Lunch with Attufat Akbar
On a glorious summer afternoon, while sitting amongst the boundless array of flowers atop The Belvedere’s deck, talking long enough that the wait staff switched and the lunch customers finished, Attufat Akbar taught me how to be a better person and a grateful citizen. Ms. Akbar was invited for an interview and a meal, but instead became my teacher.
What best describes Ms. Akbar is her dedication to and appreciation for God, family, and country. The hardships she has endured—such as the loss of her mother when she was 3-years-old—have been countered by love. She had the love her older siblings caring for her and raising her when her hardworking dad had to spend long hours providing their basic necessities. When she talks about people stealing from her and her husband, she also tells of her husband’s generosity and his penchant to always help those in need, including offering a job and cash to those same thieves. As she says: “You give and God will find a way for you.”
In October of 2001, as she and her husband returned to the United States from Pakistan—he already as an American citizen—they experienced the ripple effects of Islamophobia, including her husband being unable to secure a job despite his business experience and MBA from San Francisco State University. People also insisted that they change their last name to something “less Muslim.” They didn’t change their name. They did, however, stay in the country because, as she tells me, “this country offers my children a bright future with so many opportunities.”
“It was love at first sight,” Attufat says of her husband of 18 years. She recounts that she was a student at Towson University in Maryland (later, she would go on to further her education with a degree in Interior Design from PCAD) and he, her future husband, was a business partner of her brother-in-law. Her older sister had told her: “He is perfect for you. He is smart, tall, and really handsome.” She begins to cry while sharing this story; she is embarrassed by the tears, but explains that, ”He is an amazing person. He is calm, caring, and funny. I am blessed. We are blessed.”
The businessman, with a degree from SFSU who became a US citizen in 1996, returned to Pakistan with his bride and the two lived a very comfortable lifestyle—a large house, many factories, surrounded by family and friends. When Attufat became pregnant with their first child, they decided to return to the US “to be able to give their children all of the blessings God has given this country.” She continues, “In Pakistan there is so much corruption. The rich keep getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. We wanted to bring our children up in a country where anybody and everybody can be successful with hard work.”
In spite of not being able to find a job in the US, her husband decided to stay in the country and open his own business. They decided on a gas station, but because of their religion, they did not want to sell alcohol. Due to state alcohol restrictions, Pennsylvania was the perfect place to start. For many years, they operated a gas station in Mountville, until a large operation moved in down the street. The competition was just too much, which led to another two years of looking for a job. People once again suggested her husband change his last name in an effort to seem more appealing to employers and again, he refused. Today, the husband and wife team operate GasPlus+ on Oregon Pike, which serves up both gasoline and Arabic-Pakistani food that is also halal (and according to the internet reviews, delicious).
Resilience defines this couple, along with an incredible work ethic. The couple works in in the gas station/restaurant every day, trying to make a living, but also giving back to the community. “We have the best neighbors and customers. The least I can do is give them a smile, sometimes more: a needed hug, time to talk, asking them really how are they doing. Listening to what they say. Praying. People have their stories. We must take care of each other.”
Attufat emphasizes that they make sure they are there for their two incredible daughters, as well. The couple does not make their teenage daughters work. "Their education is their job,” she says. “But, we must give back to this great country, so they volunteer.” Her oldest daughter, a high school senior, volunteers at LGH’s Women and Babies Hospital and her youngest daughter is hoping to volunteer at the Make a Wish Foundation or Water Street Rescue Mission.
In the little free time Attufat has, she paints calligraphy, most often showcasing the Arabic word AR-Rahman (meaning, “the most kind and giving”). “He surrounds, covers everyone, humans and other creatures with his mercy,” she says. She donates the money she receives from her artwork to various causes in our community. “God saved me. I am surrounded by people who love me for who I am, and allow me to keep working on becoming a better person.” She shares with me, time and time again during this lunch together, that this is what life is about: becoming a better person. In spite of the setbacks—the possible hate and fear directed at women, Muslims, and foreigners, let alone a person who is all three—that will not be what defines her. She walks with a dignity, confidence, and a beauty that only comes when there is an understanding of a larger purpose, a purpose that goes beyond self.
“We must learn to be tolerant of each other,” she tells me. “We must be God conscious and that realize God is watching. You will do a lot of right things, the right way, if we remember that.” Attufat Akbar: wife, mother, business-owner, artist, proud American citizen, devout Muslim, and teacher to us all.