Surviving Life’s Unexpected Turns
Guided by the strong determination and bold vision of our student leaders, Welfare Rights Initiative demonstrates how personal setbacks can become effective tools for self-advocacy and promoting greater social awareness. Consider Hirah Mir’s story. Born to a Pakistani family who won the green card lottery, she grew up believing in the promise of America. When her parents separated, a once stable family was suddenly thrown off course and into financial turmoil.
With limited education and a disability, Hirah’s mother had few options for survival. She moved the family to a homeless shelter for a while. Eventually, they applied for welfare to secure better housing, food and the basic essentials they could no longer afford without a steady income. Hirah recalls:
“Everything changed. I knew we were on welfare, but we didn’t talk openly about it. My mother shielded me from most of what she had to do to maintain our benefits.”
Always a good student, Hirah slowly adjusted to the new normal and focused on her studies. She was determined to become the first in her family to attend college in the United States.
“I was thrilled to be accepted at Hunter College! Even though my family still struggled, it gave me hope for the future. Just before my first semester, a counselor referred me to Welfare Rights Initiative to arrange an internship as a way of building my résumé. I felt like things were finally looking up for me. Shortly after I turned 18, my life took another unexpected turn.”
No longer a minor, Hirah received an official letter that would trigger her first direct encounter with the welfare system. The authorities called her in to be fingerprinted and to review her case. As an adult, she was now subject to the 35-hour weekly workfare requirement. The caseworkers informed her she would have to postpone her enrollment at Hunter because the courses and the internship wouldn’t count. Sadly, this academically gifted student was days away from abandoning her college dreams to report for duty picking up garbage with the city’s sanitation department.
“It was heartbreaking. I hadn’t started classes yet. I remembered what WRI’s staff told me during my internship interview about the federal regulations and approved workfare activities. I knew something was wrong, but I was too scared to speak up for fear they would take away my family’s benefits. Thank goodness WRI was there to guide me through the hearings and appointments and help me fill out forms. They even spoke to my mom. Without their help, I’m not sure what would have happened.”
With WRI by her side, Hirah started college as originally planned. She became an honors student, graduating with a 3.9 GPA and a degree in psychology. She credits WRI’s Community Leadership and Internship Program for awakening her passion for advocating on behalf of others in need.
“WRI exists to help patch the cracks in the NYC safety net. They help students like me deal with the complexity and logistics that come with the territory of accessing public assistance. More importantly, the program offered me leadership and organizing skills that will carry me through life. My time as a youth organizer made me more confident in my abilities and inspired me to continue my educational journey.”
Today, this enterprising young woman is a doctoral student in educational psychology and methodology at SUNY Albany. No longer on welfare, Hirah is on her way to a tenure-track faculty position. Her research is exploring how to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged and minority populations. She remains active with WRI as a mentor and by sharing her personal testimony in a variety of public forums to encourage more effective policies.