Pakistani family gets used to U.S. ways
By LENNIE BENNETT
© St. Petersburg Times,
"I have fallen in love with this country," says the mother of two rising tennis stars.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Most parents sacrifice a lot for their children, but few go the distance, literally, as Sabih and Farnaz Wali did. Several months ago, the couple moved to St. Petersburg from Karachi, Pakistan, with their three children, leaving behind a home, business and family.
The reason, said Sabih Wali, "is tennis."
Their two sons, Alamigir, 16, and Sheharyar, 12, are rising tennis stars who were unable to find the training in Pakistan needed for higher levels of competition. They are now affiliated with the Racquet Club of St. Petersburg.
"There is no tennis in Pakistan," he said. "Only cricket."
They made inquiries.
"Some people said we should go to Spain, but so many people said Florida is a mecca for tennis," Wali said, smiling at the use of "Mecca," a holy city of Islam that Americans have come to use generically to describe a popular place.
Since their move, the family has had other reasons to smile at people's misconceptions about them and their homeland.
"People are surprised when I speak English well," said the Walis' daughter Rida, 17, a senior at St. Petersburg High School who is taking a full load of honors and advanced placement classes. "I have been speaking English since I was a baby."
"It is my choice whether I want to cover my hair or not," said Mrs. Wali. "We are Muslim, but all Muslims are not the same. We are practical Muslims."
The family lived a life of affluence in Karachi, a large coastal town and major port. Wali said his company manufactures women's clothing, which is mostly exported to European markets, so they have taken business trips and vacations to countries there and countries throughout the Middle East for tennis tournaments.
"Both boys are extremely talented," said Racquet Club tennis director John Haggar.
The brothers say they would like to become professional players.
"I hope they rise to that standard," said their father. "Education is also very important."
Alamigir is a junior at St. Petersburg High and Sheharyar attends Riviera Middle School. With a school day followed by five to six hours of tennis practice, both said they have the time or energy for little else, including new friendships.
"I hardly have time for friends," Alamigir said. "But I hardly had time for friends in Pakistan."
Weekends are usually spent traveling to tennis tournaments and practicing.
After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which have been linked to extremist Muslim groups, Wali said people here have been "understanding and kind. I feel sorry for people who died because of one stupid man, a crazy fellow."
Even though Pakistan could be the epicenter of a conflict in the Middle East because of its proximity to Afghanistan, the Walis are not yet concerned for the safety of friends or family and say that life there has not been disrupted.
In moving here, they traded a comfortable house for a small apartment on Snell Isle, bringing only clothes. They still have little furniture in their apartment, because, they say, they are uncertain how long they will be able to stay. Their visa is for about six months. After that, they hope to get an extension or make some arrangements to stay, Wali said.
They considered Tampa, Sarasota, Miami and Palm Beach but chose St. Petersburg because they liked the program at the Racquet Club and the size and pace of this city, smaller and slower than Karachi.
He said he still owns his business and receives income from it, overseeing it through daily e-mails to employees. He also helps his brother-in-law, who owns a gas station and convenience store in St. Petersburg.
"In a way it is a sacrifice," said Mrs. Wali. "But this is for the children's future. I have fallen in love with this country."
"I would like to stay here forever," Wali said. "Eventually we will have to go back."
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