Shaila Andrabi builds a home for South Asians in Claremont

After moving to the U.S. in the ’80s from Pakistan, Shaila Andrabi found a link to home through the 5Cs’ international community. (Courtesy: Shaila Andrabi)

How do you build a home away from home? For Shaila Andrabi, all it takes is a cup of chai, the best banana bread in the world and a whole lot of gupshup (talking). Andrabi has been responsible for making 91711 into a zip code that many international students can associate with home by creating a space that is safe, comfortable and full of camaraderie. 

Andrabi moved to Claremont from Pakistan in 1988 along with her husband, Professor Tahir Andrabi, the Stedman-Sumner Professor of Economics at Pomona College. She recalls the move as something that really changed her. 

“I remember arriving at Ontario airport in the August of 1988, and I remember driving by the houses,” Andrabi said. “Everybody was in their homes. Basically, nobody was outside. It was a mystery to me. It was a huge cultural shock.”

Andrabi felt like she was one of the few South Asians in Claremont at that time, which set her apart. She remarked that whenever she wore clothes such as salwar kurtas, she would receive a lot of attention. However, she does believe that moving to California has been essential for her personal growth.

“All the big events of my life have been here: from getting my driver’s license, to all my pregnancies,” she said. “It has given me a lot of perspective.”

Nonetheless, Andrabi felt homesick, such as during the festive times of Ramadan. It was difficult for her to part from her cultural lifestyle — and that’s when she started attending the Hindi-Urdu table at Oldenborg Dining Hall. 

“I felt lonely,” she said. “The Hindi-Urdu table was at Oldenborg on Thursday, and I remember it was the only outing of my week. I would go dressed, [and] that was my opportunity to wear my salwar kameez without being judged, and that’s how I started meeting students.”

Andrabi has been responsible for making Claremont a homely environment for many students from South Asian backgrounds. From advocating for international students to celebrating their achievements, Andrabi has created a family in this Claremont bubble.

“I couldn’t connect with a lot of other immigrants, but I could definitely connect with the students,” Andrabi said.

5C students are inspired by the atmosphere that she has created. Mohsin Butt PO ’23 appreciated “her ability for recreating the cultural environment that we might not have been able to experience if she weren’t here.”

Andrabi fosters values of unity and camaraderie. Not only has she created a neutral space where students from conflicting nations can peacefully gather, but she encourages interfaith dialogue.

“I think one of the biggest things she did was be the glue for a community of people that didn’t originally know how to interact with each other,” Sehr Taneja PO ’17, a close student of Andrabi’s, said. “When you come from India and Pakistan, it feels like you grew up in charged environments. [Andrabi] became this glue that was binding everyone together by ensuring that there are interfaith relations that can also be cross-border relations and that we’re not influenced by the political stances of these nations.”

Andrabi consistently rose above the duties of just a mentor by creating relationships and being involved in the lives of her students. From watching piyaare desis performances to attending festivals to organizing poetry nights at her house, she offers generosity and encouragement. More than anything, however, she is emotionally available for her students.

“I felt lonely. The Hindi-Urdu table was at Oldenborg on Thursday, and I remember it was the only outing of my week. I would go dressed, [and] that was my opportunity to wear my salwar kameez without being judged, and that’s how I started meeting students.”

Shaila Andrabi

“I remember that [my graduation] happened to be Mother’s Day,” Taneja said. “I always thought it was really special because my mother came, and I remember thinking to myself that I was spending Mother’s Day with both of my mothers: one who brought me up and one who gave me a home when I was far away, and helped me become a new person.”

Andrabi remembers and celebrates all of her students, current and former. One student that has remained especially close to her heart is Naveen Sangji PO ’05.

“Naveen was an extremely smart student,” she said. “I remember she came when the 9/11 attack happened and chose to wear a headscarf, and when she arrived, I decided to take her grocery shopping. We were standing in line and I was just wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but Naveen was wearing a headscarf … People were very angry at that time and she was only 19 years old, and so it just crushed me to see how people were treating her, so I wanted to be there for her.”

Andrabi recently started working as a chaplain at the McAlister Center and hopes to continue providing support and comfort to the South Asian students of Claremont. She continues to impart the values that she has practiced for the last 34 years.

Andrabi successfully continues to foster a community with the acknowledgment that we live in a big world. But beyond the borders, hatred, distress and focus, Andrabi encourages people to focus their energy on building connections: it’s a small world after all. 

“She just taught me everything about generosity and about being strong and living with a purpose,” Taneja said, “And of course, how to be there for each other.”

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