Sonia Amir

A former youth minister, juvenile counselor and community center recreation director, she made youth a part of her winning platform in the Miss Maryland competition. She spoke recently with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.

Drake: Tell us about your family.

My mother, Clemencia, is Colombian, and my father, Javed, is from Pakistan. I was brought to the United States when I was 3. I have two younger brothers — Kamilo (22) and Ivan (16).

My parents came to the United States in search of the American dream of success and good fortune. They instilled in us a lot of values and a sincere appreciation for this country. It was a blessing to be able to call this country our home. My father works as a writer and my mother is an after-care director for St. Joseph's School.

My father is Muslim and my mother is Catholic. Since my father is non-practicing he agreed to allow my mother to raise us Catholic. I see my mother as a saint. She is a very humble soul who loves life and lives it to the fullest. Even when times are tough she trusts in God and is ready to accept what he has for us and our lives.

What was it like growing up in a foreign country?

It was difficult learning a new language. I attended Catholic schools all my life, and in about fourth and fifth grade other children began pointing out my differences as a mixed Hispanic and Asian. Other children could be cruel. They would make fun of me for speaking in a foreign language. My mother just kept telling me, “That's how children are. Don't let them get to you.”

By about eighth grade I realized that I was different, but that there was nothing I could do about it. I didn't realize then that these differences would help me to become the person that I have.

I understand that there was a time when you doubted your faith?

Yes, at age 18 I was raped. I was a freshman in college and it was devastating. It put a damper on my hopes, dreams and beliefs. I blamed myself and wondered why bad things happened to good people. I felt that God was punishing me and stopped going to Church for a time.

I was still a child, grasping and learning and understanding the ways of life. I went through a period of confusion and depression and even questioned whether I should continue living. My relationships suffered took nearly three years for me to understand what had gone on and how I could rise above it.

The love of my parents, my faith, and a kind priest helped me through it, and I started attending Church again. I used to go to Church because I had to. Now I go because I need it and I miss it. It's part of who I am. God gives us every day of the week and all we're giving back to him is one hour. That's nothing compared to what He has given us realize that when I felt I was getting weaker and breaking away from the Church, my faith was actually getting stronger.

Eventually I did understand why this bad thing had happened. The most important thing I learned is that I could take negative learning experiences and turn them into positive ones. It's similar to what Jesus said when he said that we should “turn the other cheek.” After you get slapped once, you turn the other cheek but you are more aware. You learn from that experience and you do something positive about it.

Your platform is youth empowerment and positive peer pressure. What do you tell young people when you speak with them?

I was active in our Church youth group when I was in sixth to eighth grade, and I worked as a youth minister at our parish, St. Joseph in Beltsville, Md., for two years. Nowadays we have a lot of youth violence. Youth feel that they are not regarded as anything special.

I want them to see that they are important in the community's eyes. I talk with them about issues they may be facing in school with their peers or their parents. I try to build their self-esteem and help them make positive choices. I help them to see that they are worth something. When you do that, they will feel proud of their accomplishments and their community and they will think twice before they harm themselves or someone else.

Nowadays children feel that believing in God is un-cool. They feel that it doesn't look cool at all. That is what we need to start changing. I understand the need for separation of church and state and people not discussing God, but that is where our mistake is. Parents are not even willing to discuss God or make him an important aspect of their lives. They don't pay attention to God or the blessings they receive each day. Therefore, when a child receives a bad grade, or curfew, or is disciplined, they don't know how to handle it. They cannot see beyond the immediate to the big picture. Look at the suicide rate among teens, or the violence in schools and you can see that something isn't right. I believe it is the lack of faith, the lack of God, and the lack of respect for life.

What led you to compete in pageants?

In 1997 I was working out at my gym and was talking to a woman at the gym when she asked me if I had ever thought about competing in pageants. I reverted to my stereotype of Miss America pageants and told her that I didn't think that was who I was. She then told me that she was Miss Maryland 1997, and she explained to me that the Miss America pageant offers young women a chance to improve their lives.

Women do not pay to compete. The pageant operates through the support of non-profits and more than 300,000 volunteers. Eighty thousand young women compete, but only 51 make it to Miss America. They distribute more than $40 million annually in scholarships. She encouraged me saying, “If you're interested in school and have a passion worth talking about, this is the time and place to do it.”

I competed and won at the local level and ended up making the top ten in 1998. Then I went back to my full-time job and worked on my master's.

What led you to compete again in 2000?

In 1999, Heather Davis, my roommate during pageant week in 1998 who had gone on to become Miss Maryland, encouraged me to reconsider competing.

Competing again involved a lot of soul searching. I was in a great position as the director of a community center in a socio-economically poor area known as Langley Park. There was a lot of poverty and gang violence and a lot of youth who had given up on life. Because many of them were Hispanic I was able to speak to them in their own language to show them that they could rise up and improve their lives. I loved the challenge and knew that God was using me as an instrument at that time. I knew that if I won Miss Maryland I would have to resign.

Once you turn 25 you can't compete. I was 24 and so this would be the last year that I could compete. Heather was very Christian.

During the 1998 pageant week she would read from her Bible each day and we would pray together. She left a lot of things in God's hands. Her faith and hope gave me the courage to compete one more time.

I decided that I would give the competition my all, and with Heather's example I left it in God's hands. I knew that if I won God would have more plans for me than I would ever know. I was at peace and I had let go. That's when I knew that my faith was stronger than ever.

Has being Miss Maryland allowed you to share about your faith?

Absolutely. I've had people come up and tell me things that make me tear up.

One woman came up to me and said she could sense the Holy Spirit in me. For people to come up and say they see God's presence in you is the most humbling compliment that anyone could ever pay me. I know that God is using me as his instrument.

When I go into schools, I ask permission to talk about God. I tell youth that they are not a mistake—that there is a reason to their being born. Each of us has a purpose that is unique. We all need to become instruments in God's plan.

Once we have fulfilled that plan, he calls us home. I close all of my speeches with, “What you are is God's gift to you; what you become is your gift to God.”

What are your plans after your reign is up at the end of June?

The crown has never been a destination for me, but simply a step in the journey. It has given me an opportunity to speak passionately about my platform. I came to this country with hopes and dreams and was able to achieve an American dream. I want to give a piece of the American dream to every child.

I hope to go into the public relations field and work for an organization that focuses on social issues, improving life for children and communities.

I also plan to finish my master's degree and receive an MBA with the scholarship moneys from the pageants. Eventually, I'd like to get married and have a family of my own.

------- EXCERPT: Miss Maryland's harrowing ordeal