This weekend myself and sixty other young British Muslims helped the victims of the recent floods in Cumbria. We travelled from all over the UK, each volunteer adorned with a jumper that read 'Muslims for Humanity' and hi-vis vests draped with our 'Love for all, hatred for none' motto across the back. It meant more to us than you could possibly realise; for calling ourselves Muslims is something that could cost us our lives in some parts of the world. In fact, for several of us, it almost had. Let me explain.
I am a proud British Muslim living in the North East of England. As such, I try hard to help fellow Brits during difficult times, like the kind hearted people of Cumbria who's lives were turned upside down by the recent 'Storm Desmond'. The UK, however, has not always been the place that I called home; nor was my nationality always British. I grew up in Pakistan, the land of my forefathers, which my family has loved and served since its foundation in 1947.
I have fond memories of Pakistan. Still fresh to me are the rich fragrances of its aromatic food, the heat of a beautiful spring morning and the unquantifiable potential of its people. In many ways it has all the ingredients to become a heaven on earth.
However, there is a problem; my family and I are Ahmadi Muslims. And for Ahmadis living in Pakistan, the spirit of intolerance directed towards us is suffocating. The aggressive opposition to us stems from our belief that the coming of the Messiah foretold in the scriptures of the world's monotheistic faiths has already taken place, coupled with other beliefs such as our peaceful interpretation of jihad.
Discussing tolerance, Albert Einstein stated: "Laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order that every man present his views without penalty there must be spirit of tolerance in the entire population."
I wonder what Einstein would have made of the situation of Ahmadis in Pakistan. We not only face a culture of intolerance from much of our fellow citizens, but are constitutionally prohibited from making any verbal or physical claim to be Muslim. And no, that is not an exaggeration; to pray, recite the Islamic creed, sell an Islamic book, or build a Mosque could land us in jail or even facing the death penalty.
Allow me to delve deeper into what I mean by a 'culture of intolerance'. As a child my teachers and classmates dehumanised me. My mother would send me off to school only for my RE teacher to throw me out of the lesson each week; ''You're not a Muslim, so why should this class be of interest to you,'' he would tell me. ''The fastest way to heaven is to kill an Ahmadi,'' my classmates sniggered as we sat on the school bus together.
Despite this, my faith -Islam- inspired me to persevere and I passed my exams, even topping the class I was never allowed to attend. But my graduation was not quite what I had hoped it to be. The sniggering children grew into daring young self-righteous men. And so the threat of violence was upgraded to a close call with death; my youthful optimism flickering as a gang of men, who had been waiting for me outside my college, beat me mercilessly.
The pain and emotional anguish of spending months of recovery in hospital and at home was made all the more bitter by two prior arson attacks on my father's business - my father and uncle barely escaping with their lives on the second occasion.
I loved Pakistan then as I still do now. However, its laws and many of its people do not love me because of my peaceful interpretation of Islam. Ultimately the prospect of death and little opportunity to put bread on the table forced us to flee to the UK, the country we would later come to also call home.
Moving country, especially under such difficult conditions, can be very unsettling for a young teenager. Yet anxiety is replaced with the delight one feels due to the freedom of religion that the UK affords its citizens; a freedom I believe to be far closer in practice to the teachings of Islam than people are afforded in countries such as my homeland, Pakistan. Today I serve as a regional youth leader for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association (AMYA). The AMYA is the largest Muslim youth organisation in both the UK and across the world. Our motto is a simple one: 'Love for all, hatred for none'.
Like me, many of the AMYA volunteers who drove to Cumbria fled to the UK due to persecution. For example my friend Ummad, who travelled across from Newcastle, was shot in the head for no other reason than he is a peaceful Ahmadi Muslim.
And so we adorn our 'Muslims for Humanity' jumpers because we herald from a country where we cannot call ourselves Muslim. Moreover, today we live in a highly charged climate where Muslims are too often associated with extremism and not charity. However, it is our desire that the only extremism others should observe in us is found in our charity, kindness and smiles. An aspiration championed today by the London-based Caliph and worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, who advised me and all Ahmadis that, ''It is the duty of true Muslims to spread love and harmony within society.''
I hope to give back to a country that has given us so much; to demonstrate through action that there is nothing un-British about being Muslim; to respond to those who destroyed our homes in Pakistan by helping people in this country rebuild their homes.