Yusaf Beg: Finding a Home

With a $100 bill and a change of clothes, Yusaf Beg boarded a plan in Pakistan on October 21, 1974. He was 21 and eager for adventure, and fellow alumni from Karachi Univeristy’s pharmacy school had assured him he’d find better opportunities in the U. S. Sixteen hours later, as his plan bumped to a stop on the John F. Kennedy runway in New York, Beg sighed with relief. He’d made it.

Jostled by the crowd, he maneuvered his way to Customs and Immigration–which took so long, he missed the last bus to Philadelphia, where two of his friends from pharmacy school lived. “My journey,” he reminded himself wearily, “has just begun.”

Airport skycaps waved him to a line, and assuming that Philadelphia was just outside New York, Beg climbed in. Around midnight he asked the driver just how far Philadelphia was. “Oh, three or four hours,” the driver replied. Beg gulped.

Finally, he arrived at his friend’s apartment. The next day, he started calling on pharmacy managers, and on October 26, he applied for his license.

A letter came in reply, stating that as of October 16, 1974, Pennsylvania no longer recognized foreign graduates.

Beg took a job stocking shelves at Rite Aid and began researching pharmacy programs. When his friends decided to move to Houston, he agreed to go along. But when they reached St. Louis, Beg changed his plans. “Drop me off there,” he say impulsively. “There is a pharmacy school in St. Louis, and I’m going to try it.”

Shrugging, they agreed and left him at a downtown motel. The next morning, he asked directions to St. Louis College of Pharmacy and started walking.

Beg headed straight for the dean’s office, where he was told, kindly but firmly, that he could not enroll until the following fall. Too restless to wait, Beg enrolled in a pharmacology doctoral program at Saint Louis University. But it wasn’t really what he wanted to do, and research grants were hard to come by. So when he received a letter from the College in 1977 saying there was a seat open, he grabbed it.

He remembers his years in school as a blur of hard, focused work. “I was also working almost 40 hours a week, as a night security guard, working in hotels, cleaning kitchens,” he says. “I didn’t have much time to mingle with my classmates.”

Beg had always planned to move after obtaining his degree, but as graduation neared, he changed his mind–another impulse, and one he’s never regretted. He worked at an area hospital in St. Louis for more than 11 years, then grew tired of the late hours and decided to try retail. “I thought I wanted something different,” he admits, “but I found I missed the patient interactions.” In 2001, he accepted a position at at a medical center that proved the best of both worlds. “With sixty beds and two ICUs, it is never monotonous,” he says happily. “I rotate through different clinics, I work outpatient and inpatient. And the hours are great.”

Beg now calls St. Louis home–and means it. He appreciates the diversity of the city, and he’s watched the Muslim population grow. “I feel fortunate to have witnessed this,” he says. “We used to only have a small mosque downtown, but now we have a large mosque in West County.”

As the Muslim community grew in St. Louis, so did Beg’s family. When he returned to Pakistan in 1984 for a family wedding, his mother stared purposefully at his ringless left hand. “She asked if I wanted to get married while I was home, and I said yes,” Beg remembers with a smile. “I met my wife, Zarin, on February 19, we married on February 21, and I had to come back to the states on February 26. Zarin came in June.” He pauses, thinking back. “That first year was a lot of finding things about each other. But we have now been married for more than 20 years,” he adds, pulling photos of his wife and three daughters from his wallet.

Will he arrange their marriages? “Oh no, he says, and laughs hard, probably thinking of their reactions. “If you ask me, yes it is OK. In Islam, premarital mixing and dating are not allowed. But in this country, young people come together, and we make provisions for proper supervision so they can meet and select. Like chaperones in your 1950s.”

Beg now chairs the Shura Council, the governing body for the Islamic Foundation in St. Louis, and the members of the Islamic community have become his extended family. His friends still urge him to come to Houston, but he and Zarin aren’t even tempted.

Still, since 9/11, “it’s not the same,” he admits. “You walk into an elevator and everyone stops. They may not look at you directly, but you know what they are thinking. A very good friend of mine is African-American; he said, ‘Now you will know.'”

What Beg wants to blurt, when someone pulls alongside him on the highway and flips him the finger for no reason, is that this is his country, and his daughters’ country, and if there is a draft, they will serve. “I have been here 30 years, I can’t go back,” he says. “But at times I feel like people want me to.”

He works to ignore that feeling. “They will accept you for what you are,” he tells his community, and he keeps alive the hospitality he received when he came here. Last May, 40 members graduated from various schools and colleges. “No matter where you go, ” he told them, “always remember that St. Louis is your home. You are always welcome here.”

I originally published this piece in the Winter 2005 issue of The Script.

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