"they wanted to make sure I knew I was engaged"
US-based Hamna Zafar was just a teenager when she escaped an arranged marriage to her cousin and joined the Air Force.
The 23-year-old knew that by pursuing the American dream, she would be disowned by her parents.
It was a route that Hamna, of Maryland, never thought she would have to take.
Air Force Security Defender Hamna said she stayed close to home, cared for her autistic sister and planned on starting a career after college.
As a child, her immigrant parents did not object to her getting an education but insisted that she marry a man of their choice and settle down as a wife and mother.
Hamna told PEOPLE: “I was just expecting my family to kind of get used to the culture in the United States.
“Growing up, they never really mentioned arranged marriage.”
But that changed in 2019. She and her family travelled to Pakistan for what Hamna believed was a normal trip to see relatives.
Instead, Hamna found herself in the middle of her engagement party to her cousin, handpicked by her parents.
She explained: “I thought it was a normal family trip to Pakistan. Then I saw the jewellery, 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.”
Her cousin seemed fairly happy about the engagement but Hamna slipped into a fog and barely spoke to her intended husband.
Hamna said: “I was trying to swallow that pill. I was trying to comprehend what was really happening to me.”
After returning to the US, Hamna tried to reason with her mother.
She admitted: “My parents are very traditional and never adapted to American culture.
“That’s why they took me to Pakistan to get me engaged.”
In a bid to escape the arranged marriage, Hamna planned to join the military. But when her parents found out, she panicked.
“I was completely dependent on them. But I knew I had to leave.”
A Navy recruiter helped Hamna escape and she stayed in a cheap hotel until she could enlist. But the Covid-19 pandemic made her almost give up.
Hamna contemplated returning home and giving in to her parents’ wishes.
An old friend then invited Hamna to live with him and his family. She stayed until she earned her associate degree and enlisted in 2022.
Claudia Barrera, who took Hamna in, said:
“She’s so petite and humble, you can’t help but want to protect her.
“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’.”
When she started training for the Air Force, Hamna faced a culture shock.
“I didn’t have any idea of what boot camp was going to look like.
“I watched a few videos to give myself an image of what was going to happen. It was definitely an eye-opening experience.”
Because no one had ever yelled at her, Hamna kept thinking she had done something wrong.
She explained: “They are literally getting paid to yell at you, so that was really hard.
“You are trying to adjust to a different environment and being told what to do 24/7. It was definitely scary.”
Hamna admitted the physical demands were just as hard.
She marched endlessly, crawled in mud and pushed her body to the limit.
“Your body gets used to the physical activities. Your mind gives up before your body does.
“You need to control your mindset because your mind is always stronger than your body.”
She now finds strength in the bonds she has formed with her colleagues.
Sergeant Robert Stewart started working with Hamna earlier in 2023 at New Mexico’s Kirtland Air Force Base.
He is impressed with how far she has come.
Sergeant Stewart said: “I told her she just needed someone to believe in you.
“She’s not like any other airman. Her demeanour and her story — she’s like a gem.”
Hamna revealed that after graduating from basic training, she wanted her family to see her but they did not.
She said she has tried to contact her family but they have not responded.
Hamna said: “I wanted them to be proud of me for who I am and share that with them.
“I really wanted them to see that their daughter has so much potential in her.”
Although her own family have ceased contact, the Barrera-Abarca family have expressed their pride.
Speaking about Hamna’s family, Claudia said:
“I hope they realise the mistake they are making by pushing their child aside.
“Hamna is going to be what Hamna wants to be.
“And that’s the beauty of the USA — that you get to choose who you want to marry and what kind of life you want to live.”