Telling the Human Story, 15 June 2011
YANJIAO, China, June 15 (UNHCR) – Not many people can remember precisely what they were doing at 9:45 on Tuesday, March 1. Muhammmed Zakaria can: it was the first time in his life he was truly happy, the moment he got a phone call that transformed his life.
At the other end of the line was Severine Weber, UNHCR associate field officer in Beijing, telling the Pakistani refugee that seven long years of loneliness and despair were over and that he and four of his closest relatives were about to restart their lives in Canada.
As if in a dream, the 32-year-old bachelor walked back to the flat he shares with his parents and two younger sisters here, 45 km east of the Chinese capital, Beijing. When his mother opened the door, Zakaria burst into sobs and she feared that – for the fifth time – his resettlement application had been turned down.
Instead it was "happiness I had never had before, the biggest happiness in my life," Zakaria said before he and his family left last month for Toronto, Canada, where two married sisters live. "It's kind of a miracle."
Persecuted from childhood as a member of Pakistan's Ahmadi religious minority, Zakaria credited "first of all, God," and said his chance for a fresh start showed that "UNHCR's efforts and (our) prayers all came together."
In early 2004, Zakaria's family sent just him – the only son in a family with four daughters – to China after receiving death threats. He applied for asylum at UNHCR's Beijing office and received refugee status two months later.
Although China has acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees are unable to settle permanently here, so the usual solution is for them to be resettled in third countries, a process that can take years.
Zakaria was grateful to China for giving him a safe haven, but he says there were many despondent moments. A near brush with deportation – when he and nine others were saved by UNHCR intervention – left him traumatized for two years. Alone, cut off from his family and religious community, he felt alienated from Chinese people who, he said, do not really understand who refugees are.
An international Christian church eventually provided his entrée into Chinese society, offering him the opportunity to do volunteer work renovating an orphanage in Beijing. For a year and a half, this trained computer scientist did manual labour to make life better for Chinese babies and children.
He later volunteered at a Chinese kindergarten in Beijing. Zakaria taught English – he speaks five languages – and the children taught him Chinese, he says with a laugh. With his outgoing personality and fluent English, he became an informal leader for some 60 Ahmadi refugees living near the Chinese capital. He also volunteered as an interpreter and translator at UNHCR.
But after a lifetime of persecution, he did not always feel at ease in China. In 2008, UNHCR managed to find new homes abroad for a large number of refugees ahead of the Olympic Games. When Zakaria was not accepted by any country, he hit rock bottom and contemplated suicide.
"Think of how it feels," he said quietly. "All your friends are going for resettlement -
the ones who made me part of their family and served me nice food because they knew I had stomach problems. So I was all alone again. People who were here for 10 years got resettled, so why couldn't I go?"
But he wasn't alone – two other refugees, seeing he was suicidal, stayed by his side and nursed him through his lowest point. But his faith was shaken, and when family arrived in 2009, his father was horrified at the Zakaria he found.
"I sent my son here to be safe, not away from God," said his father. "I realized what he must have been through. We helped him build his belief again and are glad today he is back to his normal state."
The UN refugee agency believes that 1 Refugee Without Hope is Too Many. Zakaria was fortunate to have the support of his family and UNHCR's Weber. She took the unusual step of asking Canada to take a second look when she felt new facts had made his case for resettlement more convincing. "UNHCR's job is not only to protect refugees, but to give them a solution," she said. "That means the chance to live a normal life."
Zakaria is someone who particularly touched her: "He was born the same year as me. He is exactly two months younger, but has gone through so much more. It makes me think, why is he a refugee and I a UNHCR officer. Could it not be the reverse?"
As for Zakaria, he questioned why many host countries don't allow refugees to work when they have much to contribute and don't want to be a burden to anyone. "There are many refugees who have good skills and energies they can provide to the country," he said. He has proved it in China and now he is ready to prove it in Canada.
By Kitty McKinsey in Yanjiao, China