Searching For Home: The Ahmadiyya Community's Struggle To Escape Prosecution

Searching For Home: The Ahmadiyya Community's Struggle To Escape Prosecution
It was when Rizwan Akram Hanjra realized that his whole family, including five children, were in imminent danger after a house robbery attempt that he decided to leave once and for all.

Rizwan was born and bred in Fort Abbas, in Punjab province, Pakistan, one of the two provinces where Ahmadis live in large numbers.

He had been running an engine spare parts shop successfully for years when suddenly, his whole life turned upside down. Traders in the Tufail town of Fort Abbas where his business was located found out he belonged to the Ahmadi community, which has long been persecuted and outcast in Pakistan.

After that, traders refused to do business with him; even the local tea stall would not serve him tea or fruits. His children were thrown out of school by the principal with a note saying there was no place for Ahmadis.

To make matters worse, when he went to pick them up at school on November 29, a group of people assaulted him mercilessly. "It was a miracle that I survived," said Hanjra.

By selling the family's traditional land and business he had owned, he was able to raise funds to arrange for the whole family to leave the country.

Rizwan Akram Hanjra with his children. Source: authors

As Sri Lanka marked its 75th anniversary of independence from the British on February 4, his family of eight, including his wife, five children and his father, landed at Bandaranaike International Airport with hopes for a better life, mixed with uncertainty in a foreign land.

From the little savings he has, Hanjra can provide for the family for three to four months. After that, “I don’t know how I am going to support them,” he told The Friday Times from the local Ahmadi mosque in Negombo, located some 40 kilometers from the capital Colombo.

In Sri Lanka, Hanjra and his family face other obstacles to a better life.

Under Sri Lankan regulations, refugees and asylum seekers are not allowed to work and their children cannot be admitted to local schools. His three sons and two daughters are homeschooled by his wife, Fouzia Talat, an M.A. graduate in English literature.

"My children are really good at studies and were studying in an international school, but they were thrown out because of our identity. If someone picks them out, they shine like a diamond," the proud father said.

"We are not safe from Pakistan even in Sri Lanka, so I asked the UNHCR office what we can do to process my application quickly, but have received no satisfactory response from them."

His wife worked as a teacher back in Pakistan. “But due to our religion, I could not continue it any longer. Currently, I’m homeschooling our children but the situation here is also not good since everything is very expensive,” Fouzia said.

“Back home, they don't consider us as Muslims and brand us as kafir (non-Muslims), even though we pray like them and engage in religious activities similarly," said Hajra, the only son in the family, whose ailing father had to sell his livestock since no one was willing to buy milk from his farm.

Even though both countries have witnessed the worst economic crises since independence and currently are undergoing International Monetary Fund bailout programs, for Ahmadi refugees, the situation is getting worse by the day.

"The current situation there [Pakistan] is very bad and many in our community want to leave, but they don't have enough financial resources," Hajra explained. He noted that Ahmadis are the worst off due to the discrimination they face and the plight of discrimination that can very easily turn violent.

The ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka, where the cost of living has skyrocketed, coupled with high inflation, is a double whammy for refugees who are totally dependent on charities or donations for daily survival in addition to support from relatives back home.

For the family of eight, Hanjra is paying Rs 30,000 for the rented house, about 28,814 Pakistani Rupees, per month in addition to Rs 12,000, another 11,525 Pakistani Rupees, and Rs 3000, or about 2,881 Pakistani Rupees, for electricity and water following the recent tariff hike.

Even in their temporary host country, things are not so good. Hanjra is concerned about his family's security following a recent incident where his children were not allowed to use the local play area due to their identity by local Muslims.

"We are not safe from Pakistan even in Sri Lanka, so I asked the UNHCR office what we can do to process my application quickly, but have received no satisfactory response from them, " said Hanjra.

He registered as an asylum seeker with the local UN refugee office, but still awaits further processing procedures on his application. That may also be a problem for him.

Hanjra heard a rumour that the local UNHCR office will stop accepting new entries of asylum seekers and refugees and is preparing to close by the end of this year. There are many Ahmadis waiting for UN approval.

Nazir Mehmood, 48, a teacher from Kot Pedda Narowal, arrived in Sri Lanka in 2017 and has been waiting over three years for a response from the local UN Refugee Agency office on his appeal after his initial application was rejected.

In addition to being an Ahmadi, his love marriage to a Sunni woman doubled the life threats to the young family even from neighbors and relatives back home.

Nazir Mehmood. Source: authors
Nazir Mehmood. Source: authors

For the past six years, his relatives, particularly a sister from Australia, have been supporting the family, “But I cannot expect her to do this any longer,” said Mehmood. “The UN office should fast-track the cases which are pending for many years as it is incredibly difficult for us to survive here. Mehmood and his wife have an only child, a daughter born in Sri Lanka.  The parents worry about her future as she is not allowed to go to school.  “I am worried about her future,” her father said.

According to official government statistics, among the 845 refugees in Sri Lanka, at least half of them are Ahamediyyas who came from Pakistan to escape persecution.

Ahmadis face obstacles on two fronts: the ongoing economic crisis in the host country makes the already precarious task of leaving their homeland behind even harder. Highly volatile ethnic tensions are another major concern for their safety.

After the Easter Sunday attacks that shook the nation in 2019, leaving 272 dead and 407 injured in suicide attacks carried out by a radical Muslim group, the Ahmadediya refugee community has felt especially vulnerable.

A Catholic church in Negombo, where many of the Ahmadis lived, was among the targeted shrines.  Many had to move to temporary locations to escape the angry mobs.

With their six month old baby, Mehomood and his wife were temporarily shifted to Vavuniya, Sri Lanka’s northern province to ensure their safety. The couple spent nearly six months before relocating to a rented home in Negombo.

Ahmadi temporary shelter in Negombo with poor facilities. Source: authors

In the week of May 23, a group of refugees and asylum seekers, including children, staged a protest in front of the country office of UNHCR in the capital Colombo following reports that the Mission is scheduled to wind up its operations in Sri Lanka by early next year.

Demanding relief in view of the ongoing economic crisis and education for the children, protesters urged the UN Refugees Agency to fast-track the process of their refugee status and provide a speedy solution to the permanent settlement before the closure of the office in the host country.

“Irrespective of where they have come from, UNHCR has a big responsibility to ensure the safety and permanent settlement of refugees who are currently recognized by it before the office’s closure. Many lives are in limbo, particularly the children of refugees,” Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist told The Friday Times. He noted that some refugees have been living on the island for over 10 years awaiting a response from the UN agency on their asylum applications abroad.

Fernando stressed that the Sri Lankan government has a moral obligation to protect and ensure the well-being of refugees as thousands of Sri Lankan citizens fled the country as refugees and sought asylum abroad during the decades-long conflict in the past.

“Children of refugees should be allowed to pursue education in local schools during their stay. Refugees who have skills and talents should be allowed to work in order to lead a life with dignity here. What Sri Lanka is currently doing is not enough,” Fernando said. Some Ahmadis find strength in their strong religious beliefs.

“It is their faith that kept them going despite all these difficulties and new challenges these days,” says Nizam Khan, president of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat - Sri Lanka, an outfit dedicated to the welfare of the refugee community, by coordinating donations from charities to manage economic hardships.

“Most of the refugees came here to Sri Lanka after making previous arrangements back at home, or through family connections. The economic crisis in the country makes daily lives very difficult to the extent that many families had to shrink their essential needs and expenses significantly,” Khan observed.

With the wide-scale displacement situation in Sri Lanka over and the majority of internally displaced people returning to their places of origin, UNHCR said that it is “now able to review its presence in the country.” “UNHCR is aware of refugee concerns and continues to engage to address these issues. We urge for peaceful dialogue to address all concerns linked with refugees, asylum seeker protection and welfare,” the Country office said.

Despite an unprecedented economic crisis crippling Pakistan, hundreds of Pakistani-Ahmadis are desperate to leave the country even if it means facing similar hardships in a temporary transit point in search of a better future.  Some, like Rehan Ahmed, 36, hold out as long as they can before leaving.

Rehan ran a mini grocery store in Sheikhupura, a city in Punjab province with a population of nearly half a million.  He never considered leaving home until the situation began deteriorating in recent years and survival became a daily struggle.

A member of the Ahmadiyya community, Rehan had always faced discrimination and threats but despite the challenges, he had managed to build a life for himself and his family. But the constant fear and insecurity had taken a toll. He yearned for a place where he could work freely and safely.

The economic crisis in Pakistan has had a profound impact on Rehan's plans to leave the country.

With limited financial resources, it became increasingly difficult for him to gather the funds to relocate his family to a safer place. The declining value of the local currency made it even more challenging.

Rehan explored various avenues to secure a visa and relocate his family, but the economic crisis made it harder for him to meet the financial requirements imposed by immigration authorities.

He reached out to international organizations and human rights groups for assistance, hoping to find support. His pleas went unheard.

"The economic crisis may be a hurdle, but it won't dampen my determination to create a safer and more prosperous life for our children. I'll find a way, no matter what the challenges are," Rehan said. He has a family of seven, parents from both sides, his wife and three children.

"Leaving our country is not an easy decision, but when our safety and the future of our children are at stake, we must consider all options. We deserve the freedom to practice our faith without fear,” he said. Recently, Rehan’s prayers were answered.

Hearing of the family's plight, a local community organization came forward to assist in paying for a one-way ticket to a safe country.

The Ahmadis of Pakistan have always known that they were not accepted by the mainstream Muslim community. They have been ostracized, discriminated against, and even targeted with violence. But in recent years, the situation has worsened. The government has passed laws that explicitly targeted the Ahmadi community, and religious leaders called for their persecution.

Despite the obstacles, Ahmadis have struggled to establish a safe haven in their homeland, hoping to find safety in numbers.

The road leading to the residential area of Rabwa is filled with small shops and tea stalls. Auto rickshaws and motorcycle-driven auto tongas wait for passengers outside a large hospital at the start of the town. The medical facility is operated by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and serves many patients every day, including non-Ahmadis from nearby towns and villages.

Rabwa is home to around 70,000 Ahmadis, who seek refuge in the town when they feel unsafe elsewhere in Pakistan. "Rabwa is a temporary shelter and a safe haven," says Hammad Ali, spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Rabwa. "The Ahmadi community feels a sense of security here because we live together."

Even the dead from the Ahmadi community are subjected to atrocities.

Once again, violence became the invader. In 2014, an Ahmadi cardiologist, Dr. Mehdi Ali, was assassinated as he was leaving a graveyard outside the town. Two years later, a 26-year-old Ahmadi, Bilal Ahmed, was shot dead on a street in Rabwa while on his way home from work.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community established Rabwa as their headquarters in 1948 on land purchased from the government. "The town was meant to serve as a center or foundation for the Ahmadiyya movement," says Ali.

According to the 1998 census, the population of Ahmadis was 286,212 but the number decreased to 167,000 in 2017 while the country’s population stood at 130,857,717. At least 10,205 changed their religious status from Muslim to Qadiani (Ahmadi).

However, Ahmadiyya Jamaat spokesperson for Amir Mehmood disputed the government figure saying that the number is very small if we look at the calculation of the natural increase of the population. “Of course, people are migrating due to persecution, but this process has been going on since 1980.”

The population of the Ahmadi community in Pakistan is around 400,000, Mehmood estimated. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan, the number of Ahmadi voters was 167,000 in 2018, with the majority of the community residing in the two largest provinces in the country: Punjab and Sindh.

According to statistics compiled and provided by Jamat Ahmadiyya, 325 people were booked and over 200 arrested in a total of 75 First Information Reports (FIRs) registered against the Ahmadiyya community under blasphemy charges and the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act since 2018.

Even the dead from the Ahmadi community are subjected to atrocities. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an autonomous organization that monitors the human rights situation in the country, found that 92 Ahmadiyya graves and 10 Ahmadiyya worship places were desecrated, and 25 cases (FIRs) were registered against 105 Ahmadis on religious grounds last year alone.

After years of struggling, facing constant threats, and fearing prosecution, Rehan Ahmed is ready to leave his home country to find shelter in Belgium with the support of local organizations. He received the necessary legal documentation, allowing him to work and reside. It is a relief for him to no longer live in constant fear, and he is determined to make the most of this newfound freedom.

“Leaving my homeland is a heartbreaking decision, but the constant threat to my life as an Ahmadiyya compelled me to take that leap of faith. Thanks to the invaluable assistance of various organizations, I will now breathe freely, knowing that my fundamental rights will be protected."

Escaping Pakistan is not just about finding physical safety; it is about reclaiming my dignity and freedom,” Rehan said.

Rehan's journey to Belgium will not be without its difficulties, but he has high hopes that the supportive environment and opportunities the foreign country offers will enable him to rebuild a new life for his family.  As he looks back on his journey, he realizes that while the scars of his past would always remain, they had become a testament to his strength and resilience.

Asim Ahmed Khan from Pakistan and Sandran Rubatheesan from Sri Lanka contributed to this story.