Businessman finds U.S. is still ‘a land of opportunity’

07/10/2014 4:51 PM

08/05/2014 10:00 AM

It looks like a normal gas station, a Phillips 66. Six pumps. Somewhat dressed up from the previous owner.

But it represents another nimble step in the economic climb of Zahid Awan, 49, a Pakistani-American national who more than two decades ago came to the United States, “where I could breathe openly.”

Over the years, Awan has become known as a leader in the local Pakistani community while building a life that includes work, family, citizenship and business ownership. America has become his home, but he still keeps up with events back in Pakistan and feels the pain of its continuing political turmoil.

In Kansas City, which reminds Awan of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, he found the freedom to make a livelihood and found his American wife, Carrie. They recently took their 7-year-old daughter to — where else? — Disney World.

A true American experience, said Awan.

“My daughter and my wife’s dreams have been fulfilled with this trip,” he said. “But what I have learned is that Walt Disney was so poor that he sold candies and newspapers at the Kansas City Union Station, but he never gave up on his dreams. His life is true inspiration.

“Honesty, hard work, determination and consistency are four keys to success in any field of life. This country is still a land of opportunity.”

It hasn’t always been easy, but compared with life in Humak, his small village just outside Islamabad, Awan said it’s almost impossible to complain.

“My father was doing farming and my mother was a housewife.”

His primary school was a single room with a few chairs, no electricity and five grades taught at once.

America “was always the land of opportunity,” Awan said, the only place that could fulfill his dreams. So he did not go to the United Kingdom, where millions of south Asians live today, or any other country.

And when a friend from Pakistan, Zubair Khalid, encouraged him to come to Kansas City, his new hometown was decided.

Awan had a degree in economics and political science from the University of Punjab, but in Kansas City it took about three months before he was hired at a Church’s Chicken. He started as an assistant manager at $275 a week and then moved up to restaurant manager.

At the same time, he began attending Longview Community College, thinking that he might make a career in journalism. He wrote for the student paper, the Current, and contributed to the Lee’s Summit Journal, once covering a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Awan said his biggest disappointment was leaving journalism — “I still have the bug” — but he felt he needed higher wages. Next was a small information technology company called Computers Plus he started in 1999 in Lee’s Summit with Khalid. After six years, competition from China and India eventually forced them to try something else.

Khalid ended up with Cerner Corp., while Awan got his Realtor’s license in 2004. Working as an agent with Platinum Realty, which calls itself the largest independent real estate brokerage in the Kansas City area, has been his most successful venture.

“Most of my business comes from my Pakistani brothers and sisters as referrals,” he said. “My commitment to my community is to provide them the best service I can with trust and respect.”

The next year he married Carrie, a Univerity of Kansas fine arts graduate and jewelry designer he met on AOL. She converted to Islam and changed her name to Zara.

“I was a churchgoing Christian before getting married. The Islam community really impressed me a lot,” she said. “My religion is very important to me. God is very important to me, and family is important to me.”

Their daughter, Zaida Leigh Awan, “Daddy’s little princess,” plays piano, recites from the Quran and is learning Urdu, a major language of Pakistan. On the Disney World trip, she loved having a princess makeover and lunch with Disney princesses at Cinderella’s Royal Table in Magic Kingdom.

“Even though Zahid’s family is so far away, we found family here and take care of each other,” said Zara, who is planning a trip to Islamabad. “We both will have to travel the whole journey of life together now.”

“She is my strength,” Awan said. “My wife always, always supported me.”

Becoming an American citizen in 2008 was another great joy, Awan said. That year he also was elected general secretary of the Pakistan American Society of Greater Kansas City. The idea was to make a difference by bringing the Pakistani community together and bridging the gaps between new immigrants and American society.

He has since joined People to People International and has fostered Pakistani, Malaysian, Saudi and Turkish military officers at the United States Army General Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Recently he received an award from the college for his volunteer work.

Looking back at Pakistan, Awan said it is passing through the worst time in its history.

“It’s sad. Lack of education, poverty and weak political leadership are taking that country to isolation and destruction,” he said. “I hope they will have true leaders who will address their core problems.”

Despite the continuing U.S.-Pakistan tensions, Awan said he had felt no discrimination here.

“When 9/11 happened, my colleagues and neighbors supported me and visited me to check if I was OK. That was a really emotional time,” he recalled. “I love this country because of its kindhearted people. I’ve received my fair share from my community, my neighbors and … all walks of life.”

America is a better place for minorities than their home countries, he thinks, especially when it comes to the freedom to worship.

“No one has ever stopped me or my family here from practicing my religion,” he said.

In his work as a Realtor, Awan said, business suffered after the 2007 bursting of the real estate bubble, but sales have come back somewhat in the last two or three years.

In 2012, he branched out again, investing in the Phillips 66 service station. Not surprisingly, he hires newcomers to the country.

Two are Nalini Sharma, 55, an Indian by origin, and Muhammad Arsalan, 23, from Lahore, Pakistan. They said they found their work satisfactory and the wages attractive.

Like many immigrants, they are not afraid of long hours to make their way in this country, Awan said, quoting Les Brown: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

Zahid Gishkori is a visiting journalist from Pakistan through the Alfred Friendly fellow program. To reach him, call 816-234-4333 or email zgishkori@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at zahidgishkori.

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