Taking chances

Unhcr friends

Chancers one and all: Myself with a colleague and two refugees including Sadat

There are particular phases or even ‘eras’ in a person’s life which stand out more prominently than the rest. They can be identified without any hesitation and usually prepare you for the next phase.  The  years I spent in Pakistan (September ’86- June ’91) were among the richest I’ve ever experienced. I did not need to gain much distance to realize this. In fact, it was an era when I was acutely conscious that I had found ‘my place’ on this earth. My attachment to India faded drastically. It no longer fascinated me, or at least much less  then before I arrived in Pakistan.  Everything about Pakistani culture appeared endlessly fascinating be it the politics, the music, the language, or the landscape.

I never lost sight of the fact that I was fortunate to be employed by the UN though I still dared not think this would be my career. I hoped it would be because I loved the car and the salary but to the extent I thought about it, I labelled myself a chancer. Someone making use of the circumstances he found himself in to propel himself forward towards an ambiguous destination.

And I found myself working every day with hundreds of other chancers: the refugees. These were people who had gambled heavily on the notion that things could be better for themselves in another country. The notion that they stood to gain more by uprooting themselves completely and, often, dangerously from their homelands to seek a new one. They were taking a huge chance.

Some did so with their wives and children and even their in-laws.  Most came alone and most were men right about my age.  Though the nature and risk of my chance was minor compared to theirs I considered myself a kindred spirit. Several experiences from my childhood in India when I found myself alone, the only white kid for hundreds of kilometers around with no money and only my wits to guide me allowed me to empathize with them.  As did the feeling of being stuck which almost every one of them felt.  Their resettlement abroad was by no means guaranteed yet they were unable to return home without facing serious, perhaps fatal, consequences.

I tried to be ‘firm’ and ‘official’ because that was my responsibility but among my colleagues and soon among the refugees Mr Rabe was known as a soft touch.

A number of refugees became quite close to me. I’ll tell you a bit about just two.

One was Iraqi. He was a Christian named Hani. As a boy and teenager he’d spent several years in Detroit before being shipped back to Iraq in 1980.  He found work as dealer in a grand casino/resort in northern Iraq and had an European girlfriend. But eventually he was drafted and sent to the front to fight the Iranians. He was assigned to a tank battalion. He freaked out. Up to this point his life had been one of relative privilege and the toughest thing he’d had to do was figure out the chords on his guitar. He loved Dire Straits.  When a chance presented itself for him to escape Iraq he grabbed it and wth the help of smugglers made his way into Iran and eventually found himself being interviewed by me in Islamabad.

His was a classic ‘draft dodger’ case. He did not qualify as a refugee per se because avoiding national service is not a well founded fear of persecution under the Refugee Convention. But by virtue of him having illegally departed Iraq and illegally entered and exited Iran and illegally entered Pakistan, he was granted refugee status on humanitarian grounds.

I loved Dire Straits and the traces of  Hani’s midwestern accent connected with me. I went out of my way to ensure he met and was interviewed by every visiting European mission even though he clearly did not meet their criteria. He was routinely rejected and over the months sunk into depression. I visited him once or twice in one of the city’s gardens where he slept rough under a thin blanket. We gave him a bit of cash to buy food but then he would disappear for weeks. He obviously was taking drugs to cope.

Each time we met he pleaded for me to get him out of Pakistan. He grew thinner and his eyes sunk deep into this face.  At last we got him a visa and offer of resettlement in a Scandinavian country on medical (mental health) grounds.  I was so pleased for him and felt a great burden lift from my shoulders.

Several months later I was informed that upon arrival in his new home he tried to rape an immigration officer in her office.  A few weeks later he went beserk, took several government workers hostage and was finally captured by a Swat operation that included helicopters.  The country that had accepted him informed the UN they would be thinking long and hard about accepting any further cases from Islamabad.

I felt guilty. I had run his case.  I was  terribly shaken by what Hani allegedly did because that was so unlike the easy going guy I knew. But it did confirm to me how horrific an experience taking a chance that doesn’t work out can be.  His long months in Pakistan took a terrible toll on his psyche which completely flipped when he arrived in Europe. I wonder from time to time if he has recovered or if he ended up in long term jail.

Sadat was from Iran. He had been radicalized into leftist politics in the tumultuous years of the Revolution.  in 1981 at the age of 21 he was arrested and imprisoned in Evin Prison in Tehran. He was physically tortured for some time and in 1988 after the Iranians surrendered to Iraq he (along with thousands of others) was released from prison. Within a few weeks he was in Islamabad.  Unlike Hani, his case was rock solid. He had evidence of his claims, was clearly politically educated and we were able to find him a place (again in Scandinavia) within a few weeks.

Before he left he told me he wanted to meet me outside the office. This was not allowed but me being me I agreed. He came to my house one Saturday evening with two others who acted as interpreters. “I have always hated Americans,” he said. “You are the enemy I was taught to revile. But you have helped me so much I would like to ask you to be my friend.”

I was deeply touched.

He then proceeded to tell me his story. I didn’t ask to hear it but it was as if he had to confess to someone, to validate his missing years and to explain to himself why he had done what he’d done and how his life had turned out the way it had.

Over the next few meetings I got a detailed description of his life filled with political analysis and commentary. It was absolutely fascinating and something I will never forget.

A couple chapters back I mentioned pieces of string and seeds that grow. This story of Sadat’s (complimented by 100s of others) got me thinking about ‘what goes on inside a torturer’s mind’?  It was a morbid but essential thing for me to figure out.  I ruminated on that idea for years to come. It was a seed.

In 2000, my first novel, The Book of Accounts was published. I had a book launch in London at which many Iraqi dissidents and the UNHCR participated. The book was nominated for two awards and I had a big signing in Piccadilly Circus at Watersons Books.  It was a heady time for me because at last I could see my writing life getting some wings.

The question the book tried to answer was “What goes on inside the mind of a torturer”. The seed had been planted by Sadat and that particular piece of string proved to be 12 years long!

Sadat’s chance turned out to be successful. He arrived in Europe and a few months later his mother sent me a lovely Diwan of Hafiz in three different languages, as a token of her appreciation.  I still have it on my bookshelf.

Though Hani and Sadat had different endings to their stories I connected with both of them.I felt they both gave me something of themselves and for a brief moment they were more than ‘clients’ or ‘cases’.  It was in Islamabad with the UN in that job where I met people like these guys day in and day out, and where I could directly help or try to assist them, that I was the happiest in my career.  This direct connection with people is what makes this sector so powerfully attractive to people. Once my time in Islamabad was up I was determined to continue on the ‘aid worker’ path. My aid career officially began after that.

But it wasn’t too long before I realized the best days were already behind me.




  1. justine · December 18, 2015

    As a newbie aid worker I love reading your blog! It really gives me food for thought so far and i’m looking forward to reading the next article 🙂


  2. David Moore · December 20, 2015

    Having grown up in SE Asia, I confronted the fork in my road – either return to an international/aid/ foreign service (I was even recruited by the CIA) life or make my way in the U.S. which was then a foreign country to me. I chose the latter with some moderate success but have often looked back and wondered “what if?” Your blog is fascinating realism from that perspective. Thanks.


    • Mr Harmonium · December 20, 2015

      Hi Dave, just friended you on FB. So you had a career in the international world? Why did you choose to give it up? Totally understand your comment tvs home is a foreign land to many of us.


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