My mother was never really a storyteller. My father, on the other hand, loved telling stories, and telling many of them over and over again. But my mother never shared memories of her childhood, about her siblings growing up, or what led her to choose to marry the man that she did. That changed, of course, after the accident.
Now, our family lives off of these stories, any stories, about members of our family. And mostly, stories about my father and brother.
My father was born in to an educated family; his father placed high expectations for his children to be educated as well. My dad’s older brother joined the air force academy and my father chose to follow in his footsteps. While attending Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Sargodha, he developed a reputation that was well known across the school campus – and not necessarily because he was a bright student. My father and his classmates would regale us with stories of his time at the air force academy which would then be affirmed by former classmates: tales of sneaking out to watch movies at the local cinema; pranking classmates in the middle of the night; or claiming appendicitis to get out of punishments for mischief and coming thisclose to undergoing surgery because of it. During this time, between the ages of 12 and 17, my father developed a cache of stories and bonds with his classmates that would last a lifetime and beyond.
Despite the mischief he did have one dream: to become a pilot in the Pakistani Air Force. But the murky political scene labeled many in his class “unfit for duty” and they were barred from entering the air force. My father included.
Instead, my father pursued a degree in engineering at the University of Engineering and Technology in Taxila, Pakistan, got married, and immigrated to America at 25 to pursue a Masters at the University of Wisconsin.
The chapter that followed is the start of my father’s story as the poster boy for the so-called “American Dream.”
The first vacation my parents took after arriving in America was to California to visit a childhood friend, Ashar Aziz. He took them sightseeing and captured, in a photograph, their visit to the Golden Gate Bridge as young, fresh-faced immigrants. But my mother likes to tell us that the trip was memorable for another reason. Ashar introduced them to a friend whose name they liked so much, they decided to name their first child after him. My brother Cyrus born a few months later.
Life would resume for my mom and dad, scraping along in a poor graduate student lifestyle and both as young parents and foreigners in a new land. My mother recalls that my father would work in the library for a few dollars a week. She loves telling us that they bought their first couch for only a few dollars.
When my father graduated, he landed a job in New York, and my family settled in New Jersey. My father was very hard working, trying to make ends meet, working long fourteen hour days sandwiched between a long train commute in and out of New York.
A short time later, my parents experienced (as my father would say, referencing his favorite movie) a “series of unfortunate events” (and, I think my father’s love for the movie stemmed from the fact that he could identify with the characters’ serial misfortune.) In 1987, my father had been working as a civil engineer when the company undertook a mass layoff. He lost his job. My mother was six months pregnant with her second child, me, at the time. He came home early that day and both felt their world crumbling. Only a few hours later, they received a deportation notice.
That same evening, my father’s childhood friend, Nabeel Raazi, took them out to dinner to try to cheer them up. “After dinner he realized that he had forgotten his wallet,” my dad once told us. “After I had just told him I was laid off and being deported, he turned to me and asked me to pay for dinner!” In true Babar Suleman fashion, he then laughed uproariously.
With one overly attached toddler and another child on the way, my father’s options were limited, but he and my mother agreed on one thing: they weren’t ready to go back to Pakistan. By chance, my father came across a short-term job making mailing labels. At the time, computers were “the new thing,” and as with all tech, my dad wanted to know everything about them. He taught himself everything he could and soon became known as a computer guru. So, when the mailing labels job came up, he jumped on it, using his computer at home to finish the task. His “office” consisted of a closet with the ceiling slanting to the left. His computer, desk and chair wedged inside, my father spent two weeks making mailing labels. The job earned him $17,000. “He thought he had hit the jackpot,” my mother laughs. “This was the turning point in our lives. We were able to buy diapers, food, and decide what we wanted to do next.”
It was the turning point. With greater confidence, he landed a job as an engineer at a construction company, and when the vice president was fired, my father was promoted to the job. They were able to fix their immigration status and soon became American citizens.
By 1991, my parents were faced with another unfortunate event when my father suffered the first of two heart attacks he would have in his life. They realized it was time to slow down. Our family moved to Plainfield, Indiana, my father accepted a job offer with a local energy company, and on October 3, 1996, my younger brother Haris was born.
Flight Around the World
In the slower paced life in Plainfield, my father had the luxury of dabbling in extracurricular activities. He was widely known as “coach” within the soccer community, coaching all three of his children and both the boys and girls high school teams at Plainfield High School. He took up hunting, golf, played in an over 40 soccer league and developed a reputation as a jack-of-all-trades. With a wide range of skills and knowledge, he was always building something. One memorable invention was an air conditioner he fashioned for a small plane out of a cooler, fan and ice packs. It was the most ridiculous-looking contraption, but it was effective, and he had made it himself. He used it for quite a while before finally giving in and installing a real air conditioner.
Through it all, my father never forgot his dream to fly. In 2005, he began taking flying lessons. “After several years of school, marriage, mov[ing] to the United States, more studies, kids, jobs…I suddenly realized I had almost forgotten my dream,” he wrote in a blog he began writing last year. “Almost 34 years after the birth of an idea, I decided to learn to fly.” My father flew every weekend. He was a methodic man, waking up at 4 a.m. every morning, drinking his tea, and getting to work. On the weekends, he would leave for the airport in the early hours for his lessons while the rest of us were still asleep. This became a part of his routine. Flying became his next obsession as evidenced on the day of my high school graduation ceremony. My father went to get in some hours of flying and arrived just moments before the ceremony was to start, only to realize that he had forgotten the batteries for the camera! I still have no pictures from my high school graduation, thanks to my dad’s obsession with flying! Still, he worked hard, passing his exam administered by the popularly named Bob “Flunkin’” Duncan, and earned his instrument rating only months later. He would take on consulting assignments around the country, and would go there in a small aircraft that he flew himself. We would ask him why he didn’t just take commercial flights if his company would pay for the expense. He would say they were just too long, but we all knew it was really because of his love of flying. He also volunteered for an organization that flew puppies that were in danger of being euthanized to new homes across the country. At any opportunity that he could take up flying, he did. It was as if his life had come full circle, complete with pilot’s license in one hand and soon enough purchasing his own aircraft in another.
Growing up, my father would say that his dream was to fly to Pakistan himself one day, in his own plane. We didn’t make much of it. “Ridiculous!” “Impossible!” “It’s too dangerous!” we all scoffed. Still, he continued to plan, discussing what routes he would take, and what he would want to see along the way.
After visiting Pakistan to attend family weddings this past January, his dreams to fly there in his own plane began to resurface. Something on that trip triggered his dream, and this time, he began putting his plans in to action. And now, he spoke of not just flying to Pakistan, but flying around the world. The pilots he spoke to all encouraged him, mentioning how commonplace this type of journey really was. But we still tried to dissuade him. My father firmly believed that if it was his fate to die in the course of the journey, then there was nothing that could be done to change that. “Here is something I and my wife [sic] very strongly believe in: If it’s not your time, it’s not your time,” he wrote in his blog on July 6, 2014. “But when it is – no matter how many iron curtains you hide behind the grim reaper will get you. But if you go supporting a noble cause, you have made a point and achieved your goal.”
Cyrus and I had our reservations, and didn’t take the plans seriously at first. But Haris did. My little brother, who had begun flight school the year before, was intrigued. He hadn’t completed his flight classes due to school, soccer and life getting in the way. But it wasn’t long before my dad asked him if he wanted to join him on the flight.
Haris was the hugger, he always said “I love you,” and though the title of “peacemaker” usually falls to the middle child, Haris was usually the one diffusing arguments and easing tensions. He was always the first to volunteer for fundraisers and always the one to lend a hand when someone needed help. Haris was 11 years younger than Cyrus and eight years younger than me, so we were like a second set of parents; our parents would defer most decisions to us. As the baby of the family, he constantly strived to please us. But we were still just his bossy older sibling. Because my dad starting consulting around the country when Haris was a child, he didn’t have as much time (or the same relationship) with my father as Cyrus and I did. So when an opportunity arose to join my father to achieve a life-long dream, Haris jumped at the chance, seeing it as an awesome bonding experience. With my father’s encouragement, he worked at finishing flight school in time to embark on “the journey of a lifetime” with my father.
To me, the plans were still just that: plans. I didn’t make much of it, even after he wrote about it in his blog, detailing his plans for his journey.
Until he decide to do it for a “noble cause.”
Flying for a Cause
Only a month after announcing plans for his epic journey, my father called me.
“I need a cause,” he said.
“What kind of cause?” I asked, confused.
“Something that will benefit from our trip,” he said. “If we’re going to do this, we should use it to bring awareness to something.”
My father was a man of strong convictions…I think that’s a nice way to say “extremely %&@# stubborn.” When he had an idea he believed in, there was nothing that anyone could do to convince him otherwise.
One such conviction he had was that the ills of the world: extremism, fundamentalism, poverty, violence, etc. could all be remedied by one thing only: education. My father stressed the importance of education to my brothers and me from the time we were children. He didn’t care what we became: doctors, engineers, journalists or gardeners, he wanted us to get an education to serve as a platform to doing whatever we wanted. With a degree under our belt, our circumstances would be vastly different, our opportunities infinitely greater, than if we didn’t.
So, after brainstorming (women’s rights? Human rights? Environmental awareness?) we both knew there was only one cause that mattered above all others for my father: bringing education to the poor.
The charity of choice was also a no-brainer. My family had supported Seeds of Learning, the local chapter of The Citizens Foundation, since its inception in 2006 founded by our family friend, Azher Khan.
My father set his fundraising goal at a lofty one million dollars, and planned to fly around the world in 30 days “because it sounded catchy!” He didn’t care if it took longer or if they set records (my brother would have been the youngest to ever complete the journey if they succeeded). As my father stated in his blog, this journey was not about the record, “it was about a mission.” The mission was simply to build schools in rural, underdeveloped areas of Pakistan.
After outfitting their “steed” with a brand new engine, brand new instruments, new locks, brakes, and other parts, the plane was ready. My brother completed his nine hour solo flight to South Dakota without a hitch, and passed his instrument rating soon after. Their emergency equipment was packed, their flight suits ready, and their destinations planned meticulously.
On June 7, 2014, Seeds of Learning hosted a launch party to see-off the team. Local news covered the event, and hundreds of local area residents came out to see the duo and the plane. A few days later, I said goodbye to my father and brother for the last time.
As I hugged my little brother, the boy I had practically helped raise, who over the years had somehow (I realize now) become my best friend, I started to cry. I cut off the hug and darted inside, not wanting him to see my tears. I didn’t want him to think I doubted him. I didn’t want him to doubt himself. I just didn’t trust the dangers they would face. It seems silly, but not hugging him a little longer is one of my life regrets.
And off they went to their first of twenty-six stops. I was in Washington D.C. for the summer, updating the website and followers on Facebook with their accomplishments. We prayed constantly for their safety, not looking too far into the future — we didn’t care about the records or even the mission, we just wanted them home safe and sound. Meanwhile, they saw icebergs from the sky over Iceland, visited the coliseum in Rome, rode camels at the pyramids in Egypt. They met a hostile monkey in Bali (apparently it didn’t appreciate Haris taking a selfie with it), saw the beautiful skylines in Australia, met family at each of their stops — many of whom they hadn’t seen in years — and took in the beautiful ocean sunset of Pago Pago, American Samoa.
And more importantly, they were taken aback by the awe of the school children they were helping at the TCF schools in Pakistan, where they had been “received like celebrities”.
But on the twenty-first stop in American Samoa, their journey would end. On the morning of July 23, 2014, my mom received a phone call. With that call, our lives changed.
My father and brother were taking off at night with hopes of arriving in Hawaii in the morning. Moments after take-off, something went wrong and they sent out a distress signal. A witness on the beach saw the plane suddenly go down and called the authorities.
Haris was found within a few hours. He was still strapped to his seat, floating with other debris. My father could not be found. In the days that followed search and rescue teams attempted to find for him and the rest of the plane. Nearly five months after this accident, his remains have still to be found.
Although several deep sea dive attempts have been made, the searches have been unsuccessful thus far. The more time that passes, the lower the morale, but we will continue until there are no avenues left.
Since the accident, I have felt as though my life is a tossed salad-but mid-toss. The pieces have not yet landed, I don’t know where they will land, and once they do, life will never be like before. There is a saying amongst Muslims that there is good that comes out of even the most devastating events. Some days, I think there has been nothing good to come out of this. On others, I realize that there is good, even if not directly for me.
As much as I hate to say it, had my brother and father survived the journey, they would have done some interviews, had their names recorded in the annals of history for breaking a world record, but all of that would have been temporary. Someone else would likely come to break the record and my father and brother’s cause would be forgotten. And yes of course, we would have had them home, recounting their adventures. But by giving their lives for a cause, they have become something more: an inspiration.
Over the last few months, I have received messages from Italy, Austria, Canada, the UK, Germany, India, Pakistan, Australia and many, many other countries. Messages of condolences and of the impact my father and brother’s trip, and their loss, had on them. Before and during the trip, their efforts had raised about half a million dollars in funds and pledges. When it was known that they only reached half of their fundraising goal, an anonymous donor pledged the remaining amount in their honor, ensuring that their goal was reached. We found out later that it was Ashar Aziz, the friend they visited on their first vacation to California. At the tribute held by Seeds of Learning in honor of my father and brother, another childhood friend and classmate of my father’s from PAF Sargodha made a major contribution. Ejaz Shameem donated $2.4 million to build a cluster of schools in their honor. To date, a total of $3.1 million have been donated since my father and brother gave their lives for this cause.
The Pakistani government has also recognized their effort and contribution. In March of next year, Haris will be awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Star of Excellence) posthumously. The award is the third highest national award given by Pakistan, and the highest given for major civil contributions. Haris’ name will join other notable winners of the award including recent Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousefzai.
Former President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari paid tribute to Haris and my father, sending his condolences for the loss. Zardari said that in dying for the cause of education, “Haris innocently made a dramatic political statement that change and revolution in the country of his origin will come about not through slogans, but by making education a national priority, massively investing in it and even dying for it.” He went on to compare Haris to Malala Yousefzai in his contributions to education, saying that “the heart rendering statements for the cause of education made first by young Malala and now by teenager Haris show the penchant of our youth for books, and their determination to bring change through education without waiting for others.”
Such high praise only goes further when remembering that Haris was American. Although he was born to Pakistani parents, Haris’ life really only knew of America. And yet, through that he found an inspiration in giving back to a country that was not necessarily his, for a cause that is universal in nature, but sorely needed in the country where his parents were born and raised.
My father’s story proves that through hard work, perseverance and a whole lot of dreaming, the American Dream is achievable. This once foreign graduate student, struggling to raise a family and make ends meet in pursuit of education, not only achieved success, but mastered his dreams. And in that process he opened the doors for providing access to education to a population that would otherwise be forgotten.
And whereas my father was the perfect example of the American Dream, my brother was the perfect example of an American homegrown hero.
He played soccer, loved Steak ‘n Shake and Taco Bell, and attended high school football games with friends like any other American teenager.
We, as Americans, have stood behind Malala Yousefzai for standing up to the Taliban and nearly losing her life as a result, and we stand behind her in her pursuit of building schools in her country of Pakistan. And we should for what she’s sacrificed and the good she has done. While I have the utmost respect for what she has faced, and for what she will face in the future, as an American, I expect my country, my America, to honor its own citizens too for giving their lives out of a passion for a cause — the same cause as hers.
I am not ungrateful. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Congressman Andre Carson’s mention of Haris on the floor of Congress, ensuring that his name forever be part of the Congressional Record. But the importance of heroes to be recognized nationally would serve as a greater inspiration — in some ways, legitimizing his place as a hero for this country.
This isn’t a Muslim issue or even a religious one at all. When a reporter asked me what I thought their journey could do for the dialogue about Muslims in this country, the question floored me. I hadn’t considered that because they weren’t out to improve dialogue between “Islam” and the “West.” They had no efforts to debunk the “clash of civilizations theory” or improve the image of Islam destroyed by terrorism.
This was a trip that embodied the full meaning of the American Dream.
It’s a journey and a story that deserves greater recognition. In a country that was built by immigrants, that runs because of the hard work of the great minorities of this country, I hope that it is stories like ours, the story of Babar and Haris Suleman, my father and brother, that start to become recognized. It’s an inspiring story that is recognized around the globe and needs to be more so in the country that my father and brother made their home. It’s a story that every American should know.
“There is a part of everyone that craves discovery and adventure, and we have chosen to live out that craving,” Haris wrote in a blog for Huffington Post while on his journey. “Breaking out of the routine of day to day life requires bravery in more than one form.” Who knew I would change the course of my life to reflect the wise words of my 17-year-old baby brother? I will continue to carry on their legacy and their message to promote education for the poor and to show my fellow Americans that there is a brave hero in each one of us. We can’t all fly, but we can all have convictions that change the world.
Please Support the film project: Babar and Haris Around the World