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Of refugees, cities and cultures

Published Jun 20, 2012 10:48am


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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

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.


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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (9) Closed

Khan Jun 20, 2012 04:59pm
The writer says, "Afghan refugees though brought more than just their language..." The fact is that most of the migrants in the 80s from the west of the Durand were actually Pashtuns themselves. They had no problems assimilating into Peshawar. Many were village-dwellers, who followed the same code of life as the village-dwelling Pashtuns on this side of the Durand line. So I don't see how they would have "taken over" the city and brought "their own" culture over when Peshawar had been a Pashtun/Afghan city for hundreds of years. Also, Nashenas was popular in Peshawar before the Afghan war began. Sardar Ali Takkar went to Afghanistan to learn under his guidance.
A S Jun 20, 2012 07:59pm
We the citizens of KPK and Pakistan demand of our government to empty our cities, our nation from the Afghan refugees, who are refugees in name only and have destroyed our peace and order. Since the Afghans came to Pakistan, we have witnessed a huge rise in crime, in poverty as refugees take jobs from locals and drive prices lower and lower for services. The Afghans hate Pakistan and when the Indian team visited Pakistan, the Afghanis openly declared their hate for Pakistan by waving the Indian flag, despite the fact that it is Pakistan that hosted them for 35 years. I hope someone in government is reading this, we demand that you remove these refugees by force if you have to, we will support you, no nation on earth has open borders like Pakistan, not even our fellow Muslim nations, just try to get into Iran or Saudi without a passport and visa and see how they treat you, we have millions of uneducated, crime infested drug dealing, terrorist hiding in Afghan refugee camps, why is Pakistan Hotel Pakistan? We have become a dumping ground for anyone escaping law from all over the world, we have become a joke.
guest Jun 20, 2012 06:45pm
I am pretty sure pilao, tikka and chappal kabab were around before the Afghans. As was Pashto. And the old city is still heavily Kharri. If Pashto has become more unavoidable, which what I think the author is perceiving, it is because of alot of rural to urban immigration, as well as the Afghans. Even in that case, alot of the urban Afghans are much more likely to be Persian-speaker, who were not so common before. They bring with them their own antipathy to Pastuns and Pashto, which hard to fathom. They would rather learn Urdu. They are not the majority of Afghan refugees, but they are much more visible...
Zeb khan Jun 20, 2012 11:35am
I dont believe in the writers claim that before late 70s peshawar was not a majority Pashto speaking city , it had been under the majority Pashtuns from long ago .
BRR Jun 20, 2012 01:46pm
Nothing unique about refugees in Peshawar. Wikipedia indicates " As per 2001 census there are 3,084,826 people in India who came from Bangladesh[1] No reliable numbers on illegal immigrants are currently available. Extrapolating the census data gives a figure of 2 million.[2][3] ". During the 1971 war of liberation, an estimated 20million Bangladeshis made it to India. Needless to say, such immigrants change the local cultures into which they meld.
SybillaT Jun 21, 2012 02:25am
Really insightful article. Thank you!
AcademicLaxecana Jun 21, 2012 06:39am
An excellent piece, well written and presented, I love Peshawar and its wonderful people, born in Peshawar as a refugee and spent the good first 20 years of my 27 years, we owe Peshawar and its people big time, since than i have visited/lived and worked in 8 other countries including african and a few with condition similar to Peshawar, non is more hospitable than Peshawar, no ones people are well-behaved towards the migrants than Peshawar and no one has shared the grief of arriving intruders better than Peshawaries have, how much i wish we could have a collective way of saying Thank you to Peshawar and its dwellers
Abbas (Pakhtun) Jun 22, 2012 04:08am
Zia ul Haq's policies of strategic depth have caused tremendous harm to Pakistan, and Peshawar is an excellent example of that. The city today is a dirty, overcrowded and dangerous place and most affluent Peshawarites have sold their properties to Afghans and moved to Islamabad and beyond. Only the Persian speaking Afghan refugees (Farsiban) who were well educated have made positive contributions to Peshawar. The Pashtun Afghan refugees, majority of whom are illiterate, simply took jobs and businesses away from the locals while overcrowding every part of the city, not to mention bringing the Afghan war to Peshawar doorsteps.
Umesh Bhagwat Jun 22, 2012 06:06am
The people in South Asia share a common culture and have had economic,social and cultural links for centuries. The ruins of Harappa and Mohenjodaro are evidence of that. This region can become one of the fastest growing regions if we can sort out our petty differences and work collectively. This will not only ensure peace in the region but also reduce the poverty,illiteracy,communal tensions and other problems facing all the countries in the region.