On March 22, Sadiq Kahn, a Pakistani refugee, discussed his master’s thesis in Diplomacy and International Cooperation at the University of Trieste. Escaped from the Taliban, after sleeping for the first night in Italy in a cold telephone booth, he became an example not only for his asylum-seeking friends but also for all of us.
Could you tell us about your trip from Pakistan to Italy and the reasons that led you to take it?
I was living happily in Pakistan as I was surrounded by my family members and was studying as well, everything was going smoothly in my life. Since 2006, the security situation became worse and everything had changed. My father was one of the village leaders as our grandfather was the first leader of the village, but my father was a soldier in the UAE military. He was visiting Pakistan once a year for a month of holidays and was usually spending his holidays for resolving village disputes/matters. In one of these disputes, the other party get involved the Taliban and they shot down my father in the local mosque, from that time we (brothers) have started a strong struggle for a good and peaceful life, later, when I was graduated, I started my own educational institute in my home town, which was later closed by the Taliban as science and English subjects were forbidden by the Taliban and they threatened me for that.
Later, I moved to Afghanistan, where I worked with a construction company in the beginning as I have studied both Civil engineering and Political Science (International Relations), Civil engineering was just because of more working opportunities and Political Science was my choice so I studied both at the same time (morning and evening shifts). Later, I worked with WFP for a short period and when I found my dream job with UNHCR, I moved there immediately. During the military operations in Waziristan -Pakistan, refugees moved from Pakistan to Khost Afghanistan and then I was working there in the fields. Slowly my life was recovered as no one knew where I was working but as the Taliban intelligence is very good, they found me and threatened me again for my work with UNHCR (non-Muslims) and I asked for help but no one can guarantee you, for your life and security there in Afghanistan. So, I decided to leave Afghanistan as well. Even my family did not agree with me for this risky journey to Europe since I hadn’t any other choice and I took my decision and started my journey.
On one side there was an immediate absolute threat for life and on the other side there was a risk but hope for a good and safe life, which got heavier on the other one.
I crossed the Pak-Iran border, which was the first riskiest part of the journey. We were about 15 people then, from Iran to Turkey we were about 80 people on a truck, from capital (Tehran) to Iran-Turkey border (12-14 hours) after we walked from 17:00 till the day after at 11:00 in the mountains, which was very risky. We lost some of the people in the mountains as they weren’t able to walk anymore, we saw dead bodies on our way. We were lucky as we crossed the border at 2:30 am, it was raining and stormy, but that saved us from the border guards watch.
Then we stayed for 24 hours in a very small room where we were more than 50 people and we hadn’t even space for stretching our legs. We spent that 24 hours in setting position and the water which was given to us wasn’t even clean for drinking.
Then in a bus, where people were sitting in every possible free space, and we directed ourselves towards Istanbul (16 to 19 hours).
I stayed in Istanbul for 7 days and after we came to an Island – Bodrum, Turkey. We attempted at the first night to cross the sea, which was a life-death game but we weren’t lucky on that attempt as we were caught by Turkish police and they sent us back to Izmir – Turkey. The day after we tried again at 2 o’clock at night, we were 8 people in a very small boat (1 from Afghanistan, 1 Pakistan, and a family of 3 women and 2 men from Afghanistan, and me). I was driving the boat for the very first time, which was very difficult as without experience and in a fearful situation made it worse, but we did it this time and we arrived at Kos, Greece, by boat in about 3 hours, where I stayed for 4 days. Then I was lucky as the journey didn’t take long to Italy as the borders were open during that time. So, from Athens to Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and Italy. Some of the journeys were by bus and train and some also by feet, in Austria, I decided to go to Italy as I came to know from some people that in Germany they don’t give the residence permit. I decided to go to Italy as those people were telling that Italians are good and they were accepting refugees from Pakistan.
The journey took almost one and a half months.
What do you remember about the first moments in Italy and the days at the CARA in Gradisca d’Isonzo?
I arrived in Udine, Italy, where the people suggested me to go to Gorizia (for a quick procedure of asylum, the volunteers in Udine gave me some food and I set up for Gorizia). I was stopped by the police, they checked me and took my fingerprints at 12:00 am and told me to leave the police station. I left the police station at 1:00 am and was trying to find a place to spend the night, but it was late and I couldn’t find anyone and neither anyplace. I stayed in a telephone cabin and spent my 14th November 2015 night there, which was the worst night in that cold. In the morning, I found some other people and they showed me where to eat and what to do next, then I spent 14 days in Gorizia forest on the river bank, took shower in the Isonzo river and was cooking and eating there with other refugees. The migration authorities told me that they didn’t have space in Gorizia and that I had to go to another city, which I rejected and then after 14 days they sent me to CARA.
CARA, the ex-deportation center, a completely different life, there were about 600 people living in very poor condition but was better than nowhere (forest) as we had a roof, water, food and health services (services weren’t good neither food but we had to stay there). The staff was good with us but due to the crisis, there was a lack of space and many people were living there, which was over CARA capacity. We were 9 people in a room, due to that reason the room was also noisy and crowded. There were military guards on the entrance gate, food items etc. were not allowed to take inside the camp, the timing was from 8:00 to 20:00, the entrance to the camp was possible only by camp card and at evening time there was also attendance at the mess.
I attended Italian courses there with Elena and Sara, who were great teachers. Refugees had very less communication with people outside of CARA, usually, the food was not tasty and 80% of the refugees were going to cook on open fire and eat there as well as in the forest.
Education has played a fundamental role in your life, how could you continue your studies?
During my first interview with Danila Humar (psychologist) and Ionela (translator), they asked me about my journey and life and later if I wanted to continue my studies. I said if it was possible then for sure 100%. Later, I was voluntarily doing the interpreter in CARA, when they needed. And finally, the time came when I got my permit to stay and then I applied for the scholarship at the University of Trieste. Thanks to Daniela, Ionela, and Laura as they helped me a lot for the admission process and supported me in every possible way.
I had to transfer to the South of Italy for the SPRAR project but Daniela requested for me to SPRAR and stopped my transfer and send me to Trieste’s SPRAR, where was my university main campus. During CARA time, Daniela found an opportunity for us, an internship at ICTP (Matteo Marsili was handling everything from ICTP), so I was selected for the ICTP library internship, and I completed one and a half month internship. The staff of the library was very nice to me. Thanks to Mr. Lucio (library head), ICTP director Mr. Fernando and the University of Trieste rector, who helped me in my university admission. Later, they offered me a part-time job in the library and all the staff was treating me very nicely. Ms. Gordana was taking care of me like her son and thus I found a new family in the library. I continued my studies and job as well. Later, when I improved my language with Federica (Italian teacher), I started working in the refugee commission as a translator.
Then I went for Erasmus to Krakow, Poland, for 5 months and I ended up successfully the Erasmus Programme. Later, I resumed my job at the ICTP library and finished my Masters of 2 years (Diplomacy and International Cooperation – Thesis: Climate Migration in Bangladesh). Everyone was happy for me, my family in Pakistan and here as well, all the people attended my graduation ceremony and celebrated nicely my ceremony.
Which were the most difficult moments as a student, not just a foreigner but also a refugee?
The difficult moments were the time when I was in CARA, as in CARA we were getting mobile recharge cards and after we were selling it to change it to the money because I hadn’t usually money for train tickets. I had my classes at 11:00 but I was going early morning sharply 8:00 o’clock as there was a Vain which was going near to my university, to bring the refugees for the commission interview and they have to present there at 8:00 o’clock in the commission and I was going with them. Whenever my university friends were asking for coffee I was simply replying I don’t like coffee as we drink tea in Pakistan but the real reason was the 50 cents that I hadn’t during my first semester. Again thanks to Daniela, she was giving me little money sometimes for Internet package which I was using for University assignments and also for train tickets when the vain was not going. All of them are still in touch with me and they are happier than me for my achievements.
There were some people who helped me financially like Behija and Dora, I’m really thankful to them for their support.
What would you like to say to the other asylum seekers who would like to continue their studies?
When I was in CARA, some of my friends were telling me that you need a job instead of the university as you will need money for living, but I never listened to them and continued, some were feeling proud like Sheraz and Qaisar as they knew the importance of education. And those who suggested me to work, some of them are still looking for a job. I will advise to every refugee that if you want to integrate into this society, education is the best way for integration. Through education, I have learned the language, got respect, a job, integrated well and also got back a happy life.
What would you like to say to Italian politicians instead?
Usually, refugees have problems in university admission due to the lack of information and procedures. I helped 5 people for university procedures as I was helped by others and I still help if anyone wants to resume his/her studies. One can’t study until he hasn’t a legal status, I will suggest to the government that there are thousands of asylum seekers, who haven’t got any status (permit of stay) and they are in the middle of asylum procedure and courts. They are here in Italy from more than 3 or 4 years and they want to study. However, if the government removes this obstacle after any asylum seeker can study and can attend the university even without a status. It would be really a great and helpful step for both asylum seekers and society. Maybe after some time, the requesters of asylum will get a status (usually people gets the status after 3 or 4 years), he/she would be an educated and useful person in the society. Education is a right of everyone so if they didn’t get any legal status here in Italy they could use their education in another country.
I have studied about migration and its impacts but in all these studies I have never found a major loss for a society or a state due to migration. Every migration history resulted in benefits and success for host society, my suggestion for politicians is to study migration history and find the ways for success through immigration like Australia, UK, US etc. A multi-cultured society has more positive growth of GDP and development than other factors. I will suggest them to bring ease in the migration system and improve the system through which the country touches the peak of success. In Italy, there are more aged people than young and on other-hand refugees are the young people in Italy, they can be the best way for their future to contribute in national income and pension system if they are handled and directed in a good way.