AS the power cuts off, light from a large window illuminates Luul Yusaf Ali’s one-room apartment in a narrow alley overlooking the Islamabad High Court. The neighbourhood isn’t exactly upscale, but Luul and her daughter Idil have made it a home.
Two mattresses and a water cooler are their most extravagant possessions; they were left to them by a widow. The rest of their belongings are arranged neatly to one side; a few clothes, a pink and black prayer mat, two copies of the Quran in Somali, some toiletries and Luul’s medicines.
Luul lost her 12-year-old son Abdullah Ali when the fighting broke out in their hometown of Mogadishu in 2008. After fleeing the conflict in her homeland in 2013, the mother came to Karachi in the employ of a Somali family, while the daughter followed later that same year. Luul used to clean the apartments of Somali students to earn a meagre living, but with her deteriorating health, that is no longer possible.
For them, getting away from Somalia has not meant escaping the oppression they faced back home. Both mother and daughter only step out of their house when their three Somali student flatmates are not at home. The 16-year-old Idil has faced harassment at their hands before and now, Luul does not let her daughter leave unaccompanied.
It is a hapless existence; there is no integration with their Pakistani surroundings. There is nothing for them to do so they stay indoors as much as possible.
Luul’s own condition is deteriorating. Speaking in Somali through Ahmed Mukhtar — an interpreter and agitator from the Somali community who has been in Pakistan for nearly 20 years — she narrates her painful road to where she is now. Beaten and robbed by the warring militias in Mogadishu and raped by a Somali man in Karachi, her only concern now is to keep her daughter safe.
It also appears that the socio-economic inequalities of Somali society have found their way to the back alleys of Islamabad; Luul says that most of the men who harass Somali women are from the ethnic majority clans in Somalia.
Mukhtar, 42, says that Somali women who live without the protection of a male relative face sexual harassment, mostly from Somali men — both refugees and students. “Some form of rape takes place,” he says and explains that some of the women give in to the men’s demands in exchange for food or money.
Even though the International Catholic Migration Commission — an organisation that works with UNHCR — gives refugees free medicine, Luul’s situation is dire. “I cannot take my medication because I have not eaten for over 24 hours now.”
This is hardly surprising. Without a source of income, she only has the Rs10,800 allowance afforded to her by the UN refugee agency. Of that, the room rent alone is Rs8,000.
In many cases, the allowance is discontinued by UNHCR. It is a cruel twist of fate that keeps many of these refugees from improving their living conditions. “Assessment officers look at what we are eating and look at the cleanliness of our bed linen and decide our fate. The cleaner the bed linen, the higher the chances of the allowance being discontinued,” says Mukhtar.
He says that Zakat from Pakistani businessmen could help the Somalis this Ramazan, but Luul is not as optimistic. As the power comes back, I see my interviewee’s face clearly for the first time. She quickly moves to wipe her cheeks; she has been silently sobbing the entire time.
When asked to comment on the plight of these refugees, UNHCR claimed that there was little to no donor interest in the Somalis. “Donors are focused on refugees who face life-threatening conditions. Somalis are in the ‘protracted refugee’ category and not a priority. Third-country resettlement [in their cases] is very strict as just one per cent cases out of all 55 million refugees in the world are allotted resettlement.”
Other than Afghans and about 400 Somalis, Pakistan also hosts nearly 150 refugees from Iran, Iraq and Chechnya. Refugee-friendly legislation may help them win more rights in Pakistan, but until then, they will always struggle to fit in and become integrated with Pakistani society.