The path from Pakistan to an American presidential election

By KATE LUDLOW

Zeshan Janmohad, an owner partner of Boomer’s convenience store in Liberty Hill, became a U.S. citizen in 2011 and voted for the first time on Tuesday. (Photo by Kate Ludlow)

Voting is an American right, but for those who are not born here, the road to the polling place can be a long process.

For Zeshan Janmohad, the friendly familiar face behind the counter at Boomer’s convenience store in Liberty Hill, the journey to a ballot box in Williamson County started in Pakistan 28 years ago.

At 7 a.m. Tuesday, Janmohad got up, went to Cedar Park High School  and voted for the first time — casting his ballot in the presidential election. At age 28, it wasn’t voter apathy that kept him from voting before now. Born in Pakistan, he had to endure years of waiting to become a citizen so that he would be eligible for a voter registration card.

“At first, I didn’t know what to expect when I went to vote. I have had friends that told me that you can do straight ticket, I just pretended that I knew what they were talking about,” he said. “I had to educate myself. I Googled each candidate and the issues. I watched a lot of the YouTube news channel. And of course, I love to watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I love them because they’re not so uptight. They make politics fun.”

Proudly wearing his “I Voted” sticker, he spoke about the experience from behind the counter as a steady stream of customers passed through the store on Election Day — typical for any weekday afternoon.

“My father votes every year. My mother is still a greencard holder. Ever since I learned (U.S.) history, our forefathers fought for our right to be free, have our say. For me to not vote, it would be an insult to their sacrifices,” he said.

Though he has complete confidence that every vote counts, his newness to the process on Tuesday did lead to one questionable moment.

“The people working at the polls asked me if I want to do paper or electronic. I said, ‘Which is faster?’ They gave me a paper ballot and when I handed it back in, they stuck it in this big metal box. I said, ‘Woah! Is that a shredder?’”

From behind the counter at Boomer’s, the store he owns in partnership with his father, his brother-in-law, and his brother, Sameer, Janmohad sees a view of life in “real America.”

Each day, Sameer and Zeshan work at the store — usually Sameer in the morning and Zeshan in the evening. They greet most customers by name as they cash checks, sell lottery tickets, beverages, snacks and gasoline. While everything in the store chimes or chirps, both men are able to tune out the sound effects and make small talk with their customers.

The Janmohads have worked the store so long that they know Liberty Hill family histories. They hear about divorces, watch kids grow up, and commiserate with customers about bad days at work and celebrate when someone buys a new car. They treat their counter as they treat their community.

Born in Pakistan to an Indian family, Zeshan Janmohad and his family immigrated to the United States when he was three year old.

“I was the first in my family to be born in Pakistan, everybody in my family was born in India. My dad first came (to the United States) a few years before we came,” Janmohad said. “He applied for us to come over. My dad first came to Los Angeles, and worked fast food jobs to make money.”

His mother was a stay-at-home mom to Janmohad and his older brother and sister. His father worked a series of entry-level jobs, moving the family from Los Angeles to Phoenix, and finally to Beaumont where he purchased a dry cleaning business.

When he was a junior in high school, his family moved to Round Rock to be closer to family. Janmohad’s brother-in-law bought Boomer’s and the family came in as partners.

Janmohad graduated from Texas State University with a major in business and marketing. While there, it was discussions with fellow students that made him realize how little control he had over his adopted country’s politics.

“It really hit me in college what I was missing by not being able to vote,” he said.

As friends conversed about political issues, he said he realized he did not have the ability to change anything.

“They would talk about enlisting in the military, I couldn’t do that. They would talk about voting, I couldn’t do that. They would discuss terrorism, and I would kind of sit there,” he said.

“People make comments, obviously. We’ve heard all sorts of racial slurs, or people call us terrorists,” he said. “We’ve heard it all. It’s your mentality that gets you through it. People can say whatever they want, in the end, you know what’s true and what’s not. If you react, they win. You just proved their point right there that you’re a savage or whatever, especially if you react violently. You just have to brush it off.”

The harassment over the years didn’t make any difference to Janmohad.

“I figure, whether I’m a citizen or not, those people are still going to say that. I have friends that were born here that are called those things just because of the color of their skin. But then again, I have some friends that would defend me. It never really affected me much because once you grow up with something long enough, it just doesn’t affect you,” he said.

“Growing up (in the United States) and not being a citizen, I didn’t feel any different. I just felt like every other kid. It didn’t hit me until later how much it really meant,” Janmohad said.

He was a high school senior when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I want to say it wasn’t that bad, but then again being brown, and a citizen of Pakistan, didn’t really help when we go on planes,” he said. “In fact, when me and Sameer were coming back from India in 2009 — that’s an almost 20-hour flight — we landed, and the American passports are blue, the Pakistani passports are green. So, you see two brown guys with Pakistani passports coming from a flight from India…they scan them, and tell us, ‘Step aside, step aside.’ Took us into a room, and we sat there for almost 45 minutes, jetlagged, and then they took us into a separate room and began questioning us.”

Janmohad said he was asked where he lived,  where he attended school and where he worked.

While he provided his student identification, his brother called Liberty Hill to verify his employment at Boomer’s.

During that trip to India, Janmohad met his extended family who still live there.

“Growing up, it was just my dad, my mom, my brother, and my sister,” he said. “My dad has nine brothers and sisters, but I had only seen them in pictures. It was the first time I got a sense of how big my family really was.”

As he continued to wait on customers, Janmohad spoke about the differences between India and the United States.

On the trip, he also witnessed the tension between India and his native country Pakistan in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks near the Taj Mahal.

Although he grew up in the United States, his native culture and lineage has remained an important part of his life.

When Janmohad got married, he and his wife chose to honor their heritage by dressing in traditional Indian wedding attire — embroidered fabrics, gems and jewels, and traditional scarves.

He met his wife, Karishma, while they were both in high school. The relationship renewed after they entered college where they crossed paths again. Mrs. Janmohad currently works as a teacher at a Montessori school in Austin.

“My father started the citizenship process when we first moved to L.A.” Jonmohad said. “With all the moving around we did, our files got lost. My dad received his citizenship in 1997. In 2002, I got my greencard — it pretty much makes you a permanent resident, you’re just still not a citizen.

“After you get your greencard, it is, I believe, a five-year wait before you can become a citizen,” he said. “With weddings and everything else happening, we just wanted to get settled in and then apply for my citizenship.”

Janmohad started the application process in the summer of 2011. He said the process is difficult.

According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), 1.06 million people became naturalized citizens of the United States the same year as Janmohad.

Each of them, including Janmohad and his family, had to go through a lengthy, involved process.

Applicants are interviewed about their history and their life in this country. Applicants must also pass a history and civics test.

“A lot of those were easy for me because I grew up here,” he said. “I grew up learning American history. For somebody else that didn’t, my mom for example, those questions are much more difficult.”

Applicants must also pass a literacy test.

“Then they tell you right there if you pass,” he said. “If you’ve passed, about a month and a half later, you get another letter, this one inviting you to the ceremony. Mine was at the University of Texas.”

The officer that interviewed him met Janmohad at the ceremony, matched his photograph  with his file, and he was sworn in. He was presented a certificate of citizenship.

At that point, Janmohad became eligible to register to vote.

Knowing the elections were coming up, he said he did not procrastinate. Years of work had paid off, and he was finally able to cast his vote.

“It was exciting. It went so quickly, but it made a big difference,” he said.