When Pakistani-American Naila Amin, 27, of Baldwin, stood in front of Mepham High School’s Leadership and Voices of the Past students, she said she was nervous. Amin has shared her story many times before, but Dec. 20 was the first time she told it to students who were the age she was when it happened.
Rina Sarfraz, a Mepham student, had been following Amin’s story, and reached out online to ask if she would speak to a high school class. Amin wanted to keep spreading awareness through her story, and her nerves eased when she saw how curious and engaged the students were during her presentation. She said that her goal is to ensure that no woman is alone, like she was, if her childhood is cut short by a forced marriage.
Amin came to America at age 4, from a remote village in the Attock tribal region of Pakistan. She traveled with her pregnant mother and three siblings to be with her father, a Merchant Marine stationed in New York City. They lived in Astoria, Queens, where Amin attended kindergarten.
When she was 8, her family visited Pakistan, where, in keeping with Muslim traditions, Amin was affianced to her first cousin, Tariq. He was 13 years older. She officially signed her marriage contract, or Nikah, to be Tariq’s wife before she entered high school. However, at 14, she started dating a boy named Edy. Her parents called it adultery when they found out. Amin said this led to a physical fight and her first attempt to run away from home.
She stayed with Edy and his family, who brought her to a social worker at the school she attended in Queens. After seeing Amin’s bruises, the social worker called Child Protective Services. She became a ward of the state, which meant that the New York government promised to protect her. “That’s what saved my life,” she said.
According to Amin, she was lost in the foster care system. They could not find a Muslim foster home or even provide halal food, which is required under Muslim law. “Nobody knew what to do with me,” she said, referring to the foster care process in which her CPS provider moved her to new homes. Eventually it occurred to Amin that there were no international or Muslim children at any of these places. She wanted to practice her faith and belong to a Muslim community, so she ran away from one of the homes and returned to her parents’ house. They then flew to Pakistan together and started living with Tariq.
Amin ran away from her husband’s home in Pakistan. When her family brought her back, Tariq and her father beat her. Amin’s mother screamed for them to stop, but they never did, she said.
“We need to implement more programs to help our citizens [overseas],” Amin said. “God knows how many women are trapped.”
One afternoon in 2005, Amin escaped and was running through the streets of Islamabad. She did not know where to go and, out of desperation, called an uncle for help. She begged him to call Child Protective Services in the U.S. because she feared her family would kill her to protect their honor, a Pakistani tradition when a child brings shame to family. Instead, Amin’s uncle brought her home to Tariq, who accused him of eloping with his bride. This led to a fight between the two men, and out of anger, the uncle finally called CPS.
“If I was not a ward of the state, I was not coming back,” Amin said, noting that the pull of New York state and its foster care system was strong enough to get her home. Her mother came back to America, too. When they landed at Kennedy Airport, several police officers, social workers and government officials greeted Amin and took her to a psychiatric hospital to be evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Eventually she moved in with her mother in Baldwin and formed a stable relationship with her. “She cooked me breakfast this morning,” she told the Herald. Today Amin continues to live with her mother, has a boyfriend and a 10-year-old son named Aayan.
She recently interned at the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation, an organization that works to protect women’s rights and end honor violence. She aspires to be a social worker and is studying toward her associate’s degree at Nassau Community College. She will be the first female in her family to graduate from college.
Amin said that when a young woman is being forced to marry and speaks out about it, “As a social worker, I can’t intervene unless there is abuse.” She said that she hopes to change that with the Naila Amin Foundation, which she said will provide a home for victims of forced marriages. In October she received a letter from the IRS, approving her organization as a nonprofit. In November Amin received the Susan B. Anthony Award from the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women for her dedication to her cause.
“I really do believe in this dream of mine,” she said. “Once I find this safe space, this shelter, I could reach out to legislators and senators and make people see that this is really an issue that is happening here.”
Amin said she hopes New Jersey Bill A3091, which would bar those under age 18 from marrying or entering a civil union regardless of parental consent, can raise more awareness in New York. In November the bill advanced in the state’s Assembly Judiciary Committee with 64 passing votes, and is now pending in the State Senate.
Amin plans to give more presentations at high schools and colleges. She found the experience at Mepham rewarding, and was surprised by the number of questions she was asked and the sincere interest of the students. “It was like looking back in time to see a younger version of me in the students,” she said. “I needed that.”
For more information or to donate to Amin’s cause, visit her Gofundme page at www.gofundme.com/NailaAminNaf.