Persecution, Immigration, Discrimination and Hope

Ghazala Saeed

Published Fall 2020

When I was about 8 years old, I saw my father taking out some handmade catapults and marble balls while cleaning an old closet. I was very excited to see these interesting objects. I asked my dad, “Why do you have these? Do you know how to aim? Who taught you?” He said, “Dada Abu (grandfather) brought these home… to train us!” I was curious, “Train you for what?” He replied, “When they announced that they will attack our house, your Dada Abu brought a few things home for self-defense. He taught us how to use them if anything happens.” I was fascinated, “Wow! Can I play with these, will you teach me?” Dad smiled and said, “Yes, we’ll play upstairs.”

 Many years ago, my grandfather moved to a new house in Punjab, Pakistan. The new neighbors were very nice to each other. But not to him. One day, a lady in that neighborhood threw a heavy brick at my grandmother’s back; my grandmother got injured but she didn’t utter a word. Who was going to listen anyway? A few days later, the neighbors announced on a loudspeaker that they were going to attack my grandfather’s house—because of his faith—and they gathered around the house but thankfully they couldn’t enter. I was not born yet. Eight years later, after hearing these incidents from my father, I said, “Oh! That’s why mama never allows me and Amir (my brother) to play outside in our neighborhood.”

I am Ghazala Saeed. I belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at (Community). The members of my community are called Ahmadis. The motto of my community is “Love For All, Hatred For None.” It’s the 73rd Sect of Islam (out of the 73 sects) and the most persecuted one as well.

Twenty years ago, I was born in a big house in Pakistan where I had my aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents. I was the first child in my family and the most cherished one as well. When I was about 3 years old, my grandparents took refuge in Canada where they already had some friends and distant relatives. Most of my loving aunts and uncles emigrated from Pakistan one by one. I just couldn’t get why they had to go. But I realized the reason quite soon.

In school, I always kept two things in mind, “Study hard and don’t tell anyone that you are an Ahmadi,” because I saw what they did to Sadaf (my neighbor and a medical college student). She faced problems and received various threats at her residence because her class fellows found out that she’s an Ahmadi. I knew that some other students were beaten to death because they supported Ahmadis’ rights. I used to ask myself, “What if they find out that I am an Ahmadi?” Then, I would imagine myself being beaten to death at our school playground. “What would be my last words?” My religion is what has shaped my actions since childhood and hiding it was a pain for me. 

I also had my best friend Tooba immigrate to Sri Lanka. We lost connection for about 3 years. Then, one day, she just came in front of me in a Mosque in Canada. I asked, “Where have you been? I called you so many times. You never responded?” She answered, “My phone and other valuables were in the house that we had to leave.” I was confused, “What are you saying? Why did you have to leave?” She said, “Did you not get the news? I along with hundreds of other Ahmadis had to stay inside a mosque for several months for safety with limited space and resources, it was also far from our house, I and mama even got Asthma due to our living conditions.” I said, “Wait! What? I saw the news but I never knew that you were also a part of it. What was your fault though?” She looked into my eyes saying: “We are Ahmadis Ghazala!” With a grin-and-bear-it expression, I replied, “Oh, I see… say no more.”

There’s worse. It was May 28, 2010. My family and I were watching TV, when all of a sudden, I noticed that everyone was crying. Being a ten-year-old, I couldn’t understand anything. On the TV, all I could see was blood, corpses, broken windows, red walls, and dozens of graves. I slept. I couldn’t take it anymore. When I woke up a few hours later, I asked my mother, “Why were you all crying?” and she said, “Our mosques were attacked in Lahore [Pakistan]… Your uncles were there too; papa called one of them; a person picked up the phone and he said, ‘The person who was carrying this device has been martyred.’” I wanted to cry but I was showing my mom that I’m brave. 94 were killed and 120 others were injured. They killed the best friends of my dad. The martyred were his first cousins. One of them had a newborn child, and the other had a daughter and a son. A few weeks after this incident, my father went to visit his cousin’s children. The 6-year-old girl held my father’s face in her hands. My father and I watched each other with surprise. She lovingly rubbed her small hands on my father’s cheeks and said, “Papa had the same beard. It felt the same when I touched his cheeks.” I was tearful. I pondered, “Is there nothing I can do for her? To prevent terrorism?”

My father also suffered from persecution. Once, inside a mosque, he learnt that hundreds of men were coming to attack the mosque, he let everyone out yet he along with a friend had to stay inside to lock the mosque in order to protect it. My family and I were praying at home for my dad to return home safely. He came home, and I asked, “Papa, what happened there?” He said, “… the attackers called my name and said that if I handed myself over to them, they’ll go away from the mosque… I started praying and thank God the police arrived to handle them.”

 After this incident, my father decided that he’d also take refuge in Canada and then he’d call us there as well. He chose to go to Canada because my grandparents were already there and through them, he got to know about the diversity and the freedom of religion in Canada. He built an extra gate on the entrance of our house so we’d feel safer when he’d be away. My father left Pakistan in the hope to get a refuge on March 8, 2014. I know the date because I counted every day afterwards. I was more close to my dad than anyone else in my family. Whenever I saw my cousins and friends with their fathers, I used to cry a lot. But thank God, my family was able to come to Canada in August 2016. I turned 16 on the airplane, starting a new year of my life in Canada. The first thing I did was to grab a bicycle, go out on the street and feel the freedom, “Yes! I can play in my neighborhood!” However, I felt this quite early upon my arrival that many Canadians around me were afraid to hear the word “Muslim”. I remember going to my neighbors on the new year’s eve to give them some chocolates and a letter with warm greetings. I knocked at the door. The person was a bit hesitant to open the door upon seeing a woman with a hijab (head covering). He looked at my hands for a few seconds to make sure I’m not holding a weapon, watched me from head to toe and then opened the door slightly, “yes?” His mother came in from the kitchen, I handed the gifts to her and she said, “Oh! I was not expecting that!” I said to myself, “Why was she not expecting a gift from me? What kind of expectations does she have from me and why?” It was funny and sad. A person who has been persecuted in her birth country, and who is giving a gift to her neighbor is a terrorist? Poor terrorist. “So …” my mind jogged the whole night, “Will I still be discriminated against? What’s wrong with my neighbors? Ah! they probably confuse me with those illiterate persecutors back in my country, and they also probably confuse those persecutors with Islam. What if most of the people here think this way? I know that the Canadian law protects me but laws can be changed? Those Pakistani laws that once protected minorities were altered against us under the pressure of those Muslim scholars who call these new laws ‘religion’ but I (being a religious person) call it ‘psychopathy and extremism’. I don’t want Canadians to become like those so-called scholars in Pakistan. I don’t want us to hate each other. Well, I can’t make anyone, including myself, fall in love with terrorists, but at least I can clarify that the true Muslims can’t be terrorists, and if someone who is a terrorist calls himself a Muslim, he’s merely decieving everyone—probably himself too— but what can I do?” Since this speaking with myself, along with all my family members (who have always supported me in doing the right things), I have visited many houses; talked to many people; distributed around 2000 flyers door-to-door with the message of peace. I held “open-mosques” events and discussion booths to invite people to see that in these mosques, we are not taught how to hold a gun; we are taught how to behave nicely and fulfill the rights of our fellow human beings and worship God. I told everyone why I wear Hijab and that I was never forced to wear it. It’s my choice. I love Islam. It’s my choice. I am not persecuted by my religion but I was persecuted by the people who do not understand religion. I try my best to eradicate their misconceptions. I tell everyone that terrorists have no religion, they are just hijacking the name of Islam to fulfil their personal desires, and that I, being a true Muslim love all and hate none.

When will we learn to give love for love? When will we learn to treat others based on their habits and morals and not based upon their color, caste, creed and religion? I am trying my best and I will keep on doing it till my last breath. Even if no one listens, I will speak because I have hope. I won’t lose hope because the leader of my persecuted community, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad said, “Swords can win territories, but not hearts. Force can bend heads, but not minds.” The day we will learn to respect each other will be the day we can say, “We are free!”

“This work that I have submitted is my story of migration to Canada. I tried to explain what happened to me, my family and other members of my community back in my country and later on when we migrated to Canada. It’s about injustice, perceptions, discrimination. This work of mine tries to tell the reader about the difficulties minorities face because of misconceptions that people around them have. I try to eradicate some misconceptions and bust the myths.” — Ghazala Saeed

Saeed is in their 3rd year of Biomedical Sciences (Hons. Life Sciences). You can find Ghazala on Twitter at @Ghazala_S_.