‘This moment will pass’: Gold Star father Khizr Khan says US remains a beacon of hope
By Susan Shinn Turner
For the Salisbury Post
RALEIGH — In his only North Carolina appearance, Khizr Khan urged participation in the democratic process.
In 2016, Khan, a Gold Star father, made an impassioned speech at the Democratic National Convention. Out of that experience came a memoir, “An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice.” Since its publication, the Harvard-educated attorney has traveled the country participating in some 165 conversations about his journey to citizenship and beyond.
At one point in that memorable speech, he held up his pocket-sized, dog-eared copy of the Constitution which he had carried for years, looked into the camera, and directly addressed the Republican presidential candidate: “Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.”
On Tuesday evening, Khan talked with Frank Stasio, host of WUNC’s “The State of Things” about the Constitution he holds so dear, and the need for equal protection and equal dignity to all Americans. The two spoke in the packed sanctuary of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church on Hillsborough Street. About 425 people attended the event, hosted by Quail Ridge Books.
A native of Pakistan, Khan was the oldest of 10 children born to farming parents. He and his wife, Ghazala, came to the U.S., becoming citizens in 1986. He worked two jobs to go to Harvard Law School, and he and his wife raised their three sons in Silver Spring, Maryland.
In 2004, their middle son, Humayun, a U.S. Army captain, was killed by a suicide bomber outside Baghdad. He was one of the first Muslim American soldiers to die there, and, because of that, newspaper articles were written about him. Before the convention, the Khans learned that the DNC would be paying tribute to their son. They viewed the tribute beforehand.
“We liked it,” Khan said. “We had no problem for them to use it.”
Then the Khans were invited to the convention.
“Something told me this was not our cup of tea,” Khan said in a deep voice. “We prayed first. We strongly believe in divine guidance. Our two other sons thought we should not go. We thought they were being overly protective, but they told us, do not get involved.”
So did friends.
The day he was going to call convention organizers and send his regrets, he got a note in the mail from some local students. Khan often talked to elementary and middle school students who were afraid of the proposed ban of Muslims and others.
“Mr. and Mrs. Khan, can you make sure Maria is not thrown out of this country?” the note read. “She’s our friend and we love her.”
“I showed my wife the card and said, ‘Here is our answer.’ ”
His wife said, “Call. We will go.”
His wife helped him whittle his speech to just 260 words. Even though she did not speak, Stasio pointed out, she played an important role in keeping her husband on point.
Khan’s love of the Constitution came about years ago, when he was a second-year law student in Pakistan. In 1972, he was studying the constitutions of different countries. He read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — which includes the articles contained in the Bill of Rights.
“By then, I had lived under two martial laws,” he said. “I had seen with my own eyes the newspaper was shut down. Dictators do not like newspapers. I could not fully understand the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment of freedom of the press. I could not imagine such a nation. You are born with dignities that every person on planet Earth wishes to have. I was in awe of that.”
Khan continued, “The concept of liberty and freedom is founded on equality. We may be a bit behind on that.”
Still, he said, he and his family have been blessed by freedom, and living in a free country. When he took the oath of citizenship, he remembered being afraid to leave his home in Pakistan. He remembered friends who protested and were severely beaten.
When he took the oath, he thought, “I am about to become a dignified human being.”
“Since then,” he said, “I have become aware of what else needs to be done.”
If he had one wish for the nation, he said, it would be, “Please read your founding documents one more time.”
Khan said that he believes in secure borders and a strict immigration policy, but that fear of immigrants has been exploited.
Stasio noted a rising level of fear and hatemongering.
“What’s your assessment?” he asked Khan.
“We remain a beacon of hope for the rest of the world, and we shall remain so,” Khan said. “This moment will pass, and we will come out of it stronger.”
During the brief question-and-answer session, Farris Barakat of Raleigh asked Khan whether he thought his son was a martyr. Barakat is the brother of Deah Barakat, who, with his wife and her sister, were murdered in Chapel Hill in 2015. Their neighbor, a white man, allegedly shot them over a parking dispute. Members of the audience gasped when they realized who Barakat was.
“My faith is against violence, all sorts of violence,” Khan said. “We are taught to save lives, not take lives. Those who commit violence are not practicing my faith. Those who dare to hurt innocent people are not part of my faith.”
Barakat said afterward that he naturally aligns himself with victims of violence. But violence done by Muslims hurts him deeply. He said that the night his family members were killed “happens over and over for so many people.”
Barakat now runs The Light House Project, a rental house owned by his brother that’s become a community center.
Barakat noted that his sister was born in Salisbury. An uncle came from Syria to Salisbury to work for Power Curbers. Dyke Messinger, president of the company, remembers the family well. He said that even though some of the Barakats later moved to Raleigh, they got their start in America in Salisbury in the late 1970s.