The first set of people I met was from a Shia family who migrated from Pakistan four years ago under dire circumstances.
“We started receiving threats at the end of 2007. First they were just random letters thrown inside the compound of our house. Most of them were abusive, some were derogatory towards our faith but all of them had the same message which stated that we leave this country or else be responsible for the consequences,” said she on condition of anonymity.
“In the beginning we all thought it was some sort of juvenile prank. Then we started receiving phone calls from unidentified numbers and that is when we realised that the threats were real,” she added.
The other part of her narrative was tragic and beyond anyone’s worst fear.
“I still remember that day with clarity. It was a Sunday and my brother had gone out to run some important errands. He always rode a motorbike but that day he decided to go walking. He was shot dead outside a shop not that far from where we lived. He was the youngest and most pampered child of the family and his untimely demise changed our lives forever. You always think that such misfortune always falls on other people and somehow you always stay away from such things until the violence strikes your home. None of us knew how to cope with the loss. We all kept wondering why they chose him and not us. He had his whole life in front of him because he was so young,” she added.
“When the shock abated, we realised that if we had to survive, we would have to leave this country as soon as possible otherwise we would all meet the same fate as him,” she added with tears glistening in her eyes.
Her narrative made me wonder, was Pakistan only made for a singular Muslim school of thought and more importantly, who has the right to ask Shias or Pakistanis of other faiths to leave their own country. Pakistan is just as much a home to Ahmadis, Shias and Christians as it is to Sunni Muslims and nobody has the right to expel anyone from their homeland. However, expulsion continues to take place on gun point and many a time over the lifeless bodies of loved ones.
Quite evidently, religious persecution is not the only reason which compels Pakistanis to seek asylum elsewhere. Many a time, Pakistanis are forced to flee from their homeland because of their political affiliations or lack of the same.
The second family I met had migrated to Canada several years ago for the same reason.
“I was an active member of a leading political student organisation in Karachi when I was studying at Ayesha Bawany Government College located at main Shahrah-e-Faisal. I was a young boy full of ambition and ideals. We would hear speeches from our seniors or political leaders that we followed and would get exceedingly roused. They showed us dreams of a better future and somehow every word that they said sounded close to the truth at the time. However, as I grew older I realised that this was not what I wanted for my life,” said Ghyas* who now owns a small convenience store in Ontario, Canada.
“I grew up without a father and was the only male child in a family of three sisters. One fine day I just decided to leave the organisation but my decision didn’t sit too well with my seniors. First they tried to coax me into reversing my decision and then they blatantly threatened me. I was attacked and almost beaten to death and that is when I knew that I had to leave Pakistan. I came to Canada as a refugee with my family and got the permanent resident status after struggling to prove that my life was in danger back home for almost 10 months,” he added.
Most of the asylum seekers who leave Pakistan in hopes of a better and safer future reach there destitute or have meager funds which only last for a very small period of time. Regardless of their qualifications, most of them have to accept odd jobs and work at less than minimum wage until their resident status is approved by the immigration authorities.
“We had the most prestigious degrees from the top notch educational institutes in Pakistan but when we landed in Canada we had to work at a greenhouse on cash because we did not have a Social Insurance Number. We were six people altogether which included my 16-year-old baby sister as well. We worked from 8 am until 5 pm at a greenhouse in Leamington where many more like us were also employed for the same jobs. Those were the most arduous years,” said another asylum seeker from Pakistan.
“Do not mistake my intentions. I am not trying to say that working at a greenhouse is wrong or demeaning. We all worked hard and anyone who works hard should be proud of it. I just call the early years hard and trying because we came to Canada without a dime and had to start from scratch. It took a lot of time for us to grasp the gravity of the situation. It was like being stuck in limbo. I had never felt so helpless before in life. Seeking asylum is not easy and people who say that people do it deliberately should go to the greenhouses where many asylum seekers from different countries work day in and day out to feed their families. Seeing their faces will make you understand that what they have chosen has been the lesser of two evils as a last resort,” said he with sadness gripping his eyes and voice.
I asked each one of them if they missed Pakistan or would ever like to return. Two said ‘maybe’ and one said ‘for what? To be squashed out like a bug again. No, never in this lifetime. We were never considered a part of Pakistan. We were always the pariahs’.
Their tragic past and overwhelming emotions made me want to console them for their loss but for the first time in my life I was left speechless as words are too dead to placate them. I wanted to tell them that the majority of Pakistanis are tolerant people but I had no evidence to substantiate my claim. I wanted to hold their hands and tell them that the situation will change but I had no incident to quote which could prove that the tides are changing. I wanted to apologise but no amount of apologies would ever bring back the brother of the woman I spoke to or the childhood of a 16-year-old girl who was exposed to such harsh realities of life at such a tender age.
I left their shops and homes with a very heavy heart, fervently praying that Pakistan would once again become a tolerant and progressive society where people can enjoy equal rights regardless of what paths they choose in life.
*Identity concealed due to security reasons