Mohammad Razai is a student at the University of Cambridge. Here, he explains why his family left Afghanistan and what it meant to him to settle in the UK:
When I was six years old, the enveloping darkness of the courtyard; the familiar sonorous sound of Muazzin from the pulpit of the mosque, calling the faithful to prayers, would signal the end of the day.
I would then go into the dimly lantern-lit room of our house and watch my grand mother prostrated on her mat, praying. She would teach me verses from the Quran, and then she would tell me the story of the three fishes: the wise, the half-wise, and the third, stupid.
When fishermen come to the edge of the lake with their nets – the wise fish recognizes the danger and makes a difficult journey to the ocean, the half-wise – realising he has lost his wise guide – escapes by feigning death, however, the foolish fish is jumping about unaware of the net closing around him.
The fable, carved in my memory, meant little to me then beyond my fascination with the fate of three hapless creatures. Today, this fascinating parable of Jalal al-Din Rumi in Mathnavi can be revisited. The foolish fish is bounded and limited by the world of his immediate surroundings. For him home is that lake, come what may; he lacks vision and foresight, Rumi says.
The half-wise, though capable of saving himself, is a follower whom requires guidance and cannot solve the riddle himself. It’s the wise fish that comes to the conclusion that his true home is not the lake that he has lived, but the vast ocean where he could actualise the potential he has, wherever that may be.
Rumi himself fled the marauding Mongols in 1219 and settled in the Anatolian city of Konya, modern day Turkey, where he lived most of his life and wrote his poetical works. Rumi derides those who define home on political and geographical terms. Home is where you can live.Where you are accepted. When your race, ethnicity and identity is not a crime.
I was born in a cold winter morning of 1986, though the exact date is unknown, to an ethnically Hazara family in the west of Kabul. My great grandfather had travelled on foot at the age of 13 from rugged mountainous central Afghanistan, where his forefathers were sent to exile by amirs and kings, to the city of Kabul where he started life selling sweet drinks and working as a vendor.
The family had gone to extraordinary lengths to forge a new identity to avoid racism and discrimination. They had internalised the inferiority ascribed to them by society – my grandfather’s advise was ‘as Hazaras we should know our place’.
The winter morning I was born everyone rejoiced that I wasn’t born a flat-nosed, however later I was disappointed that people called me a Hazara. The official history does not mention the collective suffering and persecution of the Hazara community, the pogroms and systematic ethnocide of a once thriving people.
“They called him flat-nosed because of Ali and Hassan’s characteristic Hazara Mongoloid features. For years, that was all I knew about the Hazaras… mice-eating, flat-nosed, load-carrying donkeys. I had heard some of the kids in the neighborhood yell those names to Hassan.”
Khaled Hosseini’s the Kite Runner is a searing indictment of a rotten society. Hassan, his protagonist is an exemplar Hazara:
“Then one day, I was in Baba’s study, looking through his stuff, when I found one of my mother’s old history books…I blew the dust off it… In it, I read that my people, the Pashtuns, had persecuted and oppressed the Hazaras. It said the Hazaras had tried to rise against the Pashtuns in the nineteenth century, but the Pashtuns had “quelled them with unspeakable violence.” The book said that my people had killed the Hazaras, driven them from their lands, burned their homes, and sold their women. The book said part of the reason Pashtuns had oppressed the Hazaras was that Pashtuns were Sunni Muslims, while Hazaras were Shi’a. The book said a lot of things I didn’t know, things my teachers hadn’t mentioned. Things Baba hadn’t mentioned either.”
In winter of 1986 thirteen members of my family including my parents and grandfather were imprisoned, 8 months later my father and grandfather were executed. They were victims of a great purge instigated by the Marxist regime six years after the Soviet invasion in December 1979.
With the fall of the Marxist regime in Kabul a bloody civil war ensued. The family home was destroyed and we were made refugees. In autumn of my tenth year Kabul was taken over. Darkness descended on the city and all hope seemed gone. Being a Hazara, a Shi’a Muslim was no longer just a disadvantage, a hazard but a crime in itself.
We were sent to seek asylum. It was a journey to the unknown, I had no choice nor any idea where I would end up – it was the ultimate manifestation of my desperation- everytime an asylum seeker is made to disguise himself, gets strip-searched, locked-up and sent to a faraway camp he forfeits a piece of his dignity. Every time the Daily Mailqueries ‘why do we let in so many spongers?’ or the Mail on Sunday declares ‘ asylumseekers are a threat to our future’ he questions the wisdom of the choice made for him. But of course Britain has been a home for the persecuted, for those seeking sanctuary for centuries and this is what makes Britain great.