WE NEED YOUR HELP — Support your hometown newspaper by making a donation.
Neighbors

Living the ‘American Dream’

Nasrin Ahmad overcame adversity to become town of Hempstead clerk

Posted

Nasrin Ahmad watched emotionally as results filtered in for the Hempstead town clerk election on Nov. 6, in which she received 52 percent of the vote to retain the position she had occupied for two months after being appointed by the town board.

For Ahmad, the triumph meant much more than an election-night victory. It was the culmination of a long journey, one that began in Uganda, where she was born. She spent 20 years in Kent County, England, before emigrating to the U.S. and finally settling in Salisbury in the mid-1980s. There, with her husband, Naeem, she has raised three children who have all graduated from the East Meadow School District.

Since her arrival in the U.S. in 1984, Ahmad has helped fellow immigrants make the transition to a new culture. Her desire to help others, she said, stemmed from her childhood: When she relocated to England at age 6, she was discriminated against because of the color of her skin. “I know the difficulties and the challenges for the immigrants who come in, who don’t know the languages, who don’t know the services,” she said.

In the East Meadow School District, she co-founded and chaired the Human Dignity Committee in the mid-1990s, helping blend foreign cultures into East Meadow schools and curricula. “The whole thing was to teach diversity,” she added. “And it would give the children such confidence.”

Last November’s election-night victory, she said, was validation that she belonged not only in town government — but in America. “As an immigrant, that was the time when I said, ‘Yes, I’m accepted,’” said Ahmad, 57. “‘I’m an American, and I am accepted.’”

From Uganda to England

Born in Tororo, Uganda, in 1957, Nasrin Ginai was one of five children of Noor Alam Ginai and Zarina Begum. Her father died in a car accident when she was 4, and in 1963, not long before the brutal dictator Idi Amin rose to power in Uganda, the family relocated to England.

Nasrin already had British citizenship, since Uganda was a protectorate of the British Empire at the time. But the transition still came with many hardships. “[We] moved to this little village where myself and one other person was a non-white,” she said. “I grew up where children would say to me, ‘I can’t ask you to my birthday party because mommy says your legs are black.’ Things like that.”

Her mother, who did not work, but raised her children by herself after her husband’s death, died when Nasrin was 23. But her devotion and sacrifice for her children left a permanent impression. “She gave us education in a land where she couldn’t even speak English,” Ahmad said.

Though her childhood was a difficult one, she said, looking back, she doesn’t blame her former classmates for thinking the way they did. “It wasn’t a hatred,” she said. “They didn’t know. Their parents didn’t know. There was no diversity there.”

And she made a vow that she would never allow her own children to face the same difficulties. “I remember saying, ‘My children will not grow up with what I did,’” she recalled.

‘The things you see in a movie’

After high school, Ahmad recounted, “I just wanted to get out of school and go to that big city in London.” Her first job was at Barclays Bank, where she worked in foreign exchange, securities and trusts and loans. She also made a point to travel the world, and picked a new place to visit every summer — Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, Budapest, Turkey.

But she had never been to the U.S. That changed with her arranged marriage to a Pakistani man who lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She recalled her first sight of the skyline, in January 1984. “I remember thinking to myself, Wow, these are the things you see in a movie,” she said. “Suffice to say I fell in love with New York.”

After a year and a half there, she and her husband, Naeem, an engineer, decided to move to the suburbs and raise a family. Torn between Long Island and New Jersey, they ultimately chose Salisbury because of its school district and affordability.

Though she did not become an American citizen until six years after she arrived in the U.S., she said her appreciation of the country developed quickly, thanks in large part to her difficult childhood and her experiences in other countries. “The rights we have here as human beings, you don’t have anywhere else,” she said. “In America, if nothing else, if you work hard eight hours a day and do the right thing, you are assured to have a roof over your head and feed your children.”

A committee is born

Nasrin and Naeem have a daughter, Zainab, and two sons, Humza and Jaffer, all of whom graduated from Bowling Green Elementary School and W.T. Clarke Middle and High School. When Zainab was young, Nasrin decided to join the Bowling Green Parent Teacher Association. “I always thought the best way of getting to know your neighborhood was the school,” she said.

Though East Meadow was a diverse area full of families of different cultures at the time, she noticed that they were not well represented at PTA meetings. “What I found was that the majority of [English as a Second Language] mothers would not go to PTA meetings because they could not speak English,” she said. “They didn’t understand.”

Ahmad, who could speak three languages besides English — Punjabi, Swahili and Urdu — wanted to help. She began introducing parents to others who spoke the same languages to translate school pamphlets and documents. The parents started meeting regularly in her living room, and thus, the Human Dignity Committee was born. Soon enough, she began helping them not only in schools, but also in government, including obtaining library cards, health care and social services.

Eventually Ahmad took the initiative to the Bowling Green PTA, and it became an official school committee. Once her children entered middle school, it went districtwide. Within the next few years, the committee sponsored regular events that introduced the integration of foreign food, culture and art into the schools.

Salisbury resident Helen Meittinis was the PTA president of Clarke Middle and High School at the time. She recalled the impact the committee had on the district and the entire neighborhood. “Parents from different countries sometimes feel intimidated by the American way, stand in the background and are afraid to get involved,” Meittinis said, “but we opened our door and invited them in. And [Ahmad] was the leader.

“It was so helpful,” Meittinis continued. “She brought the people out of the woodwork. Being so friendly, and being so willing to help … that was her way.”

Leon Campo, the district’s assistant superintendent at the time, said of Ahmad, “She’s a wonderful example of promoting good will and understanding, and appreciation for those who are from all over the globe.”

Campo, who still lives in East Meadow, said the committee not only nurtured an understanding of foreign culture in the district, but an appreciation of it. “It affected our curriculum, our children, also the adults,” he said. “She’s a great example of what can happen in America, in terms of the American dream we think of.”

At the same time, Nasrin and Naeem raised three successful children. Zainab, now 33, works for the federal government. Humza, 29, works for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. And Jaffer, 24, attends medical school at the American University of Antigua, a Caribbean medical school.

Rise to town clerk

Ahmad reduced her activity in the schools as her children left the district, and she decided to return to the workforce. In 1998, she applied for a job in the town clerk’s office, beginning part-time as a file clerk. After taking her civil service exams, she moved to full time.

From there, she was promoted from section to section, and last September, the town board voted to have her take over as town clerk when Mark Bonilla abruptly left office.

Just as she encouraged immigrants to become involved in the East Meadow School District, she wanted to set an example by showing them — particularly the South Asian community — that there is a place for them in government. “South Asians in Nassau County, they have education, they have money,” she said. “But they didn’t have representation in government. That is the platform I ran in my community.”

The support she received from Salisbury and East Meadow during her campaign, she said, was invaluable. “The Salisbury Republican Club was my backbone,” she said. “These are the people I grew up with.”

Her success has not quite sunk in yet, as she reflects on her lifelong journey across three continents, raised by a mother who could barely make ends meet to where she is now. “The American dream is alive and well,” she said with a smile. “And I’m the proof of it.”

And as has been the case since her early days at Bowling Green Elementary School, her goal, Ahmad said, is to help others in need. And she encourages others to do the same. “Let’s give back and help those who are coming behind us,” she said. “Let’s help bring them along. That’s what makes this country so great. Americans help each other. We stand together.”