On her first day of sixth grade last year at her new school, Pembroke Pines West Charter School, Emaan Waqar burst into the backseat of her mom’s SUV and began sobbing.
After introducing herself to her class earlier that morning — she had transferred schools and started at Pembroke in late September — a boy shouted that she was a member of ISIS. Emaan’s mom, Aisha Malik, wrote a letter to the school describing the incident, which Emaan handed in the next morning. By 11 a.m., both students had spoken with then Principal Devarn Flowers, and the situation was resolved.
“You build respect. We build camaraderie. And as a result, we have a better-run school,” said current Principal Michael Castellano, who was vice principal at that time.
Around the same time, Emaan had decorated cookies as part of a cookie drive for Eid al-Adha, an Islamic holiday. The cookies were decorated in shapes like stars and mosques, boxed up with a note that explains Islam and delivered to neighbors and non-Muslim friends. Emaan gave two of the boxes to the boy, for him and his father. Emman said she and the boy are now friends.
Teaching through education and example. It’s how Aisha and her husband, Mudassar Waqar, have tried to raise their two daughters, Emaan, 13, and Hibba, 10, a fourth-grader at Pembroke Pines West Charter.
“I think our job is to teach them what is right, what is wrong, and do the best we can,” said Waqar, 46, head of the project and program management office at Amadeus, a global travel company with an office in Doral.
Waqar moved to New York from Pakistan in 1998 when he was 28. He had been hired by a U.S. technology firm to work with IBM after earning a master’s degree in computer science in Pakistan. (He also has an MBA from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.) He spent his first two years in New York and the next seven in Westport, Connecticut, before settling in South Florida, where he’s lived for about 10 years with his wife and two daughters.
Waqar said his kids sometimes get bored with him because he tries to turn every little thing into a lesson — like how he and the girls listen to the news when he drives them to school. He said he uses the news to teach what is good and bad, including when the news is about a terrorism incident involving a Muslim. He said he and his wife explain that terrorists are bad people doing bad things, and their actions are not tenets of the Islamic faith.
“The majority of the people, I believe they are good. And, again, every society, every religion, every culture, has good and bad elements, but I believe on a holistic level, people are generally good,” he said.
It’s that type of positive attitude, coupled with the discipline that comes from years of playing competitive sports — Waqar played cricket at the collegiate level and later in leagues in Connecticut and Florida — that has endeared him to his co-workers.
“He has a level of positivity about him that I think is contagious,” said Waqar’s boss, Donna Goudie, director of corporate initiatives at Amadeus. “He’s probably one of the best people I know, inside or outside of work.”
And when she recently discovered that Waqar was a Muslim, it didn’t faze her.
“You know, I don’t know your religion. And if I did, it wouldn’t define you to me,” she said. “And I guess I don’t understand why someone being Muslim, why that immediately defines them to someone. Just doesn’t make sense.”
Not everyone holds those views.
Aisha, 39, who was born and raised in England and met her husband on one of her family trips to Pakistan, recalls how she and Emaan were walking for a Feeding South Florida fundraising event on Hollywood beach in March when a woman shouted at them from the sideline.
“Go home!” the woman said.
Aisha, an art teacher with a degree in biomedical sciences from North London University, said she thought she had misheard her. On the second lap, the woman shouted it again.
Aisha stopped and tried to have a calm conversation with her. But the woman lost her temper, upset because Aisha was wearing a blue T-shirt with white lettering that said, “South Florida Muslim Community.”
“I can understand and take it, but when you’re with children, you know, it’s a little bit more challenging for them to understand why this lady is kind of accosting you in the middle of the beach,” she said, noting that this was the first time anything like this had happened in her 17 years in the U.S.
Emaan said she couldn’t understand why someone would be so angry at them when they were helping a good cause: “We’re normal. We’re Americans. We are like, we’re not gonna kill anyone. We’re just here.”
To Waqar, it was another teaching moment.
“There’s a bigger bond we have in common, which unites us regardless of the religion, color, faith: Humanity.”