Inside the remarkable journey of Hamna Zafar, who chose to put her dreams first
At 19, Hamna Zafar knew she would lose her family unless she agreed to an arranged marriage with her cousin in Pakistan. However, as she was unwilling to give up her American dream of building her own life, the dutiful daughter rebelled and opted to escape to a future that led to serving in the U.S. Air Force.
“I always thought about my parents. I always thought about my family. I always thought about my sisters,” Zafar, 23, tells PEOPLE. “But that night I thought about me.”
She knew that by taking that step, she would lose her extended family in Pakistan and that her parents would never forgive her — and deny her contact with her two beloved younger sisters.
It was a route that Zafar, who grew up in Maryland in an immigrant family, never thought she would have to take. An obedient child who made good grades, Zafar — who now spends her days protecting the base as an Air Force Security Defender — says she stayed close to home, cared for her sister with autism and planned on starting a career after college.
As a child, Zafar says, her parents didn’t mind her getting an education, but insisted that she would eventually settle down as a wife and mother with a husband chosen by them.
“I was just expecting my family to kind of get used to the culture in the United States,” she says. “Growing up, they never really mentioned arranged marriage.”
That all changed when the college freshman went to visit Pakistan for a family trip in 2019, only to discover she was there for her own engagement party.
“I thought it was a normal family trip to Pakistan. Then I saw the jewelry, the dresses,” Zafar says. “I was stepping into my 20s, and they wanted to make sure I knew I was engaged and not laying eyes on other guys.”
While her cousin seemed quite happy about their engagement, she shares that she slipped into a fog during the entire ordeal and barely spoke to her intended husband.
“I was trying to swallow that pill,” Zafar says. “I was trying to comprehend what was really happening to me.”
After the festivities and visit, the family returned to the U.S., where Zafar tried to reason with her mom.
“My parents are very traditional and never adapted to American culture,” Zafar says. “That’s why they took me to Pakistan to get me engaged.”
When her parents learned of her plan to join the military to escape her fate, Zafar panicked.
“I was completely dependent on them,” Zafar says. “But I knew I had to leave.”
She escaped with the help of a Navy recruiter and went to a cheap hotel to hold out until she could join. But the COVID pandemic and other concerns made her second-guess herself.
Zafar says she was tired, broke and almost ready to concede to her parents' wishes when her college friend Austin suggested she come and live with him and his family. She stayed with the family until after she earned her associate degree, finally deciding to enlist in 2022.
“She’s so petite and humble, you can’t help but want to protect her,” says Claudia Barrera, the woman Zafar now calls mom after she took her in. “When we dropped her off at basic training, she looked so tiny, and I started crying. [My husband] said, ‘She’s tiny, but she’s strong.’"
Zafar shares that she faced a culture shock when she started training for the Air Force.
“I didn’t have any idea of what boot camp was going to look like. I watched a few videos to give myself an image of what was going to happen,” Zafar says. “It was definitely an eye-opening experience.”
No one had ever yelled at her before, and she kept thinking she had done something horribly wrong.
“They are literally getting paid to yell at you, so that was really hard,” Zafar says. “You are trying to adjust to a different environment and being told what to do 24/7. It was definitely scary.”
Zafar, who's 5-foot-2-inches tall, admits the physical demands were equally hard, as she constantly faced challenges to her bodies' endurance. She marched endlessly, crawled in mud and pushed her body to the limit, she says: “Your body gets used to the physical activities. Your mind gives up before your body does."
"You need to control your mindset," she says of the lesson she learned, "because your mind is always stronger than your body.”
Now Zafar finds strength in the bonds she has formed with her colleagues.
Sgt. Robert Stewart began working with Zafar earlier this year at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. He said he was incredibly touched by her story and is impressed with how far she has come.
“I told her she just needed someone to believe in you,” says Stewart, 39, whose wife also helps provide support to Zafar. “She’s not like any other airman. Her demeanor and her story — she's like a gem.”
The most difficult point for her was when she graduated from basic training and wanted her family to see her and all that she had accomplished. She says she has tried to contact her family many times, but they have not responded.
“I wanted them to be proud of me for who I am and share that with them,” Zafar says. “I really wanted them to see that their daughter has so much potential in her.”
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But she still had people who cared for her there: The Barrera-Abarca family showed up to express their pride.
“I hope they realize the mistake they are making by pushing their child aside,” Berrera says of Zafar's family. “Hamna is going to be what Hamna wants to be. And that’s the beauty of the USA — that you get to choose who you want to marry and what kind of life you want to live.”
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