A migrant’s tragedy and a heartwarming response

Photo from her charred Pakistani passport

Not a ‘Jane Doe’: Photo from her charred Pakistani passport

Some days ago, a woman died in a fire in Cambridge, MA. The media initially reported that she was in her mid-30s, but within hours, the local Pakistani and Indian community was abuzz with the news that she was a Pakistani, in her 50s. They identified her as Farzana Khan, who lived completely alone here as her entire family was in Pakistan. It was moving to see how many people were concerned and wanted to help. When I sent the report below to The News in Pakistan a couple of days after the incident, the medical examiner still hadn’t managed to get a close friend or relative to identify the body. Until then, she had to be kept in the morgue although she was not quite a ‘Jane Doe’. As word of the dilemma spread, a Pakistan origin couple in the Boston area whose children she had looked after briefly, volunteered to identify her.

“She was very short, and had very long hair,” recalled the husband, Fayyaz. His wife Fehmida, a medical doctor, sent both their contact details to the police via Pakistan’s  honorary Consul General in Boston, Barry Hoffman. The Pakistan Embassy in Washington also connected with the family in Pakistan as well as with members of the  desi community in the Boston area, who regardless of their own religious beliefs, were  concerned that Farzana Khan be buried with dignity and given a proper funeral in accordance with Muslim religious rituals. Many people donated to this end, and those who could, attended the funeral when it finally took place. A tragic story overall, but it was good to see the community come together across religious and national divides. My initial report below.

Firefighters tackle the blaze in the early hours of a freezing winter morning

Firefighters tackle the blaze in the early hours of a freezing winter morning

Published in The News, Feb 15, 2014

Pakistani woman dies in Boston fire

BOSTON: A Pakistani woman from Karachi was killed in a fire in an apartment in the Boston area in the early hours of Feb. 12.

She was living on her own in Cambridge city adjacent to Boston since her elderly husband left for Pakistan a couple of years ago to join their adult children there.When firefighters pulled the woman out of the second-floor apartment on Prospect Street she had gone into cardiac arrest. They administered CPR to her before the ambulance took her to the hospital. She was later pronounced dead.

The apartment building with the gutted section visible

The apartment building with the gutted section visible

News of the death jolted members of the Pakistani and Indian community, who have been emailing and calling each other to obtain details. They identified her as Farzana Khan — confirmed by the Pakistani passport the police found in the apartment. Her date of birth listed in the passport is Nov 2, 1955.

“We are trying to find her family in Pakistan and to ensure that she gets a decent burial with the proper religious rites,” said Nuzhat Siddiqi, a Pakistani origin Cambridge resident, who knew Ms Khan for the last 13 years.

Pakistan’s Honorary Consul General in Boston, Barry Hoffman, has since spoken to the deceased woman’s son-in-law Umair Jamal in Pakistan, and put him in touch with the Mass State Police in order to complete formalities.

The family has conveyed that she should be buried in Boston. The Muslim community has stepped forward to take on this responsibility and the funeral is expected to take place on Saturday.

According to those who knew her, Farzana Khan made ends meet by baby-sitting, providing care to the elderly, and working in restaurant kitchens. A few days ago, she told a friend that she was worried about her husband Rustam Khan who is diabetic and had fallen down recently in Pakistan. She had also asked for help in finding a cheaper apartment.

Nuzhat Siddiqi said that the second-floor apartment that Farzana Khan rented had no heating. With a relentless cold wave driving temperatures to well below freezing, she was using a heating device to try and stay warm.The blaze was caused by an electric baseboard heater, which might have malfunctioned, or had an electrical wiring failure, or had items on it that caught fire, said the fire marshal.

(ends)

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