A Heritage of Seeking Refuge

Posted by on May 18, 2017 in Stop and Think | 12 comments

A Heritage of Seeking Refuge

These last few months have really brought home to me a few things about my family. We are privileged, so, so privileged and I feel both grateful and slightly guilty for that reality. We also have a recent memory of being refugees. I am grateful for this as well, even as it changes my lived experience in ways I am still coming to understand.

Both my grandparents on either side of my family were forced to flee India during the Partition between India and Pakistan, as both countries threw off the yoke of colonization (Bangladesh was there too, as East Pakistan at the time). There were refugees of all backgrounds fleeing in pretty much every direction, and the point of this post is not to point out atrocities committed by one side while glossing over the other, nor to suggest that only one group of people were victims. The point is simply that these are the stories of my family.

Fleeing in the Night

My father’s family knew trouble was brewing, but it wasn’t until there were mobs in the street and the houses of Muslims were being burned that they picked up what they could and fled in the middle of the night. A few blocks from home, my grandmother realized she’d left my father asleep in his crib. She was faced with the terrifying decision of leaving him to die or sending back her oldest sons to fetch him and potentially losing them too. She sent her two eldest sons back together, so that they could help each other. They crossed the rooftops to the house, climbing through an open window to snatch my still-sleeping father, and escaped just in time.

Because they left with just what they could grab, my father’s family struggled with poverty through his youth. He remembers his mother selling bottles of achar–spiced, pickled vegetables–to make a living. He remembers coming home hungry and being offered a bowl of water with a few boiled carrot slices in it, to tide him over until dinner was ready–when there was no other dinner.

It wasn’t until his eldest brothers were old enough to work and start their own businesses that the fortune of his family began to recover. By the time my father’s mother passed away, all of her children had achieved financial security and found success in their lives–running a variety of businesses, pursuing degrees in higher education, supporting local and international charitable work. Not that everyone had a steady path–there are always ups and downs–but looking at my father’s family now, you might never guess at their experience as refugees.

Planning Ahead

My mother’s father was a wealthy businessman and saw what was coming. He also saw, at a certain point, that the average civilian could either flee or be caught up in a blood bath which they would not have the power to stop or protect their family from. He booked a ship to sail to the nearest port, and provided transportation for anyone from their village who wished to get to it, as well as free passage on it to Karachi, Pakistan. He and his family did not take the ship themselves–and there was a terrifying moment in their rail journey when my grandfather was taken off the train for questioning and his family thought he’d been left behind. Thankfully, he hadn’t been. At the last moment, the authorities allowed him to board at the back of the train, and it took him some time to work his way through the over-crowded cars back to his family.

In Karachi, he helped set up funds to build new houses, support widows and orphans, and establish schools. Because of his planning, dozens of families were able to leave before the violence reached their town, and they didn’t lose everything as my father’s family did. My mother’s father didn’t just look out for his family, he worked hard to assure the safety and future of his community.

Amazing People Are Out There

Then there are the stories passed down of what happened to other families who also fled. There was the Muslim family who saw other houses being burned, ran to their Hindu neighbor’s house, gave them the key to their house, and continued on with the aid of that family. Nearly ten years later, the Muslim family contacted their old Hindu neighbors to thank them for smuggling them out of the town. “Oh, we still have the key to your house, and all your things are safe. Let us know what you would like us to do,” the neighbor told them.

Another Muslim family was fleeing their town when they were separated from their two young daughters. They were unable to find them, and eventually were forced to go on without them. After the violence ended, the parents began the search for their daughters, not really expecting to find anything other than a story of their death. Instead, they learned that their Hindu neighbors had found and taken in the girls, raising them with their own children and assuring they knew their heritage until their parents could be found again.

Learning Compassion and Resilience

In hearing these stories as I grew up, I internalized a number of lessons. I learned resilience from understanding the resilience of my own family, the struggles they faced and survived, and the challenges they faced before I was born. My family has been through a great deal, and because of that I am where I am now–something I am grateful for, and something I do not want to take for granted. Struggle will come again, and again. Knowing my family’s history reminds me that no matter who you are, there will be ups and downs, losses and gains.

These stories also taught me a very important lesson: no one is above violence. No one is above war or poverty or loss. But kindness and compassion can still carry the day. Many, many people died during Partition. Many people survived intense and terrible traumas that scarred them, often permanently. But so many people also helped each other, helped those who might have been considered “other” because they remembered and cherished the humanity of those around them. They helped their own communities, they helped communities they knew would come under attack as secret or open allies, they planned, and over everything, they were kind.

Those people are my heroes. They are the people I hope to be, and strive to be, and try to remember, even when I have no names for them. These stories are generations old now, but they are still powerful, as are the stories of refugees and their allies today, the world over. And, just as was true in that time, today’s refugees need allies and supporters. They need those who are in a place of relative safety to remember their humanity, and fight for them and their right to live.

I know that we cannot each of us fight every battle we see that needs fighting in the world. We can only choose those struggles that we are most able to help in, and do what we can. But if we each do that, imagine what the world would be like. Imagine the lives saved, the hope and possibility for future generations.  Imagine that world, and remember the everyday heroes whose actions make all the difference in the lives of those whom they touch, and do what you can.


  • MoH

    This is one of the most moving pieces I’ve read in a long time. Thank you so very much for sharing your family’s history, your beautiful words, the call to support refugees, and some hope. I appreciate this work, and your generosity in sharing it, more than I can say.

    • Thank you so much for reading, and caring, and being who you are. <3

  • Remarkable stories. Thank you for bringing the personal, the human side to the refugee situation.

  • Thank you for this beautiful post and for sharing so much of yourself and your family’s history through it. You give beautiful voice to the struggles and successes of being a refugee and also to remind us of the many good, honest people in this world.

    • Thank you so much, Marzie. The world truly is filled with good people–it’s easy to forget, with the violence and hate that fills our screens.
      I am so grateful to know you and call you a friend.

  • What amazing stories, and I’m glad your family preserved them, and that you’ve shared them with us.

    • Thank you, Laura! Stories really do shape us, don’t they?

  • Thank you for sharing these incredible stories and humanizing such a complex and over-politicized topic. You come from an amazing family all around.

    • Thanks so much, Elisabeth! I think with all the politics we tend to lose sight of each other’s humanity. It’s such an important thing to hold on to. ??

  • Alina Sayre

    This is so powerful, Intisar. Thank you for having the courage to share your family’s stories and remind us that each of us has a role of compassion to play.

%d bloggers like this: