Rabiya and Ayesha Merchant moved to the United States in 2014, because they weren’t ready to get married. The sisters — who will graduate from Hillcrest High School this month — were born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. There, they say, girls are often “forced” to wed at age 16 or 17 and are left with few opportunities.
“Our parents are fine with us not getting married,” Ayesha says, adding that both she and her sister plan to attend college. “We were done with our basic education, so they said, ‘It’s time to move and get a better, higher education.’”
The move itself wasn’t terribly difficult — they came with their parents and stayed with their maternal uncle in Dallas — but starting school was a different story. Initially, they tried to enroll at W.T. White but there wasn’t enough space. Eventually they registered at Hillcrest where Ayesha, who is one year older than Rabiya, was told some of her credits wouldn’t transfer. The girls were placed in the same class. Then, of course, there was the issue of making friends.
“It was awkward,” Ayesha admits. “We were stereotyped because we moved from a Middle Eastern country. They thought we didn’t know English. It was funny because we had seen it in movies and stuff — how people stereotype.”
Rabiya adds, “They thought we would wear head scarves and wouldn’t wear jeans or t-shirts. They thought we might be a little backward thinking. We didn’t really take it to heart because we knew this could happen.”
Instead of fretting, the girls got involved in extracurriculars — lots of them. They joined the Biomedical Research Program, Student Council, Interact Club and the National Honor Society. The sisters even started working on a zine with a group of girls who share their interest in topics like international politics and feminism. Pretty soon they had swarms of friends. Things were looking up. But then, about a month into the Merchants’ second semester at Hillcrest, their grandfather fell ill.
“We had to move back [to Pakistan] and complete the semester over there,” Ayesha says solemnly. “We didn’t know for sure if we’d be coming back.”
Dr. Durgha Shanmugan-Johnson, a popular teacher among Hillcrest students, says she had grown fond of the sisters and was sad to see them go.
“They’re selfless,” she says. “They’re unique and different from each other, but, in regards to their character, they’re very much the same.”
The girls had adjusted so well to life in the states, Karachi felt a bit foreign.
“We started seeing stuff differently, with a broader mind,” Ayesha explains.
They kept in touch with their friends at Hillcrest via Facebook and Snapchat, but weren’t sure if they’d ever be reunited.
When their grandfather passed away a few months later the girls were heartbroken. But their flight back to the states couldn’t have been more poetic.
“We landed on the Fourth of July,” Ayesha says.
“We saw fireworks from the plane,” Rabiya remembers fondly. “We were were like, ‘Woah, this is amazing! Even better than on the ground.’”
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