With my small local Islamabad team: Mohammad Nazar and Abdul Qayum
I arrived back in Pakistan in April 1988, nine months after leaving. I was now a junior professional officer (JPO) in UNHCR with responsibility for managing the resettlement in third countries of all non-Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
I didn’t have time to think about it then but have since often marvelled that I was given such responsibility without any training or preparation. On the first day I was literally shown my office, introduced to my small local team and told to ‘get on with it’. A week later I was instructed to fly to a small desert police lockup near the Iranian border to interview and ‘assess the suitability for resettlement’ of a large group of Iraqi and Iranian male asylum seekers.
In an instant, a realization as startling as winter lightning flashed across my mind. I had been given immense institutional authority over the circumstances of other human beings. It was indirect authority in that I could only recommend to the Pakistani authorities and my bosses in Islamabad what I believed should happen to the group but it was significant and real power nonetheless. The men were mostly draft dodgers fleeing the charnel battlefronts of Saddam and Khomeini whose war, now in its 8th year, seemed to be without end. If I decided (after interviewing them) they were genuine refugees the Pakistanis would allow them to proceed to Islamabad and then overseas. If I decided they were not refugees, they would be involuntarily returned to Iran where their Fate, while not certain death, would certainly be less than pleasant.
I felt like a character in a Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene novel: freshly arrived, young and completely at sea as to what to do with those who sought his advice.
On what basis was I to make these decisions? I had been driving a taxi 3 weeks earlier. I had had no exposure or training in refugee law or even the procedures of ‘status determination’. In my book they all deserved a brighter future and safety. I knew I was to determine whether they had a ‘well founded fear of persecution’ in their country of origin. But knowing nothing of Iraq or Iran, how was I to know whether what they told me was realistic or complete horseshit?
My interpreter, a Pakistani who had grown up in Egypt, had been in the job for a few years and had heard thousands of asylum stories. If something sounded particularly outlandish to me I would confer with him, or he would whisper in my ear something that would help me make a decision. In the end I told the Police they were all refugees and should be transported to our care in Islamabad. Over the next several months I got to know many of the men quite closely as I prepared their cases for immigration to Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Norway or Sweden.
The impression this dramatic experience had on me in the very first days of my job was immense. It would continue to unsettle me throughout the first several years of my career. The notion that I, a young American could hold positions of considerable decision-making authority and responsibility over large numbers of people, be they refugees in camps, individuals seeking resettlement or communities coming out of a civil war, struck me as absurd.
The absurdity resided in several places. In my incompetence to be making decisions about complex issues such as community dynamics of which I knew next to nothing. In my privilege as an educated Westerner who never had to truly live the lives of the people I was supposedly giving expert advice to. In the willingness of people to trust what I said. At times the very advice I was giving struck me as absurd. I was mouthing instructions or directives from others. Was this advice truly in the best interests of refugees?
Back in Islamabad, though, I grabbed my new job with both hands. Along with feelings of personal inadequacy I was deeply grateful for the opportunity I had been given to meet refugees, to learn how to advocate on their behalf, to learn about the modern political histories of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, to share time with the victims of severe human rights abuse, to be part of the global UN system and to appreciate how national politics and self interest drives international relations at every level, even at the very low rung upon which I found myself.
Although Pakistan hosted 3 million Afghan refugees in the 80s, refugees from other countries in the region were not so welcome. Unlike Afghans who were allowed to stay as long as they wanted and needed to, the Iranians Iraqis, Somalis and others had to be resettled outside of Pakistan as quickly as possible. It was my job to manage this process.
This was done in an interview situation where I asked questions and tried to poke holes in their stories, and they, equally adept, tried to keep the ball spinning in their direction. Not that every story was a con. Indeed, very few were absolute fabrications. Rather, in their desperation to make it to the West they embellished their tales or overemphasized certain aspects of it, to make them as compelling as possible to the Immigration Missions that visited Islamabad regularly to select refugees for permanent resettlement.
Being a young single man with a liberal heart my natural tendency was to help as many as I could. I imagined what I would feel if I found myself in the Middle East trying to persuade bureaucrats who did not understand my language that my case for not being returned to my fucked up country was worthy of consideration. Would I not want to have a sympathetic ear in the system? A person who actually used the rules to help me rather than to keep me out?
That’s how I imagined myself in those days. A genuine ‘do-gooder’, using his new found ‘power’ to advocate for people who found themselves in a heap of trouble and in desperate need of a solution. This self-identity didn’t last much longer than a year or two. In fact, when I left the UN, several years down the track, it ceased almost overnight. The reason for that is in Islamabad I worked face to face every day with the people I was charged to assist. Yes, I had a large office and assistants who brought me tea and other delights at every genuflection, but for several hours a day each day I sat in a small room with an interpreter and heard the life stories of hundreds of refugees. I witnessed their fear, their bravado, their anxiety, their joys and their hopes. They saw me (very unrealistically) as their saviour and many of them poured their hearts out to me each time we talked. As my career progressed and I moved further and further back from the front lines of assistance my sense of ‘doing good’ quickly died.
I never worked as hard again in my career as I did in that first job. After the interviews, each evening I turned my hand to presenting their stories of escape in two or three tight paragraphs on a standard resettlement form which was circulated by our HQ to interested embassies and countries. Depending on the information in those paragraphs visas would be granted or denied.
I had always enjoyed writing but this was a new challenge. Short, to the point, factual, descriptive, pushing the truth as far as you could take it while highlighting the humanitarian case for resettlement all within 2-300 hundred words. It was hard yakka. It became extremely tedious after a few months but I took pride in my work and I was good at it. Our numbers of cases successfully resettled increased and my bosses allowed me to start two or three new programs for vulnerable groups, especially Iraqi Kurds.
I simply loved this time. I worked hard and long hours during the week and on the weekends drove around Islamabad, Kashmir and Peshawar enjoying the country I had so fallen in love with a year previously. My photography took its first major leap forward; as I walked through the bazaars of Pindi with my cameras my eye began to develop a particular and unique way of seeing. I woke early every weekend morning to spend 3 hours taking pictures and repeated the same exercise each evening.
As much as I loved my job there was no question as to what my real passion was or where my real focus lay: photography and Pakistani popular culture. About a month after arriving in Islamabad I was riding in a taxi. The spring air was warm and the sky darkening with dusk. I was overwhelmed with the most profound sense of gratitude and freedom. I rolled down the window stuck half my body out and screamed, ‘Thank you!’ to the Universe. I had found a way to get back to South Asia, my spiritual homeland. The UN job was simply the icing on the cake.