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Olga Bonfiglio

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What A World Citizen Looks Like

Posted: 03/21/2012 7:00 am

On Thanksgiving Day 2001 Nalini Quraeshi was preparing dinner for 30 friends and family members when she received word that her father had died in Nepal. Her two-day trip found the country suddenly beset with tragedy -- and world headlines.

A Maoist rebel insurgency had launched simultaneous attacks on several police, army and government outposts in several districts. The government declared the country in a state of emergency, suspended all civil rights and imposed a curfew restricting all movement after dark.

"It was a horrible time to go back," said Quraeshi, whose mission it was to get her mother safely out of the country. The shocking, untimely death of her father was made more traumatic by the political events in Nepal, and her concern for her mother's emotional well-being and physical safety.

Another traumatic homecoming occurred in 1965 when Quraeshi's family was returning home after being in the United States for six years. The journey to Nepal included a transit stop in India, which was in the midst of a war with Pakistan over Kashmir, a dispute that had been brewing since partition in 1947.

"There were sirens and bombs. My sisters and I had to put cotton in our teeth and ears for protection. We sat in the darkness during these air raids because we had to turn off all the lights. This was my homecoming to Nepal [at age nine]."

Quraeshi was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, but because of her father's work as a government diplomat for Nepal and later the United Nations, she lived in New York, Washington, D.C., Bangkok and Rome. Her studies took her to Darjeeling, Delhi and the United States.

"Before I could lay down roots and establish an identity, my family moved to a different place," said Quraeshi. As a result, her parents taught her and her siblings that people are united more by their similarities and shared values than by their differences. All beliefs are sacred and everyone deserves respect.

For example, as a graduate student in sociology at Michigan State University (MSU), Quraeshi met her future husband, Zahir Quraeshi, a Pakistani Muslim and now a marketing professor at Western Michigan University (WMU). Meanwhile, her three sisters are married to an Indian Hindu, a German Protestant and an Italian Catholic. Her husband's sister married a Frenchman and their daughter is married to someone who is Filipino by birth but English by nationality. Her brother is single and lives in Boston.

"My family is a mini-United Nations," said Quraeshi, "but we all come together from all over the world to my house at Thanksgiving to give thanks for our many blessings. And although we observe all holidays, we especially come together to celebrate Thanksgiving because of its secular tradition."

Although Quraeshi spent the first part of her life all over the world, her life after marriage has been dramatically different. She now resides in Kalamazoo where she reared two sons, taught Non-Western World Studies at WMU and to pursued her doctorate and taught international development and sociology at MSU.

"My sons' experience is so different from my own," she said. Even so, she has made certain that they grow up as global citizens. That hasn't been difficult.

Quraeshi's spouse, Zahir, has been a steady voice for globalism at WMU for the past three decades. During his sabbatical year the family lived in Malaysia. They also have many occasions to visit family members spread over three continents.

Her mother, 77, is Hindu, and her mother-in-law, 96, is Muslim. They both live with the family, so Quraeshi tries to honor their religious beliefs through cooking, artifacts and design of the family's home space.

Although she grew up a Hindu, Quraeshi practices its intellectual and progressive qualities rather than its ceremonial rituals. However, she feels comfortable among people from any religion.

Global citizenship has to do with one's identity or one's very persona that is ingrained and rooted, she said. Accepting -- and indeed embracing -- diversity rather than fearing it provides people with a "richness" that gives them more options for study, travel, business and meeting others who have different ways of life.

"Actually, I have tolerance for all religions and think of myself as a global citizen."

However, Quraeshi admits that such a lifestyle has its downsides.

Being a global citizen means you don't fit into neat, standardized boxes. One of the most challenging questions for Quraeshi is to be asked where her home is.

"Does that mean where I'm living now, where I was born, where I have spent most of my life, the country of my nationality or where my family currently resides?" she asked.

Quraeshi said she feels at home in any place because she identifies with and adapts to whatever culture she happens to be in.

"I could retire just as easily in Thailand or Nepal or Italy or the U.S., as long as I have some friends and family with me," she said. "The hard part is not having the stability of childhood friends to grow up with all my life."

Recently, she has discovered a way to fill this void: by returning to Nepal to try to fulfill her father's vision and wish to give back to the country in terms of economic development and humanity equity.

Since the Maoists' insurgency in the country in 1996, rural Nepalis have fled to the cities and become "urban squatters." Village people from Bhutan and Tibet have left their homes as political and economic refugees. Consequently, Kathmandu has degenerated into an impoverished, overcrowded and polluted place, without the infrastructure to support this rapid influx of people.

"There is so much that one can do," said Quraeshi. "And a whole generation of young adults is missing. In every family someone has fled the country because of the violence. Parents try to send their children overseas for an education, and to escape the political and economic uncertainties."

Recently, Quraeshi began to find ways of implementing several rural development programs and experiments her father had envisioned years ago. Over the last few years she returned several times to continue this work, but she has had to overcome bottlenecks of bureaucracy, logistics, security concerns and even corrupt locals usurping her parental property and resources.

Quraeshi has also discovered that like her, many of her high school friends have returned to Nepal, too. One of them runs a conservation program, another has started schools for the homeless, another works with children who were born and have grown up in prisons, while yet another supports a non-governmental organization (NGO) that rescues young girls from the rampant Asian sex trade.

Over the years many members of Quraeshi's family have been helping Nepal from afar by raising money for scholarships and supporting schools, impoverished working families and religious institutions. However, some are looking for projects that allow them more hands-on involvement like her brother-in-law, a cancer surgeon, who is seeking to donate his services.

Nalini Quraeshi embodies what it means to be a global citizen. She has lived among numerous nationalities, cultures and religions all over the world and speaks multiple languages. Now, she is doing something to help her native land.