For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Saadat Virk is a shopkeeper and a man of faith.
The owner of a convenience store — unabashedly named Smith
Corner Convenience Plus — on the corner of Green and West Streets in Northampton, Virk is quick to smile at everyone who passes through. He stands behind the cash register, picking up threads of old conversations with his regular customers and making small talk with new ones. As one customer searched for change, Virk shook his head. “Just give me two dollars — you’re all set,” he said, but the young Latvian woman insisted on paying the full price. “No, no, no, you’re my guest,” he said. The woman was a friend of Virk’s neighbor.
Such rapport is typical for Virk, who likes chatting with his customers (he speaks English and Urdu). “They don’t give me a hard time,” he said on a recent Sunday afternoon. “A lot of convenience stores complain that customers come in, and they try to rob small things.” Before starting his own convenience store in 2013, Virk used to work at a gas station in Springfield, where he witnessed the store being robbed twice at gunpoint. “Fortunately, I wasn’t behind the counter; I was filling the cooler,” he said. “I was afraid of the same thing happening here, where I’m standing. I thought it would be like Pakistan again.”
Virk is from Johar Town, a neighborhood in Lahore, Pakistan. A banker by profession, he worked for Citibank, heading a department for the province of Punjab. He is also an Ahmadi— belonging to the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam — in a country whose constitution has not recognized Ahmadis as Muslims since 1974, under the governance of the prime minister at the time, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In 1984, during a period of military dictatorship under General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, further religious rights were taken away.
Virk and his community faced the consequences of these laws decades after Zia-ul-Haq ruled. “He made an ordinance that we not practice as Muslims. We could not recite Adhan [the call to prayer] in our mosque,” he said. “We could not say ‘as-salaam alaikum’ (the Muslim greeting meaning ‘peace to you’) to others. We could not use the Islamic words in our living life.”
Virk’s tone was not sorrowful; he was just stating facts.
On May 28, 2010, two mosques in Lahore used by the Pakistani Ahmadiyya community were bombed. More than 90 Ahmadis were killed, with more wounded; and there was little response from the government. “Three-and-a-half hours they shot inside the mosque,” Virk said. “Where is the government? Where is the police? Where is the army?”
After the incident, “I talked to my mom,” Virk continued, “and she gave me permission: ‘You have the opportunity to go to the United States,’ so I came here.”
Virk’s wife, Tayyaib-un-Nisa Virk, was a U.S. citizen, and their second child, Shafia, was born in the U.S. And so, in 2011, he was able to move here, while still keeping his house in Lahore. The family settled in Agawam, a short drive from Springfield, where his wife’s relatives lived, and Virk looked for work.
“When I reached here, I talked to Citibank,” he said. “And they said, ‘If you want to continue your job, you need to study two more years here.’ But I had no time. I needed to start a new life — my kid was ready for school.” At the time, his eldest son, Qasim, was 2 years old, and his daughter, Shafia, was an infant. (He now has four kids: 11-year-old Qasim, 9-year-old Shafia, 6-year-old Nailah and 4-year-old Hasham.)
Virk decided to change his profession and began working at the gas station in Springfield, clocking up to 13 hours a day for nearly two years.
Meanwhile, his father had died only around two weeks after Virk left the country. In 2014, his mother died.
By then, he’d already bought the property on Greet Street and set up the convenience store. “When I started my shop, this place was not a business,” Virk said. “They did classes here, mathematics classes.” He renovated the place and started brainstorming — what would sell? “For two or three years, I put a suggestion book here,” he said, slapping the counter. “Students made some suggestions, and then I bought that stuff.” The shelves behind the cash register are lined with packages of cigarettes, and underneath them is a fax machine. There’s also an iced-coffee machine, stationery and a multitude of energy bars and candy. “Some customers joke and say ‘Oh, this is a good candy store,’ ” Virk said, smiling.
“Now I’m good because I know what students’ basic needs are,” he said. “I changed a lot of things according to my area and customers.” Noticing that some of his customers use wheelchairs, for instance, he built ramps. “I put these shelves in myself,” he said, pointing to rows of snacks. “I made the exact space so customers in a wheelchair can move easily.”
Slowly his clientele has grown, but it fluctuates. Most of his customers are students, and when they are away for break, his sales plummet. “As a businessman, if I’m thinking about this place, it’s not ideal,” he said. “I don’t save money here, very frankly, because this is a Smith property. It’s very high rent. But, with the blessing of God, I survive.”
The Virks settled into their new lives, in a new home. But even here in the U.S., he has struggled to find acceptance as an Ahmadi Muslim. He mentioned being turned away from the mosque closest to his home in Agawam. “They don’t believe that I’m a Muslim,” he said, adding that he started driving nearly 50 miles to a mosque in Meriden, Connecticut. “This is a negative. My kids are not connected to the mosque regularly.” Still, as far as practicing freely goes, it seems to be easier to do in the U.S. than in Pakistan, if only for the fact that there are no constitutional barriers to self-identifying as an Ahmadi. “I visit Pennsylvania annually,” Virk said. “We have an annual religious convention, and there are almost 10-12,000 Ahmadis who get together in Harrisburg every year. Our main mosque in the U.S. is in Maryland, so we visit there as well.”
In the absence of the education that culture and community resources provide, he and his wife have been teaching their children about their faith. In Pakistan, it is common for families to hire Arabic teachers for their kids, so that they can recite the Quran. “My wife and I try to teach all my kids to read the Quran,” Virk said, and laughed. “Except the youngest.”
Like so many Muslims in America, Virk feels the need to correct widespread misconceptions about his religion — particularly for the sake of his children. “They need to show, here in America, in the future, that the Muslim community is not a terrorist community; it’s peaceful,” he said. “I strongly believe that we need to show what Islam is.” Virk took part in an event, in which participants discussed how Islam has been distorted, held at Forbes Library in October 2017. “We recited the Quran and talked about Islam, about jihad,” he said. “There is no hate-ism in Islam.”
When the children are on school breaks, the family likes to hike and travel.
“I love these things, and so I visit all the hiking tracks near me with my kids,” Virk said, mentioning the Mount Tom State Reservation and road trips to other states. “You know, in Pakistan, we have very nice tracks in northern areas, and luckily I’ve browsed the whole of Pakistan. I used to go trekking and camping for 10-20 days.”
But after five years working in Northampton and living in Agawam, Virk has now found himself worrying more and more about the environment his children are growing up in. He worries about dating culture, peer pressure and raising his kids to respect certain cultural traditions that are simply harder to honor here, such as arranged marriage. “In Pakistan, as a Muslim, our parents decide our marriages, and we are very happy with that decision. But here, the kids are not happy with the parents’ decision,” he said.
“So after a long discussion with my wife, we decided that, at this age, we need to spend five to six years in Pakistan to teach our kids about our society, our manners and family respect. Because here in America, I am alone. I have no family: no brother, no sister. The kids just see me and their mother. They don’t know about phuppho, chacha, taya,” he said, listing a few Urdu terms for aunts and uncles. “So this is a gap between this generation and the other generation.”
The Virks plan to move to Rabwah, a town that is a short distance away from Lahore and that has a large Ahmadi population. “I have a house in Rabwah,” Virk said. “We feel Rabwah is a comparatively peaceful place — we can survive there.”
“I will really miss this city,” he adds. “If I come back, I’ll try to start a business again here.”