Albuquerque Journal profile of star Pakistani student has a huge religion-shaped hole

Screenshot 2016-05-15 23.30.51.png

I scan a lot of newspapers from Denver to points west and there are a quite a few that seem to avoid religion like the plague.

One is the Eugene (Ore.) Register Guard. Another is the Arizona Republic which has yet to cover the fact that the former (and disgraced) Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll has relocated from Seattle to Phoenix and started a church there on Easter. A third is the Albuquerque (NM) Journal, where the religion coverage gives new meaning to the word “minimalist.” I’ve been watching this publication for more than 20 years and it never fails to disappoint.

Now, please understand that I’ve lived in Oregon and New Mexico, and I know there are vibrant faith communities in each state -- but you wouldn’t know it from reading these newspapers. Then this past weekend, the Journal ran an article on a University of New Mexico graduate, her family’s move from Pakistan and her decision to give up a more prestigious college to care for her dying mother.

Is there a religion ghost that is hidden, or at least buried, in this story?

A tensile strength burns through Yalda Barlas in a combustion of grief and loss.
Now 22 and about to enter the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Yalda somehow plowed through a double major in biology and chemistry, worked as a tutor and nursed her mother at home until her 2013 death from colon cancer.
Her mother Shasiqa told her she got her “smart genes” from her dad.
The father she resembles was killed by the Taliban 19 years ago.
On Saturday, Yalda graduated from UNM and will segue into medical school under a full Regent’s scholarship and as part of the school’s eight-year BA/MD program.
She was born in Pakistan, along with her three siblings; a sister Nelofar, 26; a brother Ghazanfar, 25; and her sister Venes, 19. Their father, Nadir, was a civil engineer who worked for the United Nations in the city of Quetta, near the border of Afghanistan.

Then comes the elephant-in-the-middle-of-the-living-room part:

Nadir disappeared in 1997. A family friend said he’d been taken by the Taliban. He was just 37.
Yalda was 3 years old. Shasiqa searched for her husband for three years, carrying her babies as she moved from house to house. If anyone knew what had happened, they were afraid to say so.
The family never heard from Nadir again.
“I don’t know what happened to him, but I’m sure they tortured and killed him, because they did that to everyone,” Yalda said. “If they see someone who’s educated and intelligent, then they’ll do anything to get them out of the way.”
A United Nations friend arranged for the remaining family to immigrate to the U.S.

Now Quetta was a major center for the emerging Taliban in the 1990s, so it was little wonder that Nadir Barlas was in their crosshairs.

Was his government job the only reason? There is a certain faith that is the state religion in Pakistan and it’s called Islam. If we assume the family was Muslim (and I did find one family photo online that showed the mother wearing a head scarf and another that showed a Quran), was Nadir Barlas the wrong kind of Muslim for this rising, violent group?

Anyway, the family ended up in Albuquerque to be near Shasiqa Barlas’ sister and Yalda continued to excel in all ways, eventually becoming valedictorian of her high school class. Because her mother had colon cancer, Yalda felt she could not leave the state, so signed onto a program that enlists college students to visit rural New Mexico medical clinics in the hopes they will open medical practices in areas where there are few doctors. (Outside of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and a handful of other cities, doctors were scarce when I lived in New Mexico in the mid-1990s and apparently things haven’t changed much.)

The Journal’s story mentions her graduation from UNM and her entry into medical school this summer as a hook for the sad story about how first her father died and then her mother. Yalda, who has curly, medium-length brown hair, is shown wearing a sleeveless dress, sitting in a white chair.

There is a whole gallery of religion ghosts here. Did this immigrant family forsake the religion that –- in its radical form –- resulted in their father’s death? Did they experience any discrimination when they first arrived, nearly penniless, in New Mexico? Was there a Muslim community in town that welcomed them? Does their faith play any part in their present lives whatsoever?

Or is the family so thoroughly Americanized that their roots are a distant memory? I would guess this is true, as you the few photos I found of Yalda didn’t show her wearing any kind of clothing similar to what some observant Muslim women wear.

Perhaps Yalda felt religion was too controversial a topic to bring up during an interview but certainly the reporter could have asked a few pointed questions. If you’re going to profile someone from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (its official title), why not ask what part Islam plays in this student's life now unless your editors don't know or care about such things?

In other words, how can you cover a major element of someone's life story when you don't even know it exists? But in this day and age, there is no excuse for not knowing about Pakistan's stance as one of the world's most repressive countries when it comes to religious freedom.

The Journal team had no excuse for not bringing up the question.

Photos from Yalda Barlas' Facebook page.

Please respect our Commenting Policy