For Pakistani families in Beaver, statue expresses hope
'It's a symbol of America, and we love America and it shows victory.'
January 2, 2013 5:00 AM
From top, Minhas Hameed, Umair Akhlas and Mohsin Hameed top off a 15-foot-tall Statue of Liberty made of snow in the front yard of their home Monday in the 1100 block of Fourth Avenue in Beaver. The families, who are Christians, are recent arrivals in the U.S., leaving their native Pakistan due to religious violence.
By Amy McConnell Schaarsmith Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For the members of the Hameed and Akhlas families now living in Beaver, this past Christmas was the first they could celebrate freely and happily, without fear of persecution.
Christmas decorations brought them joy. So did ringing church bells and, seemingly everywhere, the sight of the churches themselves. And then there was their first snow: For men and women and children accustomed to the hot climate of lowland Punjab, Pakistan, snow was a fluffy, freezing miracle.
First came a simple snowman on their front lawn on Fourth Street. The next creation, just after Christmas, was a 10-foot-tall "snow girl," complete with wings and a bouquet, that neighbors began calling the "snow angel."
And then -- after a thaw, followed by fresh snowfall Saturday-- came their Lady Liberty, all 15 feet of her, including the torch, built around the snow angel's remnants in a burst of gratitude for the country they now call home.
"It's a symbol of America, and we love America and it shows victory," said Minhas Hameed, 36, as he took a break from preparing the family's lunch of curried chicken on Tuesday. "God bless America -- that's our last word."
The recent snowfall has been a welcome chance to play for a family that has seen more than its share of tragedy in recent years.
In 2009, an anti-Christian mob of Sunni militants burned down the family home in Gojra, Pakistan, and killed seven people, including the family patriarch, 75-year-old house painter Hameed Pannun Khan. More than 100 Christian homes were burned and looted in aneight-hour rampage by approximately 20,000 people, authorities said at the time.
Christians make up less than 5 percent of the population of Pakistan, which is predominantly Muslim.
Almas Hameed, whose wife and two young children were among the dead, and his remaining family members were left with nothing. And after news reports of the incident, they continued to receive death threats from Islamic militants, forcing them to flee Pakistan for Thailand.
After two years in Thailand, 11 members of the Hameed and Akhlas families were resettled in Beaver in May with the help of Catholic Charities, the Presbyterian Church and several local families. Besides Almas Hameed, they include his four brothers, his dead brother's widow, his niece, his two nephews and his two remaining children.
There, they quickly became favorites of their neighbors. Soon after meeting Leslie and Bill Hare, who live across the street, Almas Hameed heard that their 12-year-old son, Don, was ill and stopped to visit.
"He put his hands on my head and said a prayer," Don said. "It was really nice."
Not long after that, Mr. Hameed and his family members invited Don to come help them build a garden in the backyard, and the families became friends.
Mr. Hameed and his relatives often bring fresh vegetables and spicy Pakistani home-cooking across the street to the Hares. The Hares and other American friends, meanwhile, have introduced the Pakistani children to Kennywood, movie theaters and other local delights.
And although the Hares say their new neighbors never ask for help or handouts, they also donated a car to boost the Pakistani families' painting business specializing in silk design and ornate decoration, which the men honed on high-end jobs throughout the Middle East.
The Pakistanis, however, don't call the Hares neighbors.
"They call me sister," Leslie Hare said. "They are a blessing to us."
And when the Hares saw snow construction starting across the street on Saturday, they could only marvel at families' ingenuity.
The Pakistanis, led by the project's mastermind, Minhas, filled recycling cans with packed snow and upended them in a circle to make supports, then kept building higher until it was time to add the head, the lifted arm and the torch. Finally, they sculpted the details using a garden trowel and several knives.
Two days and multiple snowball fights later, the sculpture was finished and began drawing a steady stream of admirers to ogle a snowy Lady Liberty that, to the Hameed and Akhlas families, represents true happiness.
"We are happy, because here in America you have freedom -- freedom of speech, freedom of worship," said Ikhlaq Hameed. "We always pray for America."