Illustration by Sunita
“Never let your past overcome your present, which will sabotage your future. Be the queen of your own kingdom and never let anyone rule it.”– Amber, Community-Based Advocate for Pakistani Refugees
It is difficult for anyone to speak about their experiences of having to run from their home country but today I would like to share my story. No, don’t feel sorry for me, but see how powerful I am to have built a life of my own despite the many hurdles I have to cross in my lifetime
I believe that my patience has always been put to the test and that my fate is a hard battle I have to fight against. I am an Ahmadi Muslim. Because of this, I have been subjected to various degrees of religious persecution and discrimination in every facet of my life. Apparently, Ahmadis are considered ‘non-Muslims’ and ‘heretics’ by mainstream Muslims. They question the religion we follow. Our history and present is laced with violence and systematic, sometimes state-sanctioned, oppression. This is something that our children face in classrooms, colleges, and universities, and others face at work, in their neighborhoods, and even in regular stores.
In Pakistan, my whole family were victims of persecution. My father is deaf and mute. He was arrested by the police countless times just because his name carries ‘Mohammad’ and he was the only Ahmadi working in the main market of the city. He was beaten up many times until his leg was broken. He now lives with an iron rod in his leg. My mother was similarly attacked. She was left with a broken arm and an affected eye. Until now, she is unable to move her left arm. According to the doctors, her left eye is so badly hurt that it can’t be operated on. She is no longer able to see with her left eye.
In school, I was always made to feel invisible because the students there believe I don’t deserve to be friends with any Muslims. According to them, I don’t deserve to be there with them. I was forced to eat and play alone in school. Nobody sat next to me or ate with me as if I was an impure being. I was constantly humiliated in our storytime class with the stories they recited against Ahmadis and my Ahmadi identity. It stung at first, but I got used to the hurt and struggled on. I thought it would be a new beginning for me once I got out of high school. I didn’t realize what was awaiting me and that my life would take such a tragic and sharp turn.
When I entered college, I was subjected to even more bullying. On my very first day, the news of me being an Ahmadi girl was circulated in the whole college by my previous high schoolmates. Knowing my religious identity, they hacked my Facebook account and used it to create a commotion on the college page. They sent my private information to all the boys in college including my phone number. I was constantly bullied by the boys everywhere – in class, on my way to my house, and even in the college van. They called me names like ‘Qadiani’ and ‘Mirzai’ – religious slurs used by Muslims in Pakistan to refer to Ahmadis.
I used to get rape and death threats through numerous unknown numbers from all around Pakistan. A fake ID using my name with a ‘Qadiani girl logo’ was disseminated in numerous Facebook groups. I was stopped many times by a bunch of boys, asking for my number and treating me as a ‘prostitute’ because they think Ahmadi girls have no dignity and self-respect. They are not afraid because they know how I’m unable to file a police report against them since the police have never helped Ahmadis before.
Because of my identity as an Ahmadi, I had to endure the unjust, discriminatory treatment against me in my own country. I remembered once when I was walking back home, I was attacked by a group of teenagers. They threw a glass bottle at me and it cut my arm. Blood flew non-stop from my wound, staining my white uniform. The cut left a permanent scar that I now carry. It stays as a mark to remind me of how I will never be accepted by them.
When I reported all of these incidents to the college administration, I was told that I had ‘no proof’ and no actions were taken. All of this affected my mental health. I used to cry out loud alone for many hours, even in my prayers. I felt weak. It took some time to build myself up, to ask myself – ‘why am I the one suffering?’ ‘Why am I letting others control my life? ‘Why am I letting them scare me?’ After all, no one is more powerful than Allah. Despite the fact that I had a dreadful two years of college, I did not quit. I stood tall while dealing with the negative thoughts, hatred, and misunderstandings about my faith. I was judged solely on the basis of my religion, and not as a human being.
My family and I decided to move to Malaysia when a college mate tried to file a case against me, wrongly accusing me of blasphemy, and my sisters and I received death and rape threats. We arrived in Malaysia with zero knowledge and with just the thought of saving ourselves. We resided in one of my mother’s relative’s house. We paid them RM500 for one small room. We used to be cooped up in that single room as they did not allow us to walk around freely. In just half a month, they told us to leave the house and live somewhere else. We tried to ask for help from many relatives but no one was willing to lend us a hand. Fortunately, my father’s childhood friend stepped forward to help us and with the help of a local person, we managed to move into another place.
After moving into our new house, we managed to get a teaching job in an international home school center. When the school principal learnt about our status as refugees, she started to deduct my elder sister’s salary purportedly to ‘pay’ for my younger sister’s education. She threatened us that she will contact the immigration and police department. We were constantly humiliated. Back in my country, I was bullied because of my religious identity as an Ahmadi, but now in Malaysia, there is an additional stamp I have to carry – a refugee.
I was judged only on the basis of my status as a refugee, and not on my abilities, so I chose self-respect before money and left. I began to believe in the good in humanity again when I was offered a new job despite my religion and status. It was the first time I was judged based on my capabilities and not on my status and background. In three months, I was promoted to the position of manager. When the company closed after a year, I was offered another job and was lucky to get a boss who didn’t judge me based on my refugee status but on my hard work and passion to support my family.
When the management of the company changed, I was told on my off day that I was laid off. The reason given was that I was a foreigner and that the company does not hire foreigners. I was angry. Instead of accepting the decision, I stood my ground and fought back. I told them that I was the longest-serving employee and that they can’t kick me out without any prior notice. They were quite shocked when I told them about the labor law and how I have the right to report their actions to the police. The CEO of the company was impressed with how I defended myself. I was then appointed as a manager at the company. I was the only foreign woman manager.
I’ve gained and lost a lot of things in the last six years of my life. In a tragic accident, I lost the most important person – my best friend, someone who was a huge part of my life, my father; I lost myself at that moment, I lost faith in prayers, in Allah. That phase of my life emptied me from the inside out. It was an emptiness that no amount of money could ever compensate. At this point, I began to realize that money isn’t always helpful, even if you have lots of it. Life is too brief and unpredictable to waste it on bad deeds, so strive to spend it on good deeds without expecting anything in return.
Now, I’m doing what makes me happy – a profession that isn’t just about making money but making a person happy and assisting them in whatever way I can. I am currently working as a community-based advocate for the Pakistani refugee community in Malaysia and every time I am able to help them, it gives me real happiness that I have never felt before even when I was working at my previous company and getting well paid.
I hope my story will help Malaysians understand that refugees flee their countries because we do not have a choice. We leave for the safety of our lives. Too often, the focus is placed on where we are running to, and not what we are running from. I hope the Malaysian society will be much more understanding and empathetic of our situation. And to those who are just like me and are reading my story, I hope this will inspire you to never lose hope in yourself and never give up.