Parents Arrange College Student’s Marriage to Her Cousin – But She Escaped and Joined the Air Force
She studied hard. She got good grades. She took care of her sister with autism. She did everything right…behind her life as a good daughter, the unthinkable happened.
It was in her freshman year of college when she was whisked away to Pakistan for a “family trip.”
She had no idea the horrors that were waiting for her when she stepped off the plane. Her life in America was over…or was it?
Her Parents Ambushed Her With a Surprise “Trip”
When Hamna Zafar, 23, was a freshman in University, she went on what she thought was a “normal” family vacation to Pakistan with her parents — but she couldn’t have been more wrong.
To her shock and horror, Hamna had unknowingly walked into a carefully executed trap. What was supposed to be a simple evening out with her relatives turned into a nightmare when Hamna realized she had just walked in to her engagement party.
“I was trying to swallow that pill,” Hamna says. “I was trying to comprehend what was really happening to me.”
Her parents had handpicked the man she was going to marry — a man she had never even met and to make matters even worse her “future husband” was her cousin.
“I thought it was a normal family trip to Pakistan. Then I saw the jewelry, the dresses,” she says.
She Was Proud to Be Born in the USA
Even though Hamna was raised in Maryland, her parents are first generation immigrants. Growing up, Hamna knew her parents had difficulty assimilating to the United States and letting go of their culture — she just never expected she’d have to adhere to theirs.
It’s important to note: while arranged marriages feel like a foreign concept in the Western world, it’s a practice that is still prominent in many cultures today, including South Asia.
Still, Hamna wasn’t sure she was willing to give up her freedom to make her parents happy. She wanted to finish University and find herself. “I was stepping into my 20s,” Hamna said, “they wanted to make sure I knew I was engaged and not laying eyes on other guys.”
In her own words, Hamna shared that her cousin seemed quite happy about their engagement. Unlike Hamna, he grew up in Pakistan. For him, this “arrangement” was completely normal. For Hamna — she slipped into a fog during the whole engagement party and barely spoke to her intended husband.
She didn’t know what to do next, but she knew she had to do something.
She Was “Totally Dependent” on Her Parents
Like most young adults, Hamna was emotionally and financially dependent on her parents.
She was just starting out as a freshman in University — so she couldn’t rely on her education to help her become financially independent fast. Facing down a terrifying future, Hamna had bigger fish to fry than four years of exams.
“I was completely dependent on them but I knew I had to leave.”Hamna Zafar
Sure, she was able to identify the problem…but she didn’t yet have the solution. Hamna was stuck in what is referred to as a “liminal space.”
“Liminal space” is the place a person is in during a transitional period. It’s a gap, and can be physical (like a doorway), emotional (like a divorce), or metaphorical (like a decision). It’s where one thing ends and another is about to begin — but you are not quite there yet, you are in the space between.
Even though we will all find ourselves here at some point or another, it’s no surprise the liminal space can be incredibly difficult to navigate. Certain people even report struggling with their mental health during these times.
Hamna wasn’t yet independent from her parents, but she couldn’t go back to feeling the safety she once felt, when she was dependent on them.
They had broken her trust. They had decided they knew what was best for her — without her permission.
So she would need to take charge of her own life, without them.
Planning Her Escape — How One Navy Recruiter Changed Everything
When she wasn’t able to reason with her family, instead of giving up her American dream, Hamna hatched a plan — to runaway and join the Air Force.
She was only 19 at the time.
“I always thought about my parents. I always thought about my family. I always thought about my sisters. But that night I thought about me.”
It’s no surprise with all that bravery (and at such a young age), Hamna found herself lining up for the line of duty. Even though it broke her heart to leave her family, Hamna made the difficult decision to forge her own path
When her parents learned of her plans, Hamna panicked. She knew she had to leave before they could stop her. With the help of one quick-thinking Navy recruiter, she escaped and went into hiding at a cheap motel, where she lay low, until she was able to enlist.
Then the COVID pandemic hit.
She Almost Gave Up — Then a Family of Strangers Stepped In
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Hamna was worried for her family’s health just like everyone else. The financial and political unrest in the USA took a toll on her, and in the midst of the chaos, Hamna second-guessed herself.
She was totally alone in the world, with no safety net to catch her and no family to lean on. There was a hole inside her heart she wasn’t sure an unknown “future” could fill.
She was tired, broke and almost ready to give in her parents’ demands. Then, a friend from college threw her a life raft just in time.
When Austin Abarca-Barrera heard about Hamna’s struggles, he extended an invitation that would save her life. Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, he told Hamna to come and live with him and his family.
Though they didn’t have much they would take care of her in anyway they could — they would offer her the unconditional love her own family never could. Oscar Abarca and his wife Claudia Barrera would become the parents she never had.
Soon, strangers became family. Hamna lived with the Abarca-Barrera’s until after she earned her associate degree, finally able to enlist in the United States Air Force in 2022.
Joining the Air Force Gave Her Back Her Life
It’s no secret that the Navy training is rigorous to say the least. But this was one culture shock Hamna was ready to take on.
“You need to control your mindset,” she says of the training she learned, “because your mind is always stronger than your body.”
At 5 foot 2, Zafar admits the physical demands were a reality check. She had to build her body’s 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.”
Thankfully, these lessons she learned in training will never leave her. At 23, Hamna is a proud member of the U.S Air Force in New Mexico. As an Air Force Security Defender she now spends her days protecting the base.
Her story and her fortitude has gained the respect of many of her colleagues including Sgt. Robert Stewart, 39.
“I told her she just needed someone to believe in you,” says Stewart. “She’s not like any other airman. Her demeanor and her story — she’s like a gem.”
She Lost Her Family — But She Found Herself
The hardest part for her was after finishing basic training. She really wanted her family to see what she had achieved, but despite trying many times, they haven’t replied to her messages.
“I wanted them to be proud of me for who I am and share that with them,” Hamna says. “I really wanted them to see that their daughter has so much potential in her.”
But she had people who cared for her there. The Barrera-Abarca family came to show they were proud of her. Even though they weren’t her blood family they were her chosen family; and to choose her own fate, follow her own heart, was all she ever wanted.
Her Adopted Parents Had a Powerful Message To Her Birth Family:
“I hope they realize the mistake they are making by pushing their child aside,” Barrera says of Hamna’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.”
Choosing the Kind of Life You Want to Live
Even when parents may think they are giving their kids “tough love” or they’re “just looking out for them,” cutting off contact with your child is never the answer.
However, “unconditional love” isn’t always the reality either.
Whether we like it or not, our parents have a direct line to heart. We are born seeking their nurturing because it literally kept us alive. Then we grow up. We make our own choices. It only makes sense that it’s not always going to be the same choices our parents would make — because we are not our parents.
Still, it’s hard to let go of wanting their approval, but Hamna Zafar’s story reminds us that no matter how scary the future may seem, choosing your own path makes all the difference.
“I’d rather be a failure on my own terms than a success on someone else’s.”Tom Waits, Musician