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From businessman to refugee: one man's heartbreaking story

Hikmat Shah and Asylum Seeker Centre Director Prabha Gulati

Hikmat Shah was just doing what any normal father would, taking his daughter – almost 4 – to school. He had her backpack in one hand, and her hand in the other. By his own admission, he was still half asleep.

That made it hard to see the men. One was crouched behind his car in the front yard of his Karachi (Pakistan) house and the other hidden behind a pillar waiting on a motorbike to make a quick getaway.

There were five bullets that struck Hikmat in a strafing pattern across his chest. One passed just millimetres by his heart, tearing into his spleen, liver, stomach and lower intestine due to the angle from which it had been fired.

After the threats and the unreasonable demands, the Taliban had finally come for Hikmat Shah.

It felt like burning, he said.

I sat down with Hikmat to talk about the Taliban, the attacks and finally claiming asylum in Australia. He was a wealthy businessman who made $AUD200,000 a year acting as a marketer for traditional Pakistani artisans. But not even he could be protected.

Q: Your life began to unravel when your uncle joined the Taliban?

A: Back in 2003, after America invaded Afghanistan the Taliban fled to Pakistan. My Uncle sheltered many of those Taliban. He was already a political figure. He had a big a mansion over a few acres, he sheltered them and then he joined them. He used them for his own personal strength.

First he harassed the local people. They had to, they had to subdue [sic] to him. You can’t stand to a gun saying you won’t. They say ‘you are either with us, or you’re not’.

Q: What were they doing?

A: They would ask them for donation. Small amount and then every month and every week. Then they started kidnapping rich people and ask for ransom and just threaten them.

My Uncle asked me at the beginning and I thought he was just my Uncle and I did transfer money. But then he asked me to change my lifestyle, like keep the long beard and change my uniform. I had never done that … since I lived in the city where I was born, Karachi. I loved my suits and ties and, you know, my company was a member of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce. I used to travel aboard, it was an international city. And my wife did not wear the hijab. That was one of the issues. Number three, my children went to one of the top English schools in Pakistan.

He said my family was too western, they threatened to kidnap my kids and murder them. I had three kids. My daughter was 3.5 when I was shot.

Q: Tell me about that day. What happened?

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A: In 2004, one was hiding behind pillar on motor bike and the other was behind my car. He just took a gun out and just started shooting me. Four bullets were shot into my chest. I pulled my daughter behind my back. In this hand I was carrying her school bag and in this hand I had her hand. This was at 7.20 in the morning, I was taking her to school!

I was half asleep. The bullets went here, here, here and here. [Hikmat motions across chest to where bullets struck]. If this one had gone straight it would have pierced my heart but it diverted and damaged my spleen, liver, stomach and small intestines. Blood started oozing out of my body as water comes out of the tap. I tried to catch him, but I couldn’t. I, you know, I was just speechless.

There were very few people in the morning. A friend of mine had just come downstairs and he said ‘what happened’ and then he saw the blood and he said ‘don’t worry, I take you to hospital’. I tried to grab the gentlemen – I can’t use harsh words – but he was was faster than me on the motorbike. They just fled.

I was operated on for four hours. The pain, it was as if I had been thrown into the fire. Fire.

That was the first time I was shot. It happened again.

They were still threatening me. They had demanded $60,000 almost which I refused to pay because I had paid them so much, you know, I had given what I could. You pay $10,000 and then they say ‘oh, we’ve got another meeting coming up and we have to do this and do that’. I was nearly bankrupt.

Q: But they wouldn’t stop, would they?

A: In 2009, I was shot again. They were after me and I was fleeing from place to place. I changed my residence. I stopped going to the office, was running it over the phone but it was so hard. I had moved to eight places. Most of the time I was taking trips.

I stopped driving a car because I was visible. I bought a motorbike so I could wear a helmet and no be seen.

I had a meeting in Karachi in one of the suburbs. After the meeting, as I was heading on to the main road, someone just shot me. I heard some bullets being shot but I didn’t know it was me being targeted. But after a while I saw blood coming out … I was wearing a white shirt. It got red. Then I rode my bike as fast as I could. I almost had an accident with a truck, so, I put it on to the footpath and then I rode as fast as I could … when it comes to your life, you run for your life. This was like a movie scene, you know?

I couldn’t bend very far, but I found my phone and I dialled my wife and I told her what had happened. She was already so frightened. She had terrible life. She couldn’t go freely anywhere. She told me to go to the hospital however I could. People in a Pakistan, they get so frightened, they don’t want to get involved. But I must thank a gentleman, he was so good, he put me in his car and took me to hospital.

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Q: Was that it, for you? Is that when you decided to leave Pakistan?

I was fighting back against the Taliban. I was writing to the Prime Minister, to the police and to other departments. I wanted my Uncle and others behind bars. I wasn’t giving up. I didn’t want to leave Pakistan. I didn’t want to be a coward. I didn’t want to be a refugee. I had my roots over there, my established business, I had my honour.

But my mother asked me: “You survived that time, you survived this time. You may not survive again.”

In 2008 my Uncle killed his own eldest brother even. You get brainwashed, you know? He couldn’t pay it. When he went back to the village to attend his grandson’s wedding he was shot. 16 bullets throughout his body and he died instantly. He did it on the day of the wedding.

My cousins were so afraid, so frightened. They didn’t want to go to the police. But I did. They still demanded money from my cousin. I stopped him. I said, they already killed your father, they want you to pay the money.

I didn’t decide to go then and there. The police are so corrupt, you know. I went to the military. They said it would cost them $1000 to investigate so I paid them. So I had to pay them. I don’t know whether they sent the people after them or not. What they say in English? Fry pan into the fire, you know? I wasn’t getting very far.

I came to Australia in 2010. I sold two cars. One car I purchased tickets, with the other car money we had it in our pockets to live. I applied for a Business Visa. I had a British Visa but it was my family whose Visas had expired. If we had applied for their visas it would have taken six months or more because the British embassy was not operating in Pakistan. The closest one was in the United Arab Emirates.

I had no option but to choose Australia. After they found out I was stopping my cousin paying, everything speeded up. They wanted me alive or dead, you know?

When I arrived here, I was still thinking whether I should stay here or go back. I had a three month stay. Just before my arrival I had sent application to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. I was hoping there would be arrests. I waited for 1.5 months in Australia but then I realise they were still at large and they said if I came back they wouldn’t let me take a second step out of the airport.

My wife said we should apply for asylum, but I said the Australian embassy did not expect me to do this, I told them I was coming here for business … it felt like a breach of trust, you know?

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Q: And that’s where the Asylum Seeker Centre found you, is that right?

A: The Asylum Seeker Centre has been a great help. I ran out of that money. I had no source of income so I came to the ASC and they directed me to go to the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme. They helped me so much. They brought about a revolution, I think, in my life.

I’m happy here, but still I miss my home. It’s my memories. I do miss it.

I’m against nobody. I’m not a political figure. I’m not interested. I love Australia, it’s such a good country. I respect all religions. I studied the Bible, Judaism I respect, Islam I respect. My understanding is that all Abrahamic religions teach you to do good and be good. It’s not the religion that says go out and kill people. I’ve got nothing against that.

Hikmat will be the guest speaker at the 10th annual Asylum Seekers Centre Trivia Night. The night kicks off at 7pm on May 18 at the North Sydney Leagues Club in Cammeray. All funds go to the Centre. You can book here.

The Asylum Seekers Centre, based in Surry Hills, Sydney, helps asylum seekers whose claims are still being processed gain access to whatever assistance they can. Many have no money, more than 40 per cent are homeless, and some are not allowed to work. None are allowed access to Australian Government allowances until refugee status has been granted.

They exist mainly in limbo.

The Centre deals mostly with asylum seekers who have arrived by plane. These are usually people fleeing individual persecution as opposed to war or other adversity. They are usually political refugees, in danger for speaking out against rules or customes in oppressive countries and as such tend to be professionals with the means to buy a plane ticket. The Centre helps asylum seekers find work, gain access to health check-ups (usually volunteered by doctors and medical staff) and provides healthy lunches daily, cooked by a roster of volunteers.

Director Prabha Gulati told me:

“We work with the most vulnerable people in Australia. Asylum seekers are the only people here who have no safety net. They are coming here because they know that Australia has a strong commitment to human rights. They come here seeking protection. In that, in that process they are left very vulnerable. The need is to make sure people have their rights respected and are able to live with dignity while they’re here.”

The Centre relies wholly on funds and donations from the community. For more information, go here.

Tags: asylum-seekers , current-affairs , politics
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