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Over a year ago, Asma, a young widow living in Pakistan, picked up the phone and heard an unfamiliar voice filtering in through the receiver. “If you’ve read your husband’s funeral rites,” said the voice of a man, “You should think about paying now, unless you want to lose your child as well.” Then he hung up. The next day, Asma, accompanied by her older brother, took her three-year-old daughter and fled for Europe.
The voice belonged to one of the Taliban members who had been demanding for months an unpayable sum of 20 million rupees (approximately $191,000) from Asma and her family. After a number of death threats, they beheaded her husband and her two brothers on the streets of Khatam, the town where she was living at the time. Their heads lay on the ground until a driver who was passing through the area recognized them and notified the family. Unable to bring their bodies home due to the condition they were in, she told me in devastated tones that she and her family had to bury them where they died.
Even now, safe in a refugee camp in Greece, Asma, whose name has been changed to protect her identity (as with others in this story), is fearful that the Taliban will somehow find her. She tentatively showed me, but would not allow me to photograph, the scars on her face and hands from when the Taliban assaulted her inside her own home. They had forced their way into her house while she was in the kitchen warming a bottle of milk for her daughter, then slammed her face against the wall, sliced her hand with a knife, and smashed the butt of their guns into her foot. She explained that this is how the Taliban funds its operations in southern Waziristan, a mountainous region in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. One of her neighbors, who made a decent living as a doctor (for local standards that is), had to pay $38,000 so that the Taliban would free his son. (According to rozee.pk, the country’s version of Indeed, the average doctor’s salary, which is considered well paid, ranges from $200 to $2,500 a year and the starting salary of a doctor at a government-run hospital is roughly $286.)
Asma is still wearing the same outfit, an olive green knee-length tunic and grey slacks that volunteers provided her when they first rescued her and the 31 individuals who were on the same dingy. Her daughter Inayah, only a toddler, often asks about her “baba.”
“He will take me on his bike to buy ice cream,” she said, repeatedly asking her mother why her father is not with them and why she and her mother have to live in such a small house now. The small house she refers to is a 200-square foot tent provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is a stark difference from the “haveli” or traditional mansions they once lived in.
As the only daughter amongst her three brothers, she says she was adored and pampered by her parents. They encouraged and fostered her love for studying, allowing her to complete her Bachelors in Computer Science as well as a nursing course. She was working towards an MBA when she fled Pakistan. Her husband was a manager at an international transportation company, which for the militants was a sign of wealth and is why they targeted him. Her brother, who accompanied her on the journey to Greece was in the medical industry. He was forced to leave behind a pregnant wife, who would be unable to endure the journey in her condition, and his two children, aged two and five. Since Asma could not have made the perilous journey by herself and was facing an imminent threat, her brother had no choice but to accompany her and hope that once he settled down in Europe, he could sponsor his family. Earlier, he feared they too had been kidnapped because they hadn’t responded to his calls for over 24 hours and spent most of his day on the phone trying to locate them. His suspicion was correct, but luckily, a neighbor was able to rescue his family from the Taliban while they were still at home and had taken them to an undisclosed safe location accompanied by her parents. He struggles daily with having to provide a safe haven for his only sister and the agony of having left his wife and children behind.
Like the Syrians, the Pakistanis’ road to Greece, which went through Iran and Turkey, was a perilous one. In Iran, there were mines that had been placed close to the border by the military to prevent illegal entries. “If we had just taken one step to the left on the trail, it would have blown us up,” said Asma, recounting the dead bodies, some babies that had been buried in the sand that surrounds the dusty mountains. The smugglers continuously beat them with sticks to make sure they were walking in a straight line. She barely slept for an entire week, during which she was either trekking or crammed into a car. By “God’s miracle,” said Asma, Inayah remained asleep during the nights. They could not risk her crying because it could have alerted the Iranian authorities who were patrolling the borders nearby. She recalls a time when they were trekking—at that point she did not know whether she was in Iran or Turkey—and the police began shooting at them from a distance. The smugglers made them all lay down on the ground and pretend they were dead. In this instance, the police left them alone and there no deaths or arrests.
When the time came to travel from Turkey to Greece the smugglers placed the 32 individuals, which included six to eight children in a dinghy meant for eight. It had a hole in it so they all demanded a new boat. But the next one had five holes, which they only discovered when the water began seeping into the dingy. “Prayers and belief in God got me across,” said Asma. Inayah turned three the day they arrived on one of the Greek islands, which she did not want to name for safety reasons But since her arrival, Asma has suffered from post-traumatic stress. She has been unable to control her bladder, how her body shakes when she senses impending turmoil. She has started to forget simple things like where she left Inayah’s bottle and where her shoes were when she last took them off. A camp doctor diagnosed her with severe depression and requested UNHCR to move her to a camp meant for families—a “heaven” in comparison to the one she spent the first two nights in.
Asma was at one of these camps when I visited her in June 2016. She had been there now for about two months. She could pay smugglers to travel deeper into Europe, but the thought of it terrifies her. She is now waiting to obtain papers legally from Greece before she moves forward, but the Greek authorities are overwhelmed with the influx. Insufficient manpower has meant that the refugees have to wait anywhere up to six months to obtain permission just to move from the many islands where they landed to Athens. And even after the waiting, the fate of many is known. Some Syrians who escaped the Islamic State (ISIS) are being sent back and so she is fearful for Pakistanis, whom she feels the Greeks do not consider a priority.
Of the 163,000 refugees that have arrived in Greece between January and June 2016, over 7,000 are Pakistani. But Pakistan is not considered a country that is in turmoil and its citizens are seen mostly as economic migrants capitalizing on the current crisis. While this holds true for quite a number of Pakistanis, there are those like Asma who genuinely fear for their lives and whose cases and stories get lost in the flood. In addition to the ransoms that the Taliban often force Pakistanis to pay, the group has imposed sharia law in the region, forcing women to cover themselves head to toe, and banning sports, music, and movies. Men must wear beards and penalties for crimes include stoning and lashing.
Then there are those who are fleeing a different type of religious persecution. They are not considered Muslim because they belong to one of the minority faiths, such as the Shias and Ahmedis. Some Pakistani asylum seekers are also fleeing political persecution by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a political group based in Karachi that has been associated with criminal activities and whose militant wing uses violence against its opposition. Lastly, there are those that are escaping bonded labor in the agriculture and brick-kilns industries. They have been forced to work under inhumane and intolerable condition and with low pay. Often, the farm and kiln owners torture and physically abuse their workers, threaten and abduct their families, and rape and molest female employees. The police, who are often privy to bribes, do not take action against the wealthy land owners.
The lack of knowledge amongst the Western world of Pakistan’s internal politics and the many forms of human rights abuse occurring within the country means they do not often receive international attention, leading to a rejection of asylum claims. The Pakistani refugees whom I spoke with often told me that they do not feel they are treated like humans, as they are passed over for many of the aid items that are handed out to Afghans and Syrians, such as toiletries and clothing. They feel that they have been blamed for the majority of the fights that occur in the camps even when they believe the other two majority nationalities are at fault. All of it adds to the ever-growing frustration of being stuck not only in Greece but in the asylum process as well.
The EU-Turkey deal, which would allow Greece to send illegal migrants back to Turkey, has increased tensions. Pakistani refugees are fearful of having to face Turkey, a country that has not signed the Refugee Convention prohibiting the return of an asylum seeker to unsafe conditions. After the deal was signed, many Pakistanis turned to smugglers once again to take them from the smaller Greek Islands and deeper into Europe. They hope, as does Asma, that one day they will be able to tell their children about the journey they had to make, the homeland they had to leave behind in order to find a safer home for themselves.