Life Lessons From Refugees – Student Talk

The following is Part 1 of the transcript of a ‘Student Talk’ delivered by Damir Rafi at the AMSA Student Retreat 2016. 

When I was younger I used to wish I could have a superpower. Perhaps the power to fly, or to teleport or to travel through time. Perhaps to be able to move objects through willpower, but mostly, having watched Gandalf in ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and having imagined the staff of Hadhrat Musa (as) through my childhood imagination, I wished to be able to possess a magic, lightning producing staff, like I perceived him to have had. I, like many people, used to dream of having these superpowers because I realised they would make me exceptional, they would draw others towards me, they would enable me to attain respect and love and awe from the world.

As I grew older I slowly, but surely, began to realise two things. Firstly, that what the world thought of me what not so important, rather more important was to stand by and uphold my principles, forged by my belief in God and in Islam, and also to be at one with my conscience. It didn’t matter whether the world approved or not. But secondly, as I realised earlier this year, it struck me that even if attaining those superpowers were possible, there is a better way of drawing others towards oneself.

There is a hadith that goes like this: The Chief of a certain Yemeni tribe, Tufail ra bin ‘Amr, accepted Islam and requested the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) for permission to go back to his people and invite them to Islam. He requested the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) to pray to God to manifest a sign of His approval. The Holy Prophet Muhammadsa prayed for the sign. This prayer was accepted, and Hadrat Tufail ra says, “When I returned to my people, a light appeared on my forehead. I prayed to God, “O Allah, seeing this light my people may think that my face is disfigured, so make this sign to appear somewhere else.” So the light appeared at the end of the whip I was carrying. When I entered the city the people witnessed this light at the end of my whip. Hadrat Tufail ra’s father, wife and other relatives saw this sign, understood the wisdom of his message and accepted Islam, but his people still did not believe. Tufail then went back to the Holy Prophet for advice, and was told to go back and invite his people to Islam, not with a physical light, but with kindness and wisdom. As a result of this multitudes of people accepted from this tribe and became dedicated followers of Islam.

Reading this Hadith taught me that to attain a true victory requires a light, but it is not the physical, worldly light of fame, celebrity or physical attraction that does this, but a spiritual light of kindness and compassion.

At the start of this year I spent a couple of months in London working with a charity that provides psychological and legal aid to asylum seekers who had fled their home country due to war, persecution or other forms of abuse. I heard dozens of life stories from these individuals that shocked me due to the levels of suffering they had to endure.

“To attain a true victory requires a spiritual light of kindness and compassion”

For example, one of many stories that struck me was of a Vietnamese girl of a similar age to myself who lived in an idyllic, tranquil village by the sea, with parents she described as the ‘best in the world.’ Out of the blue, one day she received the news that her father and uncle had drowned at sea during a fishing trip. With no time to say goodbye, and no opportunity to appreciate the last moments she had spent with them, the girl and her mother were in deep shock and sadness. Two years later her mother died suddenly too, and from feeling like she had everything in life a girl could want, suddenly she was bereft and alone. ‘I used to stand at the edge of the sea and think of drowning myself,’ she said. The other villagers would help her with food and support, especially one particular neighbour who told her that she would introduce her to someone in another city – Hanoi – who could give her work as a nanny.

They travelled to Hanoi together and she met her new employer, a cruel man. One day he told her that they were going to China, and she would also have to come to look after the baby while they were there. The three of them crossed the border, where they met a Chinese man, who grabbed her and pulled her away from her employer’s car. ‘I have sold you to this man,’ her employer told her, and drove away, leaving her with the Chinese man.

At this point in the narration she stopped, and said to the psychiatrist ‘I don’t want others to be trapped, or tricked like I was.’ She continued the story then, recounting how she was made to work in a brothel, aged only 15, abused unimaginably. She was taken to Russia after a while to do the same work. One day, in Russia, a customer came, and looking at her young age, was shocked and took pity on her, and paid her employer to allow him to take her out of the brothel for dinner. When they were out, he drove her to safety, through cities and countries, crossing borders, lying low so as to be unnoticed. They ended up in France, and he dropped her in a church and told her she would be safe.

Her bad experiences did not end there, eventually she ended up in an asylum detention facility in the UK. She has PTSD, recurring flashbacks, both in the day and in the night, of her past life. She now has a child to care for, as she seeks a better life in the UK, currently appealing a rejected asylum application.

One thought on “Life Lessons From Refugees – Student Talk

  1. Naveed Malik says:

    I was there at the student retreat to hear the talk. A heartfelt and very well-written speech. Well worth the read.

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