Khizr Khan on His Time Living in Montgomery County

Khizr Khan on His Time Living in Montgomery County

The Pakistan native criticized Donald Trump at the Democratic convention in July

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Khizr and Ghazala Khan in their Charlottesville home with a copy of John McCain’s Why Courage Matters. Khizr Khan has said that he sent the book to his son Humayun when he was stationed in Iraq.

Khizr and Ghazala Khan were living in the Glenmont section of Silver Spring during the early 1990s while their son Humayun was a student at John F. Kennedy High School.

“He was very, very popular among the ladies,” his father recalls. “We would go to McDonald’s and there would be young ladies in there and they would begin to giggle and point their fingers toward us and whisper ‘Humayun’s parents, Humayun’s parents.’ We would come home and tease Humayun that we ran into your future girlfriends.”

Now many Americans know Humayun Khan’s parents. In July they appeared at the Democratic convention, invoking their Muslim faith and remembering their son, who joined the Army after college at the University of Virginia and died in Iraq in 2004.

Their dignified denunciation of Donald Trump transfixed the nation. Their son’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery became a place of pilgrimage. And their story has been told many times. But most accounts refer only briefly to the eight years—from 1986 to 1994—they spent raising three boys in Montgomery County.

So my wife and I drove to Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Khans now live, to ask them about that period. We talked in a front parlor that’s practically a shrine to their son, full of medals and photos and mementos of all kinds—even his Maryland learner’s permit.

On the way we had passed a large sign directing tourists to the Trump Winery. When we mentioned this to Khizr, now 66, he responded with a story, related to him by a local official. Trump had wanted to hold a rally in Charlottesville “but none of the large venues in town would welcome him.” His campaign was told firmly, “This is Khan Country.”

So is Montgomery County. Khizr commuted regularly from Glenmont to his office in downtown Washington and recalls: “Even on the bus you would notice that you were not the only different-looking person. The same thing on the [train] platform. You would see the United Nations up there, and coming and going twice a day was a reminder that you were in a very good place.”

The Khans met at the University of the Punjab in their native Pakistan—he studied law, she Persian literature—and after graduation they moved to Dubai, where he worked for a Texas-based oil supply company and saved money to finance his graduate studies. Khizr still chokes up when he talks about the kindness of his American co-workers.

“There was no us and them,” he says. “It was just friends. That has stayed in our hearts from day one.”
Harvard accepted him but the family was strapped financially. They moved to Houston for several years, to bank more savings, and then to Boston, where Khizr completed graduate school. “Then there was the decision, where should we settle,” he told us.

The answer: “If you are a banker, you go to Wall Street. Washington had better opportunities in all areas of international law.”

Khizr started asking friends: What’s the best place in the capital area for a young family? “Several people mentioned Montgomery County as having the best schools in the entire region, so I said OK, that became our point of interest,” he explained.

Khizr’s first job was examining mortgage documents for a finance company. Money was still tight so the family moved into a two-bedroom apartment near the Glenmont Metro station. His friends were right about the schools.

“We saw that our children fitted in so well because of the diversity,” he told us. And the teachers were sensitive to the needs of an immigrant population. “You could sense their understanding of the difficulties that children with different languages may face. We felt we made the right decision to come to Montgomery County.”

They felt safe here, though he’ll never forget the day the youngest boy, Omer, and a friend found a tractor in a nearby field and stayed out late playing. “We were like crazy looking for him,” his father remembers.

Khan got a job at a well-regarded law firm, the family upgraded to a house on Layhill Road, and the two older boys could walk to Kennedy High. The first-born, Shaharyar, was a top student, appearing on It’s Academic, a high school quiz show on the local NBC station, and graduating first in his class.

“He didn’t tell us, he was modest about that,” says his father. “Some friend of Shaharyar came to us and said, ‘Have you seen the sign at the John F. Kennedy School? Go see.’ So Ghazala and I got in the car and there it was, ‘Shaharyar Khan, Valedictorian.’ ”

Shaharyar became a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia, an honor that paid all his bills plus a small stipend. “When he got his first pocket money he came to Silver Spring,” his mother says. “There was a little Chinese restaurant in the shopping center and he took me for lunch, just me and him.”

The second son, Humayun, was a swimmer at Kennedy but his real love was teaching his sport to disabled children. “I would say to him, ‘You spend so much time teaching, when do you practice?’ ” says Khizr. In an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, Ghazala recalled her son’s answer: “I love when they have a little bit of progress and their faces, they light up.”

A childhood friend, Amir Ali Guerami, told The New York Times how Humayun shielded him from cruel taunts about his weight. “He owed me nothing, a complete stranger. Yet he stood up for me. He was a savior,” Guerami recalled.

When Humayun joined his older brother at college, the family left Maryland for suburban Virginia so he could qualify for in-state tuition. The same instincts that prompted him to defend his friend back in Silver Spring pushed Humayun toward a military career. He died urging his troops to take cover as he tried to stop a suicide bomber that had invaded their base.

The Khans eventually settled in Charlottesville to be near their surviving sons, who work together at a biomedical research company, and their three young grandchildren. But they recall with great fondness their years in Silver Spring. Khan Country.

Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He is married to journalist Cokie Roberts. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.

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