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Of refugees, cities and cultures

Published Jun 20, 2012 10:48am

Imagine the misfortune of those who would find refuge in Pakistan. With a collapsed economy, broken infrastructure, rampant violence and terrorism, Pakistan hardly qualifies to be a sanctuary.

Yet, over the past three decades, millions have found refuge from war and destruction in Pakistan. At the same time, millions more internally displaced Pakistanis, escaping war in the tribal areas or floods in Sindh and Punjab, have found asylum in cities, which are bursting at the seams under the immense population pressure.

The impact of refugees and internally displaced people on the cities in Pakistan has largely remained an untold story. Cities like Karachi and Peshawar were transformed by the migrants to such an extent that the refugees replaced the prevailing customs, cuisines, and even languages. At the same time, the humongous influx of humanity has overburdened the urban infrastructure resulting in urban rot.

While several cities in Pakistan collapsed under the unmet demand for services and infrastructure imposed by refugees and internally displaced people, the world however, remained exclusively focused on refugee camps and ignored the plight of urbanised refugees and their (at times) reluctant hosts.

Karachi, for instance, has been completely transformed by the waves of migrants that started arriving en masse in 1947. In the later years, the migrants came from Bangladesh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and even Afghanistan.

The migration to Karachi continues to date. The American war on terror has forced millions to flee their homes in KP and Pakistan’s Tribal areas. In 2009 alone, the military operation in Pakistan’s tribal areas forced 3 million people out of their homes. The devastating earthquake in 2005 and the subsequent floods have forced hundreds of thousands to relocate to Karachi.

While Karachi’s population has been increasing at an alarming rate, the infrastructure and services needed to maintain a healthy, functional, and vibrant city have lagged. This has resulted in urban chaos and decay in Karachi. Many would argue that Karachi today is still better than what it was 10 years ago. However, those who have seen Karachi in the pre-partition period, know that the city falls way short of the prestige it once enjoyed for its liveable neighbourhoods, commutable thoroughfares, and pristine beaches and parks.

Growing up in Pakistan, I saw how cities were transformed by the waves of immigrants, which in some cases swept away the locals from the neighbourhoods they had inhabited for decades. The Afghan war in the late 70s brought millions of refugees to Peshawar, which was a small city of hardly 800,000 inhabitants. The Afghan refugees literally took over the City from local Pushtuns and Hindko and Persian speaking residents of the walled City, who are also known as Peshowrees or Kharays. Within months of arriving in Peshawar, the Afghan refugees took over the transport system with the vehicles they had brought from Afghanistan. Soon the Afghans were operating Tandoors (bread ovens), restaurants, and other businesses in Peshawar City and beyond.

The destitute Afghan refugees ended up in the refugee camps at the periphery of Peshawar. The living conditions in the squalid camps around Peshawar remained deplorable. As the aid trickled in, the plight of refugees improved only slightly. Still running water, toilets, schools, or hospitals remained a luxury beyond the reach of most Afghan refugees in the camps.

At the same time, affluent Afghan refugees settled in Pakistani cities. They bought properties and started businesses. Coming from urban affluent backgrounds, some Afghan refugees were more forward-looking than the communities they settled in. I studied programming in the mid-80s at a computer college in Rawalpindi where my course mates included a few Afghan girls who would wear jeans and kurtas, much like Seemin Shah in Bano Qudsia’s Raja Gidh.

As a child I remember riding the double-decker transit buses in Peshawar. It was the same time when Hindko and Persian were the lingua franca in the walled City of Peshawar. As we would walk from my grandmothers’ house near Asa Mai Gate to visit Ganj, Nawa Mohalla, Mori Mohalla, Karim Pura, Koochi Bazaar or Ramdas Bazaar, we would exchange greetings in Hindko, Urdu, or Persian. Pushto-speaking locals were very much a part of the social fabric, but they were not the majority in the walled City.

The Afghan war brought about the demographic shift resulting in Pushto becoming the most commonly spoken language in Peshawar. Not everyone was excited about the outcome. While attending university in Peshawar I routinely visited the Urdu department where the Chair person, Professor Waheeda Ghafoor, and her colleagues would discuss the loss of languages resulting from the fast changing demographics in Peshawar. I recall one day the discussion focussed on the declining use of unique colour names in Hindko, such as Sheer Chai (referring to the pink-coloured Kashmiri tea).

Afghan refugees though brought more than just their language. The Afghan cuisine livened up the restaurant scene in the City whose hitherto claim to gastronomical fame was Karahi Tikka in Namak Mandi or Chapli Kabab near Bakhshi Pull on Charsadda Road. The Afghan refugees introduced Kabuli cuisine to the city with their renowned Pulao (rice cooked with raisins, almonds, orange peels, and goat meat) and other delicacies. Equally remarkable was the voice of Nashanaas and his music that descended on Peshawar and overnight changed the taste of music lovers for good.

Peshawar has been a city in flux from its beginning. Immigrants, refugees, and travellers have all found refuge in the City over the past several thousand years.  The Purusha of Fa Hein, the Purushapura of Hiuan Tsang, the Parashawur of Masudi, Alberuni and Abul Fazl, or the present day Peshawar has been the “coveted capital of successive Buddhist and Hindu Kings”, wrote Sardar Muhammad Jaffar (Peshawar’s historian and a former resident of Mohala Khudadaad) in his book, Peshawar: Past and Present in 1945.

From the time of Buddhist Kings to date, Peshawar has endured invaders and refugees from all over the world. While the City is unique in many ways, it is no different from other great metropolis that have been the chosen destination of traders and refugees alike.

Each wave of immigrants and refugees has made Peshawar (and cities like it) richer, more diverse, and perhaps more complex. The City, however, is a better place today with those who have made it their home.


Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at murtaza.haider@ryerson.ca


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.