A Place for Ourselves Imrana's Journey from Refugee to Business Owner

In her West Loop storefront, Imrana Zafar uses tiny scissors, clamps, and threads to apply false eyelashes and shape eyebrows. Her hands move with deft skill. While Kesha videos loop on a flat screen above, Imrana’s small talk helps client after client sink with assured comfort into the rotating salon chair. A basic beauty kit and deep customer rapport—these are the tools of the trade. For Imrana, they have also been tools of survival.

Before she and her husband Ali opened Eyelashes R Us in 2017, Imrana—originally from Pakistan—spent four years as a single mother and refugee in Malaysia. She survived and provided for herself and her son through the same creativity, skill, and entrepreneurship that define her business today. As a community of World Relief Chicago volunteers and donors, YOU played a small but important role in her story.

“My story is a novel,” Imrana said with a laugh. “A huge novel. And every person I’ve met on my journey has played a part.”

Imrana's challenges started in her early 20’s when she decided not to marry the man her father picked for her. They were living in Europe at the time, and her father was so upset he sent her back to Pakistan. Distraught, isolated, and angry, she met and married a man of her choice.

“My dad sensed the trouble to come.” Imrana said. “He told me, ‘That guy’s no good.’ And I told him, ‘He’s better than you, Dad. I just want to marry him. I’ll do what I want.”

A year after they married, the man disappeared to Europe for higher education, leaving Imrana behind with their one-year-old son, Abdullah, and no money. The man’s family came from a conservative tribal region of the country, and they soon showed up threatening her and trying to take Abdullah away. She researched where she could flee on a visa as a single Pakistani woman, and ended up in Malaysia.

“In Malaysia there are so many bad people. So many who take your money on the road. Who force you for sex. A lot of things. I had seen documentaries, but I didn’t know that I would be the victim too. Thank God, I did everything I could to survive. I did good work. I didn’t go for selling my body and stuff like that. I was a house maid. I did salon jobs.”

During the next two years, Imrana was robbed and cheated by locals, expats, and other refugees. She was exploited for her labor as a housemaid, falsely accused of theft, and separated from her son while briefly imprisoned. She also suffered various health issues and could not access medical care.

“I was always sick in Malaysia,” she said. “ Always had pain, but I never went to the doctor. You compromise on your health when you’re in those situations. One of the first things I did when I got to the United States was have gallbladder surgery. They removed 110 stones.”

She ended up stumbling across a UNHCR office and applying to be registered as a refugee, which protected her from deportation and gave her access to possible third-country resettlement. But that process took two more years. During that time, she employed her skills, resourcefulness, and ingenuity to survive.

“After I got out of the prison, I found some wholesale markets. I bought ten scarves and ten lipsticks. And I sat under the train station with my son. Within an hour I sold them and doubled my money. My son said, ‘Mom, we are not beggars, why are we sitting here under the train station.’ I said, ‘I’m not begging; I’m selling something.’ I was the only one sitting and selling, not begging.”

Imrana bought a basic beautician kit with her profits, printed business cards, and steadily built up a customer base by offering waxing and threading services to the refugee and expat communities. She even met the wife of the Sudanese ambassador, who introduced her to more wealthy clients. She worked in salons and taught English classes on the weekends. Instead of bouncing from single room rentals with shared bathrooms, she was eventually able to rent stable housing for herself and her son.

“The last two years were better,” she said. “But still, things happened in Malaysia—like when I was put in jail and my son was taken away—things I feel like I cannot forgive myself for.”

In September 2015, Imrana and Abdullah came to the United States. “Since Trump’s campaign was happening, they were scared and feeling like many families would be left behind,” she said.

They settled first in Las Vegas. While there, Imrana met Ali on a dating site. They spoke over the phone for a while. After a few months, Ali sent her a ticket to come to Chicago and settle together with him.

When Imrana and Abdullah arrived here, you—as a community of donors and volunteers—were there to support them. You were standing with our resettlement staff as we connected them with basic social services.

Imrana and her son Abdullah near their home in Chicago.

A few months later, you were there as our legal team put one more tool into Imrana’s skilled and thrifty hands—a green card that secures her as a legal permanent resident in the U.S. and strengthens her foundation to pursue her passion: opening her own salon.

“When I saw how unhappy Ali was driving a cab, I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve married a tough guy. I will stand with him.’ I told him that with the skills I have, we can be somebody. It’s my dream to open a business. Thank God, he trusted me.”

Imrana and her husband Ali inside their shop.

Imrana worked and did full-time school for a year to gain her skin care certificate. Then they pooled their resources, combined their expertise (Ali has a degree in Information Systems), and opened Eyelashes R Us together in November 2017.

“For refugees, the middle country is tough,” Imrana said. “But it’s like this: before becoming a diamond, you are just a rock. For my son and me, Malaysia was so hard, but it made us into diamonds. Made us real gold. So when we entered the U.S., we were not rock. We were not stones. We were diamonds. We could really make a place for ourselves here.”

You can help create belonging for more people like Imrana.

Photos and interview by Jaocob Mau | @Beyondsoundbites

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