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Civics Hero

Khizr Khan, the Muslim father who rallied the Democratic National Convention, brings his book tour to Richmond.

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It was 1972 while Khizr Khan was in his second year of law school in Pakistan that he first read America's founding documents. They affected him profoundly.

"I was fascinated with all three documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles and the Bill of Rights," he recalls. "I was amazed at the spirit and the message enshrined in the words of these documents."

By that point in his life, Khan had lived under martial law twice in Pakistan, with national emergencies often imposed to curtail civil rights and suppress a free press.

"I wished to live with the human rights and human dignities enshrined in the founding documents," explains the Muslim father whose son was killed in the U.S. Army in Iraq. "So I came to the United States to study law."

The Charlottesville resident's new memoir, "An American Family: a Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice" will be the focus of his talk when he visits the Library of Virginia on Thursday, April 4, for a reading and book signing.

Khan and his wife Ghazala, who met as students at the University of Punjab, moved to the United States in 1980, where he set out to earn masters degrees in law at the University of Missouri Law School and Harvard Law School. His motivation was simple.

"In democracy, knowledge of law gives power to citizens," he says. "I wanted to make some difference in the life of my fellow citizens, first in Pakistan and then finally in my new home the U.S."

When he finished at Harvard in 1986, the couple became American citizens and he began instilling in his children the importance of being good citizens.

"Public service is most admired in the American culture and its history," he says. "I tried to instill concepts of public service in my children and others, too." 

Khan's middle son, a University of Virginia graduate and Army ROTC cadet, joined the Army as a way to earn money for law school. In 2004, the 27-year old Capt. Humayun Khan was killed by an explosion in Iraq and posthumously awarded the Bronze Star medal and Purple Heart. Four years later, the Khans were part of an HBO documentary, "Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery," documenting visitors to the section of Arlington Cemetery where their son was buried, along with other U.S. military personnel who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

Just ahead of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the couple was contacted by Hillary Clinton's campaign team about speaking. The decision wasn't made lightly. After Donald Trump's statements about banning Muslims and deporting Hispanics, the children of friends with immigrant roots became concerned. Four middle school students hand-delivered a card asking Khizr Khan to help prevent their friend Maria from being thrown out of the country because she was a good student and they loved her.

"Initially, we were reluctant to go, but after receiving the card, we decided to speak," he says. Their life would never be the same.

Private and humble people, they'd never sought out the limelight, but concern for others catapulted them into the public forum. "Now we have no privacy," he says, "but we are glad we spoke of our Constitution, our Bill of Rights and American values, which have made America a beacon of hope for the rest of the world."

On the final day of the convention, accompanied by his wife, Khan delivered a speech about their son, while also taking issue with Trump's policies such as the proposed ban on migration from majority-Muslim countries. In what became the defining moment of the entire convention, Khan pulled out his own dog-eared pocket copy of the Constitution and offered to lend it to Trump.

It wasn't a staged moment. Khan has long felt the need to carry his pocket Constitution with him. He says easy reference was the original reason, but that he's gotten in the habit of quoting from it often during conversation and public speaking.

"Reading the First Amendment and the first five words of it demonstrate how much Americans love and admire the values enshrined in it," he says. "By the way, Virginia's Statute of Religious Freedom is the forerunner of the First Amendment and as a Virginian, I'm proud to mention this historical fact."

Khan's book reading is tied to the 34 immigrant stories featured in the "New Virginians" exhibition at the Library of Virginia.

"Mr. Khan's story reflects what we frequently heard in interviews with other Virginians about the tremendous perseverance required to immigrate and succeed," explains Gregg Kimball, the library's director of public services and outreach. "[As well as] the search for identity in a new world and a deep appreciation and respect for the founding principles of our county, even if we don't always live up to them."

As for his goal in writing the book, Khan says it was simply to share their story and his appreciation for the dignities the family received after becoming citizens. Which is not to say that he isn't still unsettled by the current administration.

"Violations of our democratic norms, our rules of law, our checks and balances are major concerns," he says. "The sowing of hate and division by our adversaries, as described by our national security leaders, is also our concern."

But Khan is ever hopeful, in part because he feels inspired by Americans' love of the Constitution and the rules of law under American democracy. If there's one thing his time in the spotlight has done, it's to strengthen his resolve to be a good citizen.

"We must remain standing and speaking of our democracy, the Constitution and the rules of law to make sure we are vigilant and protect our national unity and democratic values." 

Khizr Khan presents a reading and signing of "An American Family: a Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice" on Thursday, April 4, at 5:30 p.m. at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St. lva.virginia.gov.

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