A young woman who immigrated from Pakistan to the United States as a child broke free of an impending arranged marriage by enlisting in the military.
Hamna Zafar, 23, spent most of her young life in Maryland after her family left Pakistan when she was nine years old.
Though she’d had a strict upbringing – with little freedom to pursue extracurriculars or friendships – Hamna never really realized how traditional in their thinking that her parents remained.
‘I was just expecting my family to kind of get used to the culture in the United States,’ she told People.
During her first year of college, Hamna Zafar, 23, who’d grown up in Maryland, discovered that her Pakistani parents were planning to force her into an arranged marriage with her cousin
‘Growing up, they never really mentioned arranged marriage.’
That assumption unfortunately made the series of events at the dawn of Hamna’s young adulthood, beginning at 19 years old, all the more shocking and painful.
Since moving to the US, her family had often traveled back to Pakistan to see relatives – and Hamna thought that a vacation taking place during her freshman year of college would be no different than past trips back to their homeland.
But she discovered that not only had she been betrothed to her cousin, but she’d also be attending her own engagement party on the second day of the visit.
‘I thought it was a normal family trip to Pakistan,’ she explained to People.
‘Then I saw the jewelry, the dresses… I was stepping into my 20s, and they wanted to make sure I knew I was engaged and not laying eyes on other guys.’
What’s worse, she’d grown up with the cousin and had viewed him like a brother, according to a story about Hamna’s background on the US Air Force website.
Unsettlingly, the same cousin had seemed happy about the forced arrangement during their engagement celebration, further reported People, while Hamna recalled feeling like she was in a daze.
Hamna, along with her family, immigrated from Pakistan to the United States when she was just nine years old
‘I thought it was a normal family trip to Pakistan,’ Hamna recalled of when she’d learned that her parents had arranged a marriage for her behind her back
‘I was trying to swallow that pill… I was trying to comprehend what was really happening to me,’ she said.
Back in the US, where she remained completely financially dependent on her parents, she began frantically texting her newfound college friends for help.
Someone’s suggestion to join the military stood out – and soon enough she made it in person to a Navy recruiter’s office.
‘”I needed to move out or do something because if I wait, I’m going to be sent back to Pakistan to marry my cousin,”‘ Hamna remembered telling the recruiter.
‘The recruiter said, “Okay we are starting your paperwork ASAP!”‘
Not long after, the events of one harrowing evening led to the end of Hamna’s life as she knew it.
She’d had to go through a requisite in-person step of the Navy recruitment process, with the recruiter personally driving her there and back to her home afterward.
But Hamna was caught by her mother sneaking into her house at 9 p.m., well past her curfew. Furious, she grabbed her daughter’s phone, and discovered her secret plan to join the Navy.
‘She found everything,’ Hamna said in the Air Force website story.
‘That night she threatened to send me back to Pakistan and tell my father everything. I knew she was being serious, and I knew that if I went back to Pakistan I would never be allowed to come back to the United States.’
Backed into a corner, Hamna phoned up her recruiter again. ‘I said, “We need to do something because I’m about to be sent back to Pakistan and I won’t be able to come back,”‘ she recalled.
That same night, she snuck out of her her family’s house – never to return.
By the beginning of COVD-19, she found herself crashing in a hotel, paid for by the remainder of her college scholarship funds.
‘I wondered if I had made a mistake,’ she reflected. ‘The pandemic was happening, I was alone, and I just kept wondering if I should go back home and marry like my family wanted. I didn’t agree with it, and I didn’t want to, but I felt lost.’
Meanwhile, her family remained too furious with her to entertain even a small degree of reconciliation.
The repercussions of her actions were all the more terrifying given how honor killings are historically condoned in traditional Pakistani culture.
‘My cousins said awful things to me, but I know they would never actually do anything to me,’ Hamna explained.
‘I’ve heard of women getting killed from becoming a disgrace and it was seen as normal… Things have changed a bit, but at the same time in Pakistan it is normal to punish women for bringing disgrace to the family.
‘My own mother told me she wished I would burn in hell fire.
‘My father wanted nothing to do with me and my cousin was furious I wasn’t going through with the marriage. I needed support and I had none.’
But one of her college friends, Austin, ultimately proved to be her saving grace on telling his parents, Oscar Abarca and Claudia Barrera, about Hamna’s situation.
Rejected by her birth family after fleeing their Maryland home, she found shelter with a college friend’s family, the Barrera-Abarcas, who supported her at her Air Force graduation
Following her 2023 graduation from training, Hamna found work as an airman at Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, New Mexico
Soon, the Barrera-Abarca family reached out to Hamna and offered to take her in.
‘[Claudia] took me back to their house and asked me what happened,’ Hamna said.
‘I told her everything about the engagement, the arranged marriage to my cousin, and then joining the Navy to get away. She told me I could live with them for as long as I want, do whatever I needed to do to get my degree, and that I didn’t have to join if I wasn’t ready to.’
Now with a safety net thanks to the family, Hamna elected to put off joining the military while earning her associate’s degree. She also eventually decided that the Air Force would be a better fit for her than the Navy,
In 2022, Claudia, who Hamna now calls ‘mom,’ and Oscar dropped her off at training camp.
Standing only five-foot-two, Hamna initially found boot camp grueling, but rose to the challenge.
‘You need to control your mindset, because your mind is always stronger than your body,’ she told People.
A year later, her original family declined her invitation to her Air Force graduation – but the Barrera-Abarcas showed up for her.
Hamna now works as an airman at Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, New Mexico.
‘She’s so petite and humble, you can’t help but want to protect her,’ Claudia told People of her unofficially adopted daughter.
‘When we dropped her off at basic training, she looked so tiny, and I started crying. [My husband] said, “She’s tiny, but she’s strong.”‘