I sometimes fool myself into believing that I am a prototypical refugee; if there is any such thing. More than two thirds of my life, I have happened to identify myself as one. First as the infant victim of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its subsequent backlash by traditionalist Muslims backed by their neo-liberal allies and then recently, as a silent observer of chaos springing out of absolute hatred coated in shameful traditions shielded by the misinterpreted sanctity of ancient texts. To put it short, I have lived almost eighteen years of these thirty two years in Pakistan and for the past two and a half years, I have once again taken refuge, this time in the UK.
The experience of asylum seeking has been a mixed bag but it has given me an outlook on humanity for which I can only be grateful. Its greatest gift to me has been the opportunity to enjoy the graciousness and compassion of people beyond geopolitical borders lending me the humility of acknowledgement and thankfulness. This firsthand experience of being a refugee has helped me explore a few themes which I find worthy of sharing with others.
I owe my life and happiness to my mother, a widow of war who stitched people's clothes in order to send me to an English-medium school in Quetta, the city which harbours the greatest number of fundamentalist Taliban to this day. I was shielded by her courage from the radiant waves of a possible painful life. I can't claim the childhood of a typical refugee because I luckily happened to be well fed, well dressed and was provided with the best education available.
As I was growing up, I couldn't help but observe my fellow Afghans flocking out to unknown lands in search of vague notions of prosperity and wellbeing. Even in my nascent brain, I could easily categorise those people moving out into two distinct categories. The bulky, well-fed and rather unhappy dwellers of the Gulf States and the young, optimistic and somewhat broke adventurers who either went on the suicide sea trips across the Indian Ocean to Australia or the crazy ones who dared the violent border forces of Iran, Turkey and Macedonia to reach the promised land of Europe. What was clear from the onset was that Europe was no place to make money, whatever you might make would eventually be spent on rent, food and the unnameable vices of pleasure, whereas, the Gulf especially Saudi Arabia was where by our society's standards of wealth, you could get rich. Saudi Arabia was rich in oil wealth and needed millions of workers from the poorer countries to fuel its booming economy. If one went to work in Saudi Arabia, returning home they had pockets full of riyals and the bonus title of Haji (a pilgrim of Mecca) along with the unuttered acknowledgement of the pious who considered them unpolluted by the great vices of the day such as gambling, alcohol and adultery.
Europe was no Saudi Arabia; it had a lot of negative tags attached to it, some probably true. A lot of young people who went to Europe couldn't really make the best of their potential, hundreds were killed by the uncompromising bullets of the Turkish and Iranian border guards. Yet it continued to attract millions of people, so many that today what is left of this individualistic pilgrimage of the brave is nothing but a living marquee of human misery and suffering. So what triggered this interest in Europe? Why did people risk their lives to reach this assumed land of milk and honey?
It is impossible for me to separate my personal bias from this narrative but I can confidently state my true observation that large numbers of those young people consciously or unconsciously chose Europe over safe and prosperous Gulf States not for material but abstract reasons. They like me had seen through the crushed souls of the well-paid labourers returning from the Gulf. They had heard and observed afar the tales of inhumane treatment of the workers, the lack of respect for foreigners, the intolerance of beliefs and the frequent episodes of racism and misogyny. They might have been tempted to follow the path and become the seemingly respected members of society, yet they chose not to.
I am not saying we all came here to enjoy the human rights of Europe. Indeed living in Europe had and still has its physical attractions and glitter too but what made it truly stand out compared to the rest of the world was its soft power; its values based on the ideals of enlightenment polished and perfected through centuries of trial and error. Yes, European countries including UK sheltered millions of penniless human beings providing them accommodation and food, education and health services but its greater gift came in form of the values it espoused and delivered upon; the values of equality, justice and freedom for all human beings regardless of race, belief, culture, sexuality or socio-political views.
The rise of alt-right movements and the growing hatred towards immigrants is a cause of concern for all who believe in progress and tolerance, yet my understanding is that although the ideological core of those movements is fuelled by dogmatic hatred, the crust is more colourful and diverse. I happen to believe quite optimistically that the straight-talking middle class people whose anti-immigrant motivations are spread across a broad spectrum from the preservation of cultural integrity to defending their economic rights and privileges at the end of the day will not back away from upholding the European and to be specific British values of liberty, tolerance and lawfulness.
Supremacy of people's will is a beautiful and practical idea, yet its true materialisation as the comparative history of welfare and failed states shows, is only possible if people make their decisions on the basis of morality and reason without being blinded by the darkness of hatred and fear.