It was love at first sight. Khizr Khan remembers the moment he discovered America’s founding documents as a 22-year-old law student in Pakistan. A shaft of sunlight flooded his room as he read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety, not even bothering to sit down.
Little did the law student in Lahore dream he would one day live near the home of the Declaration’s author.
The subcontinent did not hold it to be self-evident that all men are created equal. “We continued to suffer under colonization for another 200 years,” he says.
Khan also was taken with the U.S. Constitution, so in some ways it seems inevitable that he would be the man who would publicly offer to lend his copy to Donald Trump at the Democratic Convention in 2016, a gesture that launched him into the national spotlight and put him on his current mission to elect as many Democrats to Congress as possible.
In his 2017 book, An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice, Khan describes the corruption in Pakistan that keeps the majority poor, illiterate and struggling to survive, a factor in his and his wife Ghazala’s decision to move their family to Texas.
“No man is complete until his education is complete” was the mantra Khan learned from his grandfather. As an adult, he saved to attend Harvard for a law degree and support his family in Houston at the same time. When he couldn’t afford the deposit on a room in Cambridge, he slept on park benches.
In 2004, the Khans lost their middle son, Humayun, a captain in the U.S. Army who was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. Humayun had attended UVA, as did his two brothers, and the Khans, who moved to Charlottesville after Humayun’s death, are invited each year to the commissioning of the ROTC cadets.
Senator John McCain’s Why Courage Matters “was the last book I sent to Humayun,” Khan recalls. For years, he presented signed copies to the commissioned cadets, but at $20 a copy, “I was looking for a less expensive alternative.”
He found 99-cent copies of the Constitution, which was how he had one to whip from his pocket on the world stage. “It was so convenient,” he says. “I began to keep one with me. I would show it to people as the reason we were here.”
The Khans were warned about attending the convention. “Our two other sons told us not to go,” he says, but he and Ghazala decided to go because Hillary Clinton planned a tribute to Humayun. “We were warned we’d be maligned and disrespected,” he says.
That backlash is almost insignificant, he says. “We’ve received amazing support. We’ve received amazing love.” Even a few weeks ago, he received another letter addressed simply, “Khizr Khan, Charlottesville Virginia.”
The national platform has “given me an opportunity to express my gratitude,” says Khan when he speaks to C-VILLE on his way to Boston for a conference on Islam and tolerance. He spoke at 176 events last year and is traveling nonstop—and pro bono—to support Democratic candidates and an America he fears could be destroyed.
During a short conversation, “gratitude” and “dignity” are words Khan uses multiple times. “I remain humbly aware of the gratitude I wish to express, the blessings we have received, the dignity we have been given,” he says. “That sentiment dominates my conversation.”
Getting to know Khizr Khan
1. Name pronounced: Kee-zer.
2. Reading now: Bills, Quills and Stills: An Annotated, Illustrated and Illuminated History of the Bill of Rights by Robert J. McWhirter
3. Lesson from the Founding Fathers: “They were passionate but didn’t lose their civility. That is what’s missing in public discourse.”
4. Has written: This is Our Constitution for middle school students and An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice
5. Proceeds from book sales go to: The Captain Humayun Khan Memorial Scholarship at UVA, first awarded this year.