On a Saturday morning, 38-year-old Khalid Khattak is packing his luggage to move to Virginia in a last-ditch attempt to land a job appropriate to his skill set. A few months ago, Khattak was working as a recruiter in the human resource department of a large company and earning a decent salary. His wages covered personal expenses, including the rent for his two-bedroom, New York City apartment. After setting aside some savings, Khattak sent whatever was left over to his family living in Pakistan. Recently, however, Khattak’s company was hit by the economic recession and he was fired as part of a cost-cutting drive.
In his current predicament, Khattak resembles millions of immigrants – including American Pakistanis – who have lost their job. But unlike other immigrants who are choosing to return home to take advantage of a low cost of living while the recession rages on, Khattak finds that he is lacking in options. Originally from Peshawar, a city now ravaged by terrorist attacks, Khattak believes he would not be safe if he chose to return to his hometown.
In recent months, a number of Pakistani nationals who returned to Pakistan after working in America have faced threats and even been subjected to physical torture at the hands of the Taliban, who claim that people returning from the US are informers.
Last year, a Bronx resident, Bakht Bilind Khan, was kidnapped by Taliban militants while vacationing in Swat. Khan was held in captivity for two weeks, during which time he was interrogated about his work and life in America. He was eventually released after paying a US$ 8,000 ransom.
Khan’s kidnapping is not an anomaly. The Taliban have instructed residents of the Frontier province to stay away from people coming from America, even if those returning are native to the area and continue to have family residing there. ‘My friends were scared to be seen with me in public because of the Taliban’s diktat,’ explains Khattak. ‘That’s when I realised that the place where I was born is no longer safe for me.’
Khattak arrived in the US with his father in the 1990s, but quickly realised that it was easier to maintain his extended family – including his mother, younger siblings, wife, and children – in Pakistan. ‘I need US$ 600 per month to sustain my family in Pakistan, whereas in the US, I need US$ 2,500 just to meet my personal monthly expenses,’ he points out. When Khattak’s father passed away last year, making him the sole breadwinner for the family, he was glad that living in Pakistan remained an option for himself and his family.
In that context, realising that he could not return to Peshawar was a blow for Khattak, whose main investments have always been in Pakistan. ‘I sent a considerable part of my savings to Pakistan which were invested in immovable assets, including a large house. I believed that in the times of adversity [in the US] I would be able to depend on these assets. But this option is of little practical utility now,’ says Khattak.
While Khattak is forced to remain in the US for fear of the Taliban, Pashtuns in Pakistan are increasingly opting to migrate to America to ensure their safety. For example, 41-year-old Sahib Gul, a Pashtun music composer, arrived in New York last year to escape persecution.
‘I received a letter from a militant outfit that my hands will be cut off if I perform in public places,’ says Gul, an adherent to Sufism. Soon after receiving the letter, Gul, aided by some friends, managed to migrate to New York, taking only his musical instruments with him. He is now looking for employment: ‘I want a job which is sufficient for my survival so that I can pursue my passion for composing music.’
Meanwhile, the Pakistani authorities are at a loss for how to instill a sense of security in people like Gul and Khattak who are facing the wrath of extremists. ‘The majority of the people of North-West Frontier Province believe in moderation and secularism,’ says Senator Haji Adeel of the Awami National Party. He adds that the Taliban are trying to create a sense of insecurity among the people by attacking the liberal and secular spirit of the Pashtun community.
To better understand the predicament of Pakistan’s Pashtun population, one can turn to the songs of Haroon Bacha, a legendary Pashtun singer who left Pakistan last year after receiving threats from extremists. ‘My land is so beautiful and blessed. I wonder then why it has such bad luck,’ are the lyrics of one of his songs, which Bacha recently performed before a small gathering of Pashtuns in New York. His words were powerful enough to bring to tears to the eyes of many among the audience.
Luv Puri is a Fulbright fellow at New York University. He previously reported for The Hindu in Jammu and Kashmir. This essay originally appeared in Dawn as “No more homecomings.”