From Jhelum runaway to Paris millionaire
In March of 1983, seventeen year old Amjad Aziz Malvy was smuggled on a plane from Islamabad to Istanbul with a counterfeit passport, some stolen money and a broken heart.
The boy from Jhelum arrived in freezing Paris with nowhere to go, and spent his first night in the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery where some of the world’s most notable personalities, like Frederic Chopin, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison are buried.
“For a scared, homeless boy on that cold first night, I had fine company,” he laughs.
At 51, he is lean and athletic and carries around a professional camera, which lies on the table next to him. Dressed in casual jeans and a black jacket, he sits in one corner of the swanky, dark restaurant he owns in a fashionable Parisian neighbourhood.
It is hard to tell at first that soft spoken Aziz is the owner of the posh French establishment with its chic green-house club vibe. He keeps his head bowed as he speaks, he refers humbly to his fortune as the work of God, and to the people around him as “sir.” But as we speak, guests dressed in black tie wave at him from their tables, and he is keeping a keen eye around him.
“My story starts with love, of course,” he says.
Back in 1983, forbidden to meet the girl he was in love with because of familial differences, then sixteen year old Amjad Aziz had a chance meeting that changed his life.
In the depths of despair, he met Rahman, a local man from his village who had migrated to Germany and returned for a visit. He captivated Aziz with his stories about Europe.
“He took out a little piece of plastic and said he could get cash out at any time of the day or night using this card,” Aziz says.
In Jhelum, where the local bank often ran out of cash by noon, the idea of an ATM card was revolutionary. But for Aziz, there were more pressing questions.
“In Germany,” he asked, “can people marry just for love?”
When he got the answer he wanted, he made up his mind. He was going to go to Germany, to this strange foreign land where people could love freely and marry whoever they wanted.
At the time, Aziz’s father was an army officer stationed in Libya under Colonel Gaddafi. Not long after his meeting with Rahman, his father sent home a letter and bank draft with his life’s savings to begin construction of a house in the city. As the eldest and most literate son, Aziz read the letter out loud to his mother but left out the part about the money.
The next day, he cashed the draft. It amounted to eighty thousand rupees, (approx. $800). A small fortune at the time.
Cash in hand, Aziz returned to Rahman and begged him to find a way to get him to Frankfurt. The arrangements were made, the payments sorted, and a few weeks later, without a word to his family, Aziz was standing hidden in a corner at Islamabad’s international airport, waiting to be snuck on a plane to Turkey.
“It was a late night flight,” he remembers. “I stood there in the dark for two hours, terrified, waiting for the airport official I had paid to come get me.”
But the first leg of his journey passed smoothly. He got off at Istanbul, and made it to his hotel where he realised that crossing into Europe wasn’t going to be easy. There were hoards of other hopeful immigrants at the small hotel where he was staying, some who had been waiting in vain for years to get visas and reach Germany. He also discovered he did not have enough money left to buy the next plane ticket onwards to Frankfurt.
Instead, there was a special promotion on a one way ticket to Paris. He went for it, fake passport and visa in hand. It was worth a shot.
When the immigration officer at Charles De Gaulle Airport checked Aziz’s passport, the badly glued photograph fell off. He was caught and locked up in an airport room while his deportation papers were prepared.
“I don’t know how long I was in that room,” Aziz says. “It could have been hours. I was terrified. What was going to happen to me?”
When the senior deportation officer came in to sign off on his paperwork, he paused and looked at Aziz.
“He saw me, may be for two seconds,” Aziz says. “Maybe he already knew something about me. Maybe he just took pity on a scared boy. He didn’t say anything. He just gave me my passport back and let me enter France.”
“I went looking for him later but he had died. Even now, every morning when I open my eyes, I see that man’s face. Every time I create a new job for someone, I think of his kindness.”
Today, as the owner and CEO of France’s second largest organic products company, Bio Monde, with 192 stores across the country and an annual turnover of over $350 million, alongside high end restaurants in Paris, Dubai and Marrakech, Aziz employs over three thousand people.
He reminisces often about the past. Having spent his last 100 francs on a taxi ride into the city, Aziz was homeless. He slept under bridges, in abandoned cars, in parks and cemeteries, hiding from wandering policemen. He approached people who looked Pakistani, asking about odd jobs around the city to earn enough to survive.
He spent late nights working in kitchens, drove buses and trucks, eventually took night classes, and finally set up a small organic vegetable stall outside a supermarket. This was the beginning of the company that would change his destiny.
“The money doesn’t have worth for me,” Aziz says. “The only thing I’m proud of is my siblings’ education. My brother is a PhD micro-biologist from Oxford University. My other brother and sister are PhD’s too. We come from a village where no woman had graduated school for miles, and the only working phone was at the closest international airport.”
He delves into tales about the past, still visibly moved by the irony of his own story. The young man who once hid from street policemen was now greeted in public by France’s first policeman and later President, Nicolas Sarkozy. He is now singled out by the country’s presidents and ambassadors, and invited to exclusive gatherings at the presidential palace.
“Some time ago, I was invited to an ambassador’s residence for a private concert,” Aziz reminisces. “When dinner was served, something about their kitchen door swinging was really bothering me. It took me a few minutes to realise I’d worked in that kitchen thirty years ago. It was right after I’d arrived in Paris, and somebody said kitchen help was needed at a big party.” Aziz pauses to breathe and fumbles with his hands.
“I’d lived life on the other side of that door. I had to excuse myself from the party after that. I don’t know why,” he says. “I just lost my appetite.”