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“I came here for my children”

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  • A mother’s fight for a brighter future

One mother with a universal dream – to watch her children grow up to be safe, educated and free. Persecuted for her faith and fearful that her sons will be taken from her, she’s willing to sacrifice almost anything to make that dream a reality. This is the story of Aisha* and her fight for religious freedom and a brighter future for her children.  

Aisha recalls life with her big, close-knit family in Pakistan very fondly. Her inner strength and resilience kept her going when her family and community rejected her for converting to the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect, a peace-loving community, rejected by majority sects in Pakistan for their belief in the second coming of the Messiah. Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, derogatively referred to as ‘Qadianis’, are persecuted for their beliefs. After she converted, Aisha and her sons were forced to spend most of their time indoors due to serious threats to their safety. 

When her ex-husband threatened to take her children away from her, Aisha knew she couldn’t risk their lives and future any longer. Her ex-husband was against her religion, but also didn’t believe in the importance of education for their children. 

“After my divorce, I could have remarried, but I chose not to because my sons are my first priority. When I converted, my ex-husband threatened to take my sons away from me, but I didn’t let that happen. I want to educate them, but if they were with their father, they would have gone to work instead of school.” 

Facing religious persecution and an uncertain future for her sons, Aisha had no choice but to flee the country. She made the decision to risk everything and flew to Sri Lanka with her sons in September 2017 and registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as an asylum-seeker. She describes her time here with an animated smile. 

“Sri Lanka is a very peaceful country; the people are very good and have been very helpful. When I came here, I felt free because in Pakistan, I couldn’t even go outside with all the threats we were getting. But in Sri Lanka, we were free; my children were relaxed and could go outside and play again.”

She enrolled her sons in the school run by NGOs for the children of refugees and asylum-seekers and even started working there as a volunteer teacher herself. She taught Urdu and Islam and began seeing the first steps in a positive future for her family. 

Aisha’s stay here will be temporary – Sri Lanka does not permit refugees and asylum seekers to live in the country permanently. The Government allows families to remain in Sri Lanka until they are resettled in another country by UNHCR. The average refugee stays in Sri Lanka for three to seven years until they are permanently moved to a country that accepts refugees for resettlement. Aisha hopes to settle in a country where she can work and support her family. 

“One day, I hope to go abroad, because we can’t work here and we have a lot of financial problems because of that. I want to resettle somewhere so I can start working and provide for my sons. That’s why I took this step. I came here alone just for my children. I want to give them every opportunity and watch them grow up to be educated people.” 

Sri Lanka had been a safe haven for Aisha and her sons, but after the Easter Sunday attacks they were forcibly removed from their rented home by residents that didn’t trust the refugee and asylum seeker community. Two months after the attacks, most of the community are still living in makeshift shelters, unable to return to their homes or even venture outside. To Aisha, life has been frustrating because they are stuck in the shelter day in and day out, unable to go outside or live their lives freely as they did before. 

When asked about her forced eviction, however, she didn’t condemn anyone. She only voiced one plea for herself and the other refugees and asylum-seekers who were forced from their homes; “In Sri Lanka, I hope that day by day people will understand that we are not terrorists. 

We are very alike. Just like the Sri Lankan people, we are also very peaceful.”

nName changed for protection

nThis is part of a series of stories marking World Refugee Day by UNHCR in collaboration with Citra Social Innovation Lab. 

(The stories are a follow-up on the recommendations generated at the Colombo Development Dialogues held on 5 April on ‘Refugees, Asylum-seekers and the 2030 Agenda’.)

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