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A Threatened Refuge

The immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks saw intimidation targeting Pakistani refugee families living in Negombo, forcing them to leave their homes. The culprits, they say, were organised gangs, and not anyone from their immediate neighbourhoods. Three days later, nearly 700 individuals from 80 families were accommodated at a temporary shelter in Pasyala.

The refugees are of the Ahmaddiya Muslim Community, a religious minority in Pakistan. In addition to their belief in the Prophet Mohammed, they also follow the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, believed to be a messiah whose coming the Prophet himself foretold. Under the Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, they are not recognised as Muslims. This amendment, along with Ordinance XX of the Penal Code of Pakistan, prohibits the practice of Islam, and the use of Islamic terms and titles for Ahmadi Muslims.

“If I say ‘Asalaamu alaykum’, I can be imprisoned in Pakistan for three years. If I use the phrase ‘bismillah rahmani rahim’, the same punishment. I am not allowed to pray the azaan. If I claim my belief in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, it is seen as an act against the Prophet Mohammed, and carries a life sentence. I could not be a Muslim in my own country.”

*Sayed, who has been in Sri Lanka for three years, insists that the violence in the wake of the attacks came not from their neighbours, but from organised gangs from outside. One day, as he travelled from the camp in Pasyala to his Negombo home, to bring over some possessions, he passed the burning remains of the riots in Minuwangoda. Stopping to converse with a man in the area, he had been told that in that instance too, all the people involved were from outside, travelling in buses and vans to destroy life and property in this area.

He notes that those who are able to make the journey out of Pakistan are just a fraction of the persecuted community. To leave the country by air costs money. Since refugees aren’t legally allowed to work in Sri Lanka, they need money to keep them afloat. This comes from either their own savings, relatives abroad who are financially stable, or from small aid groups. He and many others have paid their house owners rent for nearly a year, even though they are now staying in the camp indefinitely. They make the expensive and risky journey because there is no chance for a safe life for them in their own country.

‘We left Pakistan because there was always the danger that someone will destroy our property, our business, our lives. Now, we find ourselves in the same situation here as well.’
‘In Pakistan, people tried to harm us, kill us, and make our life hell. Though it was difficult for us to leave, and we missed all our friends, Sri Lanka gave us the freedom to worship, to go to the mosque, and to just live our lives without fearing violence. That all changed, literally overnight.’

*Shirin and her friends had finished an exhibition at the Ahmadiyya mosque in Negombo at 9pm on April 20. By 9am on April 21, she tells Groundviews, motioning with her hands, her world had turned upside down. On two occasions, groups tried to attack her house. The first were held at bay by their neighbours, and eventually left. The second pushed their way through, and tried to tear down their door. The men at the phone shop she used to visit when she still wore the niqab, who welcomed and helped her with her needs, could barely look at her when she walked in wearing a hijab, following the ban on wearing niqab and abaya imposed shortly after the attacks.

Shirin, now 23, used to spend her time in study and community groups organised by NGOs, talking to people and teaching younger children. Now, she and the rest of the women live in what they call a ‘happy prison’. They have each other’s company, the facilities where they are housed are adequate for their needs, but they still remain trapped.

‘I understand their pain, for those they lost in the attacks, all of us do. We have all lost loved ones in Pakistan - our loved ones have been shot in broad daylight. We want to condole with them. But they must know, that we had nothing to do with it. We left home once, and we don’t want to have to leave home again – nothing is permanent for us.’
‘In some cases, the owners of the houses where we used to live would throw our belongings out onto the road; they wanted us out so fast. They gave us ten or fifteen minutes to take what we needed. What can we take in that short amount of time?’

*Yusra says that as they arrived, with few possessions, they spent their days in quiet boredom, waiting for time to pass. She points at Aunty *Fareeda, and says that she started hand-stitching pillows and clothes just to pass the time. Soon, it caught on ‘like an illness’, and even the young ladies would spend hours sewing things. The whirring of sewing machines fills the hall – when the families went back to collect their belongings, they brought over the machines, to give them something to do.

When they returned for a day, their house owner had told them to come back. While they have been welcoming, they cannot vouch for the rest of the neighbourhood, and many owners advise the families to stay at the camp for their own protection.

‘We are here in the country only for a short time, but they live their whole lives here. If we go back, and their neighbours and friends get angry, there will be trouble for them. This country and its people have done so much for us, the last thing we want to do is cause trouble for them.’
‘It was hard during Ramadan especially. And on Eid…I never thought I would have to celebrate my festival like this.’

*Laila does not want to recall what the families at the camp did on Eid-ul-Fitr, as it upsets her too much. They used to be able to participate in all celebrations that took place in the community – church feasts, especially, were a highlight. They would look forward to the lights and the stalls, keeping an eye out for the new festival rides each year.

Their families, who still live in Pakistan, had told them to be careful, and not go to churches. They send videos, of the lights and sounds of the church feasts to tell them how close-knit their neighbourhoods are, and how welcoming Sri Lankans have been to them.

‘Near my house is a mosque, down the road is a temple and the church sits in front of all of this. I used to wonder how people from different faiths all lived like this together, each community worshipping at their own space and not interfering with the other’s routine.’
‘It is important for us to know what’s going on outside, so we use our phones to try and keep updated. When someone goes out, we get reloads and a few people will hotspot from them. Like yesterday, we were checking on the cricket match. Oh it was so upsetting, Pakistan lost to India!’

Yusra buries her face in her hands as she says this. Behind her, her friend is chuckling; she is an Indian, married to a Pakistani man, and the rest of the ladies laughingly scold her for being happy when they are all sad about the results. They had thought the rain would work in Pakistan's favour, but now claim 'God was helping India' through the rain.

Using a single computer that needs to be plugged into a power source to function, Yusra and the others fill in online forms for families sending their documents to embassies for processing. Despite knowing English well, she says she finds the 16-page forms difficult to understand; according to her, embassies use a kind of English that no one understands. While the laptop is saved for this official purpose, they use smart phones to keep in touch with family members and friends overseas. Some of them also use social media to stay in touch. The ladies are also extremely keen to know what is happening in the fallout to the attacks.

‘We heard about the riots, and that they are cracking down on Muslim people. It’s just that people don’t know. We are a peace-loving people, our community motto is ‘love for all, hatred for none’. We are so thankful for what Sri Lanka has given us in the last few years, it is heartbreaking to know that people think we are somehow connected to this.’
‘My sister was supposed to come to Sri Lanka on April 29th, her ticket from Pakistan was booked. She has cancelled it and is staying on now, what happens now if she comes here? Why should she have to come and live here, trapped with the rest of us?’

Shirin says the violence against the community after the attacks has had a two-fold effect on the refugee resettlement process. On the one hand, they believe the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office in Sri Lanka is expediting cases. On the other, family members who were hoping to come to Sri Lanka in order to move on, are now not able to make the trip out of fear, and the uncertainty the community is facing here. Her brother has gone onwards to America. She doesn’t get to see her father much because men and women stay in two different areas in the camp; to her, life feels incomplete.

‘We don’t want to ask for things, because things will break or get lost; the most important thing we need is safe migration onwards. We too are people with rights to health and education, and we want others to know we do not carry any violent thoughts to others.’
‘This space was not meant to hold this many people, but in the months since the attacks, several families have gone back. The camp is a little more liveable now; facilities and food can be shared more easily.’

*Milad counts that now the number living in the camp has reduced to 400. Some house owners have welcomed families back, and the families are slowly moving back into their daily lives. For those whose rent agreements are over, the camp is their only choice; renters are wary of letting their properties out to these families in new agreements. For families who lived close to the Katuwapitiya church in particular, house owners have clearly told them that they cannot return. Families that consist wholly of women have also been advised to stay in the camp. Nearly 70 families have been resettled to the USA or Canada so far.

A men's shelter; a man who worked as a professional cook while in Pakistan prepares the dinner meal; the medical tent, where medicines are distributed based on prescriptions from visiting doctors.

Food and shelter for the outdoor tents is being provided by the UNHCR. On a roster, groups of men prepare breakfast, dinner and a light lunch for those residing in the camp. The women make chapatis and other flatbreads to be eaten with curries and vegetables. Twice a week, a doctor visits to check up on the individuals, and medicine prescribed is distributed strictly on the doctor’s orders. On occasion, individuals are given a letter with which they can make a visit outside the camp – either to the hospital nearby, to attend appointments with doctors in Negombo that they’ve made previously, and to purchase small items from the stores.

Since the attacks, Milad says that the monthly assistance that he received from the UNHCR has been halved, on the basis that food and medication is being provided to them at the camp. He understands this in part, since the UNHCR is currently providing for asylum seekers at the camp as well, where they would usually be assisting only those who have been granted refugee status.

‘We can live like this for now, but as it is we are spending money from our own pockets for some expenses. It is their responsibility as an institution to provide for us while we are here, and also to make sure that we reach safe shores from here onwards.’

*Names have been changed in order to protect the individual's privacy.

None of the individuals, or the administrators of the camp, have an idea of when these families will be able to return home. The volatility in their neighbourhoods coupled with uncertainty in their resettlement process, means that they live one day at a time.

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