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Strangers in a strange land

Sunday, May 27, 2012
By Maha Mussadaq

Fleeing conflict at home, hundreds of Somali refugees came to Pakistan with the hope of a better tomorrow. But without a legal status in their adopted home, they are pushed into a suffocating life of marginalisation and poverty. PHOTO : MYRA IQBAL

Sharifo, a Somali single mother, decided to flee the conflict at home to secure her son’s future. She made the long journey to Pakistan, thinking they would find refuge here. But over the years, hope has faded for them.

“Moving to Pakistan was not an easy decision, but we were hopeless. Coming here has only made things more difficult for us,” says 26-year-old Sharifo.

Sharifo and her six-year-old son Omar moved to the country in 2008 and have been living in Islamabad since. “I did not see a future for my son in my own country but I can’t see one in this country either,” she says as she runs her fingers through Omar’s hair.

They managed to save themselves from violent conflict but only for a life they don’t want. Although the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) works to ensure that they have all basic amenities, Sharifo says that the provisions are not sufficient.

“Just see what I have got. Can I ever promise my son a better tomorrow?” she asks, as we walk around the concrete floor of her dimly-lit apartment. With barely any furniture and broken windows, it gives the feel of a temporary abode although they have been living there for nearly four years and, it seems, will continue to indefinitely. I ask her why she hasn’t gotten the windows fixed or bought any furniture.

“I don’t have enough money,” she says, referring to the meagre 6,000-rupee subsistence allowance that the UNHCR gives her every month to cover all their living expenses, including electricity and gas where most of the money goes. The allowance is subject to review every three months, and hers has only increased by a thousand rupees in four years.

It is due to this lack of funds that Sharifo and Omar live in one of the two bedrooms in their flat in the G-10 commercial area and share the apartment, the lone bathroom and kitchen with three men, also Somali refugees, who they do not know. It takes off the rent burden, but this arrangement has led to her Pakistani neighbours judging her morals as she’s a lone woman living with men. “I feel as if my life is always at risk because I’m alone,” says Sharifo.
Her landlord, however, is sympathetic to her situation. “I haven’t paid the rent in a month but the landlord has let us live here and says it’s alright until we are in a position to pay.”

Fortunately, Omar’s primary school education is paid for by the UNHCR and he goes to an English-medium facility nearby, where he is enrolled in the first grade. But she is worried about what will happen once the UNHCR stops paying for his education.

Since the early 1990s, when the civil war broke out in the troubled country located in the Horn of Africa, the UNHCR has registered 535 refugees and 37 asylum-seekers in Pakistan. Almost half of these refugees arrived between 2006 and 2009, when the protracted war got even more violent.

“Approximately 10 per cent of the refugees are young children and teenagers. Two per cent were born in Pakistan,” says 24-year-old Ahmed Farah who arrived in Pakistan in 2008 after he dropped out of 9th grade at his school back home. As the leader of the Somali Students Union and the chairman of the Somali Forum, he tried to actively address issues that afflicted his compatriots in their adopted home.

“Due to a lack of interest by the home country as well as the agency and its partner NGOs, I just gave up the post,” Ahmed says.

“Somali refugees are the most difficult to deal with. They are easily manipulated towards criminal activities, making it difficult to negotiate with them at times,” a UNHCR official said on condition of anonymity.

I mention this to Ahmed, who has an explanation that draws on his own bitter experience. “When a man is hungry, he will go out and hunt. It’s human nature. We come from a country where we have learnt to survive in the most testing times and circumstances,” he says.

He is critical of the UNHCR’s education initiative. “As a policy, they educate refugee children only up till grade 5. Therefore, hundreds of young boys and girls end up uneducated as well as unemployed,” he says.

The refugees’ access to legal employment and livelihood opportunities is also obstructed by a lack of legal status in Pakistan. The UNHCR tries to cover the gap by carrying out small-scale livelihood projects aimed at increasing self-reliance but, Ahmed says, hundreds like him remain helpless at trying to change their situation.

Ahmed is also unimpressed by the skills-training programmes the UNHCR offers to non-Afghan refugees through its partners. “They have a compulsory English language course which is not beneficial because these refugees have to work in Pakistan and need to know Urdu to get a decent job.

But while Ahmed has given up the fight, many refugees are actively protesting the situation. Two years ago, a group of Somali women protested outside the office of a UNHCR-partner NGO in Islamabad, complaining that they had not received their monthly allowance. Some demanded to be repatriated to Somalia, while some wanted to resettle in other countries. The UNHCR allows refugees to return out of a personal decision to do so but does not facilitate return to war areas or conflict zones.

“We do not want to live in miserable conditions in Pakistan. We’d rather go back and die in the war than live like this,” Sharifo says.

“There are many promises that haven’t been fulfilled but life goes on,” Ahmed says. “There is no hope and no expectation either. With each passing day, we work for a better tomorrow but life is either the same or just worsening for us.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 27th, 2012.


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