Human Interests

I escaped an arranged marriage by joining the Air Force — my family disowned me but I had no choice

Dec 15, 2023nypost
For one Maryland girl, the American Dream came at a heavy price.

For one Maryland girl, the American Dream came at a heavy price.

Back when Hamna Zafar, 23, was just a teenager, her family flew to Pakistan for what she believed was a routine visit with relatives. Instead, she found herself in the middle of her own engagement party to a man — her cousin — handpicked by her immigrant parents.

Rather than give up on her life in the United States, Zafar hatched a plan — to fly the coop and join the Air Force. She got her freedom, but she lost her family.

She was 19 at the time.

“I thought it was a normal family trip. Then I saw the jewelry, the dresses,” Zafar, who grew up in the United States in a traditional Muslim family, told People.

“I was stepping into my 20s, and they wanted to make sure I knew I was engaged and not laying eyes on other guys.”

Hamna Zafar posing for photo in front of US Air Force sign

Hamna Zafar sitting in front of computer in uniform

Her parents never quite “adapted” to culture in the US, she explained, and while they never objected to her education growing up, there was an expectation that Zafar would eventually settle down and get married.

“I was just expecting my family to kind of get used to the culture in the United States,” said Zafar, who maintained good grades in school, stayed nearby her family and planned to being a career post-grad. “Growing up, they never really mentioned arranged marriage.”

Unable to reason with her family, she made the difficult decision to run away and join the Air Force.

Now, she serves as an Air Force Security Defender.

Hamna Zafar

“I was completely dependent on them,” Zafar admitted. “But I knew I had to leave.”

And that she did — with the help of a Navy recruiter, she fled to a cheap hotel to wait to enlist, but almost gave up hope when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, recalling how exhausted she was and how she struggled to get by.

She nearly returned home to go along with her family’s plan, when an old friend invited her to live with his family, where she stayed until she finished her associate degree, finally enlisting last year.

“She’s so petite and humble, you can’t help but want to protect her,” Claudia Barrera, who took Zafar in, told People. “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.’”

Zafar, standing at 5-feet 2-inches, was in for quite the shock when boot camp began — she had no idea what was in store and called it “an eye-opening experience.”

“They are literally getting paid to yell at you, so that was really hard,” said Zafar, who had never been yelled at before. “You are trying to adjust to a different environment and being told what to do 24/7. It was definitely scary.”

Hamna Zafar in uniform, talking to someone in a vehicle

Not only was it mentally tough, but also physically — she recalled all of the marching, crawling and overall pushing her body’s limits.

“Your body gets used to the physical activities,” she said, saying that controlling her “mindset” is key. “Your mind gives up before your body does.”

Zafar is eager for her family to see her potential and be proud of her, but despite multiple attempts to contact them, they have not responded.

But she still has the Barrera-Abarca family, who took her in when she had nowhere else to turn. They now champion all of her successes.

Hamna Zafar posing for a photo with Barrera-Abarca family