Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
A tensile strength burns through Yalda Barlas in a combustion of grief and loss.
Now 22 and about to enter the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Yalda somehow plowed through a double major in biology and chemistry, worked as a tutor and nursed her mother at home until her 2013 death from colon cancer.
Her mother Shasiqa told her she got her “smart genes” from her dad.
The father she resembles was killed by the Taliban 19 years ago.
On Saturday, Yalda graduated from UNM and will segue into medical school under a full Regent’s scholarship and as part of the school’s eight-year BA/MD program.
She was born in Pakistan, along with her three siblings; a sister Nelofar, 26; a brother Ghazanfar, 25; and her sister Venes, 19. Their father, Nadir, was a civil engineer who worked for the United Nations in the city of Quetta, near the border of Afghanistan.
Never afraid to speak his mind, he objected to things like building a bridge with substandard materials.
“I have, like vague memories of him,” Yalda said. “I remember him coming home on my birthday and bringing home gifts from Afghanistan.”
Nadir disappeared in 1997. A family friend said he’d been taken by the Taliban. He was just 37.
Yalda was 3 years old. Shasiqa searched for her husband for three years, carrying her babies as she moved from house to house. If anyone knew what had happened, they were afraid to say so.
The family never heard from Nadir again.
“I don’t know what happened to him, but I’m sure they tortured and killed him, because they did that to everyone,” Yalda said. “If they see someone who’s educated and intelligent, then they’ll do anything to get them out of the way.”
A United Nations friend arranged for the remaining family to immigrate to the U.S.
Yalda’s mother chose Albuquerque, because her sister lived here. All Yalda remembers is being air sick on a plane packed with refugees. She was 6.
At first, the family lived with her mother’s sister. Then, as Shasiqa cycled through a seemingly endless series of dead-end jobs —— at a dry cleaner and a restaurant, then stints as a jewelry cleaner, babysitter and caretaker – they rented an apartment.
“They were all horrible, minimum wage jobs that didn’t pay anything,” Yalda said. “My mom was working at least two jobs at a time. And my brother and sister started working as soon as they could. We moved 11 times in 11 years or something ridiculous like that.”
Her two siblings began working for a family friend at 14. Eventually, they would continue the family dynasty of over-achievement. Her brother became a civil engineer; her sister majored in biology and became a physician’s assistant. Her younger sister Venes is now at UNM, also planning to become a doctor.
Yalda was the Cibola High School valedictorian in 2012.
In 2011, her mother began complaining of constipation and stomach pain. The family learned that she had colon cancer the year Yalda graduated from high school.
Yalda’s mailbox flooded with college acceptance letters, including scholarships from prestigious schools like Dartmouth College and the University of California at Berkeley. She wanted to leave New Mexico but knew she couldn’t because of her mother.
“It had already advanced to stage four,” Yalda said softly, her long, dark hair flowing into a curtain as she leaned her elbow on her knee. “There was basically nothing they could do.”
She spent her first year at UNM in the dorms, then drove out to Albuquerque’s West Side to be with her mother on the weekends.
Shasiqa traveled to the hospital for chemotherapy every two weeks. Yalda sat with her as the toxic medicine flowed into her veins. She got through school by reminding herself of her mother’s hopes for her.
“Whenever I thought of her, I knew she would have wanted me to do well.”
As Shasiqa lay dying, she told her daughter she was afraid she was hindering her path to success.
Yalda’s eyes welled as she recounted the story.
“That was heartbreaking for me. She’s the reason I do succeed. She knew I was going to major in biology,” Yalda continued. “She knew I was going to major in chemistry. She’d always brag about it to her doctor.”
Retired teacher Beth Salimbeni was Yalda’s high school history teacher. She remembers an extraordinary student graced with both confidence and humor.
“She knew how to ask questions,” Salimbeni said. “She knew how to laugh at herself. She was a terrific role model.”
Yalda is gifted, Salimbeni acknowledged. But her success is based on more than intelligence, she said.
“As far as I’m concerned, discipline is 90 percent of gifted. She knew what she wanted.”
Shasiqa offered a fierce model in survival, she added.
“Imagine being the mother of four children. Your husband is killed, and you know he’s not coming back. You’re a refugee from Pakistan, and you don’t speak one word of English. I think more than anything, that would say to a child, ‘You can do it.’ I consider Yalda one of those kids who made it against all odds.”
Yalda says her parents’ struggle to survive left their daughter with a steely determination to honor them.
“I felt like I had to do something to go further,” she said. “I didn’t want my parents’ sacrifice to be wasted. They worked so hard that their lives were taken one way or the other.”
Toward the end, Shasiqa had to go to the emergency room nearly every two weeks. Her oxygen dropped dangerously; she became jaundiced. Yalda took her home for the inevitable hospice.
“I would usually spend the night next to her,” she said. “If she didn’t see me at her side, she’d say, ‘Where’s Yalda?’ She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t walk. We had to carry her everywhere. She started coughing up a lot of blood and that was it. She stopped breathing.”
Shasiqa was 47 years old.
After graduation, Yalda wants to take a long-delayed vacation and travel in the U.S. – possibly to Yellowstone National Park. She hopes to do her residency somewhere in California; her older brother and sister live near San Francisco. But she plans to return home to Albuquerque afterward. In a way, the loss of her mother brought an acceptance of her father’s death.
“We always had hope,” she said. “I never accepted him being dead until my mom died. I thought, ‘My mom’s not alone where she is because she’s with my dad.’ ”