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.
Imrana and her son Abdullah at a park near their home.
“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.”