Afghans are being sent back “home”, some on barely a few days’ notice. Let’s make the details clear though: many of them are Afghans ethnically, but born and brought up in Pakistan. Just like a great many of us are ethnically Kashmiri, Pathan, Rajput, Mughal, so forth, but Pakistanis for generations through the same quirk of birth as these Afghani-Pakistanis. So why do we consider our belonging our birthright, but it doesn’t apply to the kids being forced to leave school and go to a country they know nothing of? Aren’t they as Pakistani as our children? Apparently not, because their parents or grandparents once fled a war-stricken Afghanistan to come to Pakistan.
It is a particularly strange and sad idiosyncrasy of our collective memory to be so black-and-white about the Afghans in Pakistan, considering our dual identity as refugees ourselves. As Muslims, we are aware of history, and know that it was because of the legendary compassion of the Ansar of Madina that the Prophet and his followers could escape the oppression of the Quraysh and finally find a safe haven outside of Makkah. Our second refugee experience is the Partition one. We are not unaware of the life-changing power that is the kindness of strangers. And yet here we are, taking a kind of vicious pleasure in sending the Afghans “back where they came from”.
This identical rhetoric is that of Donald Trump’s nauseating campaign for presidency in the United States these days. It is also the underpinning of the Brexit vote to leave the European Union. Send the brown people, the different people, the not-white people back where they came from. For the people who have been born and raised in a country that doesn’t share one’s ethnicity this is a particularly trenchant issue. It’s also just as simple. If someone told me to “go home”, I’d go to Lahore. That’s where I belong. It would be ridiculous to say home was the Kashmir of my ancestors, or Delhi, or wherever else one may have had family once. For the Afghan-descent Pakistani middle-schooler born and raised in Peshawar, it is equally ridiculous to be told Home is Kabul. It might have been for their parents or grandparents, but for these children Peshawar is all they have ever known.
But we don’t seem to remember that. We don’t recognise ourselves in these weeping children, taking school-leaving certificates from their institutions so they have something to show for an entire life spent here. So many of us flock to England, Canada, the United States to have babies so they can be foreign citizens. That is the privilege these countries afford to children born in their territory, the importance they give to babies who first know life on their soil. It’s a privilege we want to arrest for our children, a legal allowance we feel entitled to because we can afford it and our children’s bright futures seem to need this added boost of success. But it’s a privilege we are too mean to extend to the children born on Pakistani land. The children whose parents actually want them to be Pakistani, to whom being Pakistani is that step up in the world we crave for our children. No, those children aren’t allowed. Those parents don’t count or matter, because they are Afghans and we lump all of them together into the same gun-smuggling, drug-selling category. The irony is that when Americans do the exact same thing to us, we feel really insulted and indignant but can’t seem to extend the courtesy we think we deserve to other people either.
Nobody leaves their home and hearth as flippantly as we think they do. No Afghan left their country because they wanted to migrate to a better future. They did it because they were driven out by bombs, by missiles, by jets that flew low and strafed entire villages dead. They left for the same reasons Syrians are fleeing—because drowning or arrest seems better than dying under the rubble of your collapsed house, clutching your babies to you because you have no other way of protecting them. The refugee is the living representation of every person’s worst nightmare: that state of utter desperation and helplessness, the rock bottom of humanity, the embodiment of how cruel and beastly humans are to each other.
And here we are, in our comfortable homes with our full bellies and our children tucked safe in their beds. Here we are, so sorry for Aleppo but tutting over the nasty Afghans who brought all kinds of nastiness to our country. Isn’t it terrible, we cluck to each other, shaking our resigned heads. But that’s just the way it is, you have to go back where you belong, don’t you. That’s the law of the land. Never mind that ‘back’ no longer exists. Never mind that ‘home’ is now a blasted plain where no homes stand or crops grow. Never mind that you have a green CNIC, computerised. Never mind that you were born in Pakistan. Our empathy is only for the Syrians, our disdain only for All The Other Countries who won’t let them in for the same reasons you want the Afghans out. Why call anyone else heartless when you’re doing such a good job of it yourself?