Guest columnist Laleena Salar

“Voice of Pakistan: the issue of equality”

APRRN member, Laleena Salar from Children and Women Trust- Pakistan, writes about her personal encounter with a refugee boy struggling to provide for his family and she calls on us to push for equality and dignity for refugees around the world.

Refugees are living in a difficult state all around the world, struggling with their identity and their rights. Having to live with the label of ‘refugee’ for the rest of their lives demands a state of courage.

Refugees have been living in Pakistan for decades. Never have they been as ostracized as after the wave of terrorism that hit the country in 2009.  Only after these horrible events did a thin line appear, separating refugees from Pakistani-nationals. Refugees started to be treated like ‘the other.’

The places where most of the Afghani refugees live in Pakistan are in terrible condition. Particularly in Abbottabad, they live in congested camps with no access to electricity, clean water or a drainage system.

While visiting one of the refugee camps in Abbottabad, I came across a child named Ahmed. What struck me about Ahmed was that instead of school bag on his back, he was wearing a huge white plastic container; instead of a hot lunch in his bag, he was collecting leftovers from the garbage bins. When his electric blue eyes caught me standing there, he smiled shyly and came towards me with the hope that I had something to offer him. My conversation with Ahmed revealed that he was the eldest son in his family and he had the responsibility of taking care of his mother and his younger siblings after his father had died of lung cancer. Ahmed said to me:

“I wanted to be a doctor, like the ones who wear white coats, but if I study I cannot earn for my family. So I chose to work, because work, unlike school, can fill our stomach”

There are millions of Ahmeds out there, who sacrifice their ambitions and their dreams simply because they need to support their families. All of this happens because refugees in particular do not have access to sustainable livelihoods, not only Pakistan but also at the global level. As a result, refugee parents are compelled to send their children to work where they get exploited and are not even paid fairly.  Unfortunately the issue lacks awareness in terms of its prioritization.

As a human, now is the time to think beyond our geographical boundaries. Instead of viewing refugees as ‘the other’ because they were forced to leave their country of origin and seek asylum, we need to recall that it is not their choice to be a refugee. The next step will be treating refugees as equal to ordinary citizens. Once equality between refugees and the ordinary citizen is established, it will be a lot easier to work for refugee rights and address their issues.

Laleena Salar

Program Coordinator

Children and Women Trust, Pakistan

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