the stress and worry about residency status, families like Khan’s also have to navigate xenophobia and racism in their classrooms, workplaces, or larger communities. As she researched the state of bullying in K-12 schools to illustrate what Zara experienced, Khan was also struck by how the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric incited by the 2016 election cycle and the so-called “Muslim ban” affected the way foreign-born and Muslim students were treated by their peers. The wave of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment that arose during President Donald Trump’s election was also not new, but rather a continuation of the Islamophobic wave that began after 9/11. However, while racism and Islamophobia plague Zara’s story, her bisexuality is not a part of her identity that she struggles with. It was important to Khan that Zara’s sexuality not be a source of conflict at either school or in her home life.
“I just wanted a character who just happens to be bisexual,” said Khan, whose own daughter came out as queer several years ago. Khan wanted to create a Muslim family like her own that embraced and protected their daughter after she opens up to them about her sexuality.
“She knows to talk to her parents about anything,” Khan said. “I wanted the focus [of the book’s conflict] not to be on her sexuality, but rather on what she was facing at school.”
In a twist on the common stereotype of Muslim parents being uncomfortable with queer identities, Zara’s immigrant parents are fully accepting of their child’s sexuality while Zara’s girlfriend Chloe struggles with her parents religious-based intolerance.
“Often we talk about parents of color being non-accepting, but really a lot of white parents aren’t that accepting,” Khana said. “It’s not a conversation that’s being acknowledged. I think it’s easy to point fingers at other cultures. It’s easier to say, ‘You know, that’s a very conservative culture and so of course those parents are homophobic.’”
Khan hopes the complexity of Zara’s identity and her willingness to speak up against bullying and injustice helps other teens do the same.
“[Zara] refuses to stay silent because she doesn’t believe that her family should pay for somebody else’s prejudice,” Khan said. “I hope young adults who read this book also see the importance of standing up for others who are facing these kinds of things because that means a lot.”