It was 1984, and the Pasha family had just arrived in Brooklyn from Pakistan. They had nowhere to go, but Parveen Pasha was doing everything she could to keep her family out of the homeless shelter. Enter the landlady.
This mysterious woman brought Parveen and her children into her home and let them stay there, rent-free, until Parveen could find a job and get back on her feet. She didn’t ask for anything in return.
Thanks to this act of kindness, the Pashas saw their luck begin to change, and moved into their own apartment a short time later. Eventually, they were able to buy their own home in New Jersey. Parveen’s daughter Shaheen, who recounts the story of the landlady in this episode, went on to become a journalist for world-renowned news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN and Reuters. Today, she’s a professor at Penn State.
From left: Parveen Pasha, Shaheen’s sister and Shaheen Pasha
Shaheen with her dad, Syed Nasim.
The landlady became a crucial character in the family’s history: a savior who rescued the Pashas from homelessness and gave them the ability to make a home for themselves in their new county.
For many years, that was their only name for her: the landlady. But in 2017, things were happening that made Shaheen start to doubt the kindness in the world – kindness she had first seen in the landlady.
Anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise. Shaheen is a Muslim, and she found it increasingly difficult to explain to her kids all the hateful rhetoric and Islamophobia plaguing the U.S. Her young son was afraid that a “Muslim ban” would mean they’d be kicked out of the country they called home.
“I’ve never felt like I didn’t belong here, but I felt like I was finding less and less motivation to say that people are good,” Shaheen says in the episode. “And with my children increasingly asking me, ‘Why are people doing this? Why are people behaving this way?’ I didn’t know how to answer that.”
Amid all this, Shaheen resolved to learn more about the mythical landlady that had shown her family kindness so many years ago. If she could learn more about the landlady’s motivations, maybe she could begin to restore her belief in the goodness of people.
A photo of Dorothy Vollkommer, the landlady.
In this episode, Shaheen shares the story of her quest to find the landlady. Her journey takes her to Portage, Pennsylvania, the hometown of Dorothy Vollkommer – the landlady. In Portage, Shaheen learns that Dorothy’s kindness wasn’t just an isolated act. It was part of a legacy of members of a community caring for each other. Protecting each other.
Learn more about the host of Home. Made., award winning journalist Stephanie Foo on our host page.
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STEPHANIE FOO: On a cold November morning in 1984, Parveen Pasha sat shivering on the stoop of a building in Borough Park, Brooklyn. A building she didn’t live in. Parveen and her three children had just arrived from Pakistan with little money and even fewer prospects. They were sleeping on the living room floor of a friend of a friend’s place. But that morning, he had told them to leave. This is Shaheen, Parveen’s youngest daughter.
SHAHEEN PASHA: And my mom just said, "I don't know what to do. I have no job. I have no home. I have nothing. And I'm going to be going into a homeless shelter."
STEPHANIE FOO: But then Parveen heard the plodding footsteps of someone walking toward her.
SHAHEEN PASHA: She was this tall white woman, she was heavyset. And I remember her in slippers and a housecoat but I can't remember anything else.
STEPHANIE FOO: The woman motioned to Parveen and said, “Come with me.”
SHAHEEN PASHA: And my mom was just speechless.
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Home. Made. An original podcast by Rocket Mortgage® about the meaning of homes and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo. In this episode, the landlady.
STEPHANIE FOO: The first time Shaheen’s family came to America was in 1976, before she was born. They settled in Flushing, Queens.
SHAHEEN PASHA: My dad was very ambitious. He had lots of hopes and dreams of coming to the U.S: getting an MBA, being successful. And then going back to Pakistan in glory.
STEPHANIE FOO: But American colleges wouldn’t recognize her dad Syed Nasim’s Pakistani degree, so he couldn’t pursue that MBA. And then he had a mental break. The family didn’t know it at the time, but Syed Nasim had schizophrenia.
SHAHEEN PASHA: It was just a constant dance. When he was better, he would immediately go get a job and he would come home and he'd be singing and he'd buy fruit and all these things and then it would change. He would sit in darkness. He wouldn't talk, he'd stay up all night and so, I was kind of born into that environment.
STEPHANIE FOO: Everything fell to Shaheen’s mom, Parveen. Back in Pakistan, she was a highly qualified medical scientist. Here she worked in a lab doing blood work. Over time, the strain on Parveen was too much. So after eight years, in early 1984, the family moved back to Pakistan. Parveen and Syed Nasim would be able to find better jobs and they could count on support from family. But almost immediately, the Pashas realized they didn’t belong in Pakistan anymore.
SHAHEEN PASHA: I remember some of the kids would bully me because they would call me this American kid, like, why are you here?
STEPHANIE FOO: They were caught between two cultures, unable to gain a foothold in either one. Because they lived in America for so long, the kids couldn’t speak fluent Urdu, so local schools wouldn’t take them. International schools were too expensive. So the kids sat at home.
Shaheen's dad was still unwell. Parveen still had to support the whole family. And relatives weren’t as available as they expected to look after the kids. So after only six months in Pakistan, Parveen quickly decided to come back to America. But that decision was followed by another, heartbreaking one.
SHAHEEN PASHA: She knew that at the time my dad was really ill. So she was like, “I can't bring him back with us knowing that I can't take care of him right now.” But years later, now, she says that that was honestly the hardest thing she has ever done.
STEPHANIE FOO: They returned on Thanksgiving Day, 1984. A friend of a friend agreed to let them sleep on his living room floor. And Parveen enrolled the kids at schools the following Monday.
SHAHEEN PASHA: Once she did that he's like, “Look, you can’t stay here. I'm sorry. This was your choice. You came here without a husband. You came here not having any money, not having a job. And we can't support you. We are all struggling.” And he basically said, “You and your family are going to have to live in a homeless shelter.”
STEPHANIE FOO: And this is how Parveen came to be sitting on the stoop of a building in Borough Park, where the Pashas had lived before. She was out of options, but didn’t want to take her kids to a homeless shelter. A former neighbor walked by, noticed Parveen, and they chatted for a bit. The neighbor listened to Parveen’s story and said she might know someone who could help. A few minutes later, an older woman came down the block toward her. As she did, Parveen recognized her. She was the landlady of another building the Pashas had lived in before they left.
SHAHEEN PASHA: The landlady told my mom, “My apartment is a four-bedroom apartment, you and your family can move in with me until you sort yourselves out.” I mean my mom was stunned because she knew the landlady, but they weren't friends. And she was like, “I won't live for free. I'll give you money.” She's like, “We'll talk about that later. But for now, let's get you off the stoop and you come, I'll show you my apartment and when your kids come home from school, you bring them home here.”
STEPHANIE FOO: The landlady lived alone. She was a widow, so she told Parveen to make herself at home and use as much space as she needed. But Parveen insisted on using only one room. And then she went to go get the kids from school. Shaheen remembers walking into an apartment that smelled of beer and cigarettes.
SHAHEEN PASHA: I remember walking in and making a face at my mom and waving my hand in front of my face and my mom gave me the Asian mom look – that look where you better shut up and not say a word. But it smelled, that’s the first thing I remember. And then we wound up in this room, all of us together.
STEPHANIE FOO: The family of four camped out there as Parveen looked for work. They lived on a diet of yogurt and canned chickpeas. And 6-year-old Shaheen was told to stay out of the landlady’s way.
SHAHEEN PASHA: I remember her sitting there watching TV with a beer in her hand and every time I walked past her, I was really curious about who she was because I wasn't supposed to bother her. She always would smile and just wave at me. I thought she was a nice lady.
STEPHANIE FOO: After a few weeks, Parveen found a job at a blood collection lab. And on payday, she offered her first paycheck to the landlady.
SHAHEEN PASHA: My mom put it in her hand, the landlady looked at it and then put it back in my mom's hand and said, “Go buy something for your children.”
STEPHANIE FOO: Really, really kind of her.
SHAHEEN PASHA: Yeah. My mom was supremely grateful.
STEPHANIE FOO: After only two months, Shaheen’s mom was able to get a one-bedroom apartment, and it was time to go. All thanks to the landlady.
STEPHANIE FOO: Do you remember saying goodbye to the landlady?
SHAHEEN PASHA: I don't remember saying goodbye. I don't remember leaving. I knew that one minute we were there and then the next minute we were literally an apartment building down the street. Eventually we found it was infested with mice, but my mom was proud.
STEPHANIE FOO: Over the next several months, the Pashas got busy. Work, school, getting resettled. So Parveen didn’t keep in touch with the landlady. And then the following year, in 1985, Parveen was passing through Borough Park. She ran into a friend who told her the landlady had passed away. But her good deed would never be forgotten. A story Parveen would tell over and over again, and one that would continue to live on for the Pashas.
STEPHANIE FOO: In 1986, the Pashas’ fortunes began to change. Shaheen’s father, Syed Nasim, rejoined them and got the right psychiatric treatment. So he found a job, too. The family moved into a bigger apartment and Shaheen got into Brooklyn Tech, one of the best high schools in the city. And eventually the family bought their own house in New Jersey. Shaheen went to college, then post-grad at Columbia. She became a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, CNN, reported from Dubai for Reuters. And then she returned to teach journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She got married, had three kids. Bought her own home.
STEPHANIE FOO: So being from a homeless kid in Brooklyn to being a professor and a homeowner with three kids.
SHAHEEN PASHA: Yes.
STEPHANIE FOO: Like a real, true American dream success story.
SHAHEEN PASHA: Absolutely. And I mean, I don't take anything for granted because I can see where we came from.
STEPHANIE FOO: To Shaheen’s mother, these accomplishments were thanks to one person.
SHAHEEN PASHA: I mean, we always, in moments of suffering or moments of struggle or anything, my mom would always say, "Believe in God. God sends help. Look at the landlady. We maybe would not have been as successful if we had to struggle that way, if our life had taken another turn, if she hadn't found us."
STEPHANIE FOO: Basically that there's good in the world because of the landlady.
SHAHEEN PASHA: Absolutely. She always, always says that.
STEPHANIE FOO: The story of the landlady was part of family lore. The struggle was over. The family had achieved what they came to do. But little did they know that they would come to rely on the landlady all over again, years later in 2017.
STEPHANIE FOO: So set the stage for me, what's going on in America in 2017?
SHAHEEN PASHA: It was not a fun time. It was definitely not a fun time to be a Muslim. It wasn't a fun time to be an immigrant or a brown person.
STEPHANIE FOO: It was even less fun for Shaheen’s children, who are also Muslim.
SHAHEEN PASHA: They're watching people with tiki torches. They're watching people talking about Muslim bans. And for them it really hit hard because they called themselves Pakistani-American because of the culture, but they've never been to Pakistan. Their home is America. This is where they belong. This is where they're from. And they were watching people on TV, these rallies and statements being made about how they weren't real Americans or they need to go back home.
STEPHANIE FOO: To try to make sense of this, Shaheen wrote an article about one of her sons and his fears for USA Today. An attempt to foster a discussion around what America was becoming, but it had the opposite effect. Conspiracy theorists came after Shaheen and her family on social media. They didn’t believe Shaheen’s son was a real person, so they tried to track him down.
SHAHEEN PASHA: There's very few Pakistani families in Amherst, so it wasn't going to take a long time if anybody really wanted to find us, so that was a really scary time.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shaheen had to warn her son’s school. And then someone found an image of him, taken when he was 6, and stamped the word “islamist” over it. Shaheen had to get off Facebook to protect her family. The incident was traumatic for all of them. She was living in a constant state of fear and mistrust. And it didn’t matter that she lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, a very liberal, progressive community.
SHAHEEN PASHA: But it was so inclusive that it made you feel excluded. So you would walk in, you're the only person of color and somebody be like, “We're so happy to have you because you are diverse.” It's like, “I don't feel good now.”
STEPHANIE FOO: “You're our token brown person.”
SHAHEEN PASHA: Exactly.
STEPHANIE FOO: “You make me feel better about myself.”
SHAHEEN PASHA: Exactly. Or people would namaste me in Whole Foods and I don't want to be namasted.
STEPHANIE FOO: Did you feel like you didn't belong here?
SHAHEEN PASHA: You know, I've never felt like I didn't belong here, but I felt like I was finding less and less motivation to say that people are good. And with my children increasingly asking me, “Why are people doing this? Why are people behaving this way?” I didn't know how to answer that.
STEPHANIE FOO: She told these things to her mother. So Parveen said, “think of the landlady,” the woman who taught them about the good that exists in the world. But for the first time, Shaheen questioned the family’s good luck charm.
SHAHEEN PASHA: Why did she do it? Did she have a purpose? I was really feeling that sense of like, just rattled, that’s the best way to put it, I guess. I would always say I don't know who to trust. And for the first time in my life, in the midst of all of this chaos that's happening in this country, and the heartache I feel looking at my kids, I started to doubt what her motivations were.
STEPHANIE FOO: On the other hand, Shaheen thought, if the landlady was as pure as her mother thought, shouldn’t she be celebrated? Especially during this divisive time, shouldn’t people be reminded of the good in the world? So Shaheen decided to find out. Who was the landlady? And why did she save the Pashas? But first of all, what was her name?
SHAHEEN PASHA: We just called her the landlady. That bothered me, because somebody that had such an impact on our life really did change the trajectory, whatever her motivations were, she should have a name.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shaheen is a journalist. Journalists can find people. The one thing she had was the landlady’s address. So she started with the city’s realty records. But they didn’t have much info from the 1980s. But then one day, as Shaheen was feeding her son, a memory flashed through her mind. It was after school, back in 1984. She was following her brother into the landlady’s house. She looked down at a pile of mail fallen off the table. And she picked it up.
SHAHEEN PASHA: And I remember seeing on the front of the letter, the name Dorothy. It was chills. It was almost like a voice said, “That's her name!”
STEPHANIE FOO: With the name Dorothy, Shaheen found a death record attached to the apartment for a Dorothy Vollkommer. And then some luck. She came across a photographer who takes pictures of old cemeteries. In one of his books, she saw a gravestone with the landlady’s name on it. So she called him up.
SHAHEEN PASHA: He's like, “You know, I remember taking that picture. It's in this little place in Portage or something Pennsylvania.”
STEPHANIE FOO: Portage, Pennsylvania. Not Brooklyn, New York. That was weird and unexpected. But it was good enough for more ancestry research. And this was it: Dorothy Vollkommer, the daughter of poor German immigrants who was originally from rural Pennsylvania, a few hours from Pittsburgh. With that, Shaheen contacted various relatives until finally she was put in touch with a niece.
STEPHANIE FOO: Wow. So you're talking to her niece on email. What is she like?
SHAHEEN PASHA: She's lovely. I mean, Veronica is absolutely lovely. She's like, “I'll try to give you what I know.” In the midst of that, I'm still doing record searches and things. I was able to tell her things that she didn't know.
STEPHANIE FOO: Things like, when Dorothy was a young woman, before she moved to New York, she had a premature baby in Portage, a son who didn’t survive. That stunned Shaheen and made her feel even more connected with her. Her son had also been born premature and had nearly died. Veronica invited her to visit Portage. Said maybe she could get a sense of who Dorothy was by coming to town, and Shaheen decided to take her up on it.
Portage is named for the old Allegheny Portage Railroad. The trains came first for the area’s lumber. And then the town became known for its coal. Workers came from all around Europe to work in the mines. Germans, Italians, Slovaks. The county Portage sits in, Cambria, has voted Republican in the last several presidential elections. The population is mainly white.
STEPHANIE FOO: Were you nervous about going to Portage?
SHAHEEN PASHA: I was … I’m like, “What's my reception going to be like?” Or, “Veronica seems really nice on the phone, but what if they all hate immigrants, and they all hate brown people?” I was terrified.
STEPHANIE FOO: Nonetheless, Shaheen had to go. She flew into Pittsburgh, rented a car and drove toward Portage. As she approached the town, her fears ramped up.
SHAHEEN PASHA: The GPS is pulling me into Portage, Pennsylvania and the first thing I see is this giant billboard that says, “Trump is president, get over it.” And I'm like, “Come on, are you serious?”
STEPHANIE FOO: When Shaheen got out of the car she stuck out like a sore thumb.
SHAHEEN PASHA: And as I'm walking down the street, I see the people in the cars are actually rolling down their windows to get a look at me, and try to figure out who I am.
STEPHANIE FOO: As she lay awake that night, Shaheen questioned her decision to come to this unfamiliar town to find out more about a woman she didn’t really know.
SHAHEEN PASHA: When I opened that door and I saw Veronica, she grabs me in this hug. It was like we had known each other forever. And I felt like family.
STEPHANIE FOO: Veronica took her to a cafe called the Chatter Box. A woman named Irene Huschak from the local historical society joined them, and they talked about Dorothy’s hometown. Shaheen wasn’t expecting what they told her.
SHAHEEN PASHA: And one of the other things I found was that, particularly for Dorothy, that the community, the way her family and her community lived was that they helped people that were struggling. So, it was not uncommon for like a distant relative or a friend of a friend to be struggling, lost work or whatever. And they would take them in, help them, and they would ... That was sort of like the culture of this town.
STEPHANIE FOO: The loggers and coal miners who came to Portage were hardworking, but poor. In order for them to get on their feet in this new place, they relied on the kindness of neighbors. And they sometimes needed protection too. Shaheen learned about a troubling aspect of Cambria County’s past: the KKK. There were no Black people in the surrounding towns, but that didn’t stop them from targeting other minorities.
SHAHEEN PASHA: The Klan was going after Catholics and Jews. And so what was interesting was that families would hide the Catholic neighbors or the Jewish neighbor and just hide them so that they wouldn’t be threatened. And there was a sense of this is our community and we’re going to protect the ones that are different or like struggling.
STEPHANIE FOO: Did they address you directly? Like, look, this is, Dorothy took care of you because we're a town of immigrants.
SHAHEEN PASHA: Yeah I mean, they said, this is what we did, like if you look at a lot of stories, there was a lot of people housing people and taking care of people when things went rough during the Depression or whatever. This is what we did and so this is what she knew. I think was this huge moment for me, where I realized she wasn't doing it for anything other than, that's what you do. And she didn't think about it.
STEPHANIE FOO: So she wasn't an outlier. She was actually a product of this very classic American town.
SHAHEEN PASHA: Yeah. Exactly.
STEPHANIE FOO: After coffee at the Chatter Box, Veronica and Irene gave Shaheen a tour of the town. The places Dorothy might’ve gone when she lived there. And then they went to visit Dorothy herself, at the cemetery.
SHAHEEN PASHA: And so as I'm standing over there and I'm looking at it, like she's this white woman, German immigrant family. I’m this brown woman, Pakistani immigrant family. And I just felt like this complete connection there. And so I asked Veronica. I said, “Would you mind if I did a prayer, like a Islamic prayer over her?” And Veronica was lovely. She was, “No, absolutely not. I think that's beautiful.”
STEPHANIE FOO: So Shaheen recited the Fatiha, a Muslim prayer commonly said over graves. A blessing of those in the afterlife. And for Shaheen, a way to thank Dorothy
STEPHANIE FOO: That's beautiful.
SHAHEEN PASHA: Thank you.
STEPHANIE FOO: So you went on this journey because you wanted to have faith in humankind again, basically. Right? Did you get what you were searching for?
SHAHEEN PASHA: I absolutely did. It was life changing for me. And kind of just goes back to, our mom always said, “There are good people in this world.”
STEPHANIE FOO: Yeah. And has it actually changed, I don't know, not your worldview, but the way that you interact with people now?
SHAHEEN PASHA: I think I was always pretty open as a person and this was an unusual period in my life where I just kind of was very distrustful. But I think I'm less afraid to talk to people that are different from me or people that I might think have other views or might have some beliefs or ways of thinking that are different from mine.
STEPHANIE FOO: Did it give you a different way to comfort your children when they were upset?
SHAHEEN PASHA: Yeah. I can tell my kids now that “No, mom went on a journey to find out if there are good people in this world and guess what? I found her.” And she's just in one of millions of good people in this world.
STEPHANIE FOO: I guess you could also say to them that, like with more confidence, like you do belong here because this is a part of the American story. This is a big part of the American story. Even in like this very conservative red town or the coal mining town, like taking care of immigrants is part of what we do.
SHAHEEN PASHA: Exactly. I mean, we're all part of this American story and we're all searching for home and searching for connection and we find it in weird places.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shaheen wasn’t sure what she would find in Portage. But the visit changed her ideas about what America had become. It calmed her fears. Shaheen now teaches at Penn State, only 40 minutes away from Portage. When the pandemic is over, she plans to visit. She says she owes Veronica dinner. But when she finally goes back, she hopes to take someone else with her.
SHAHEEN PASHA: So as soon as I met them, like my mom wanted me to tell her everything. And she was saying that, she's like, “Maybe I'll go down and visit Portage with you one day.”
STEPHANIE FOO: That cold November day when Dorothy walked up to Parveen sitting on the stoop, she did what she would’ve done if they had been in Portage. It wasn’t an isolated act of kindness offered by just one person. It was the act of an entire community. People opening up their homes to those in need, or sheltering those in danger. People who didn’t look like them, but who were following the same path in search of the same dream.
STEPHANIE FOO: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER: Equal housing lender licensed in all 50 states. NMLSconsumeraccess.org #3030
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