LESBOS, Greece — It was a year and a half ago that Omera’s husband fled Pakistan for Sweden to seek asylum. She remained behind while his claim was pending. In the meantime, Omera says, Pakistani security forces questioned her because of her husband’s political activities.
“One time they took me in the market. They took my phone and told me, ‘tell your husband to come back.’ For a year the children have not been going to school because I’m afraid of what will happen to them.”
Omera is now traveling alone with her two young sons. They are trying to make the journey from Pakistan to Sweden so the family can be reunited. Omera says she wanted to apply for family unification through official channels, but that process was taking too long.
“I am trying to do something good for my children,” she tells GlobalPost in Lesbos, Greece, where she and her sons are in a small tent at a makeshift refugee camp.
“We want to work for Balochistan, for our country; to do that we had to leave Pakistan. I hope for a better life for my husband, my children and me. Yes I want to go back to my country, but I want a separate Balochistan,” she said.
There has been a Balochi separatist movement in the Balochistan province of Pakistan for more than 60 years.
Omera says she is the first Balochi woman to travel this road alone. “I wanted to show that Baloch women are brave, that we can do this.”
“In Balochi culture girls don’t study, girls are not important for them,” she says. Omera was never taught to read in her native language. She tried to teach herself. “My mother said, ‘you don’t need to study’ so I took all the papers and magazines I found.”
In the end the first language she learned to read was English. Omera grew up in the United Arab Emirates. “My neighbors were Indian Christians and at Christmas and at other holiday times I would go to their house and help them,” she said. When she was 13 she asked them to teach her English. “They said, ‘bring paper and a pen and we will teach you.’”
Omera speaks beautiful English now. She also reads and writes Arabic but remains illiterate in her native tongue.
That same year she learned English, her parents took her to Karachi, Pakistan. There she was married to an older cousin who was about 45. She was three years shy of the legal age for women to marry in Pakistan, 16, but her family wrote her age as 18 on the marriage license. Then her parents went back to the Gulf, leaving her alone with him.
“Life was very hard. I didn’t understand what was happening. I was happy and playing, then I discovered I am a woman,” she said. “I’m too small, he’s too old. I didn’t understand what he was doing.”
“I thought, I have to leave, but it was too late. I was pregnant.” She was 14.
At 15 she gave birth to a son. She named him Ikhlas, which means ‘loyalty.’ After five days her husband’s family took him away from her and sent him to live with her husband’s sister in Balochistan. They told her she couldn’t handle raising a child.
“Then the family started hitting me, they gave me poison, they said, ‘Go to hell, let her die, because if we divorce her we would have to pay. Her mother and father are not here so let her die.’” A neighbor advised her to take her case to the Pakistani courts. She was 16. After a long legal battle she got a divorce as well as custody of her child.
She and Ikhlas went back to live with her family. Four years later she met Ali. “It was a love marriage. We decided to marry because we have more understanding with each other. We are good friends. After that it was a good life. We had a home in Karachi.” She gestures around the tent in the Greek transit camp: “But this we have done for Balochistan.”
The journey from Pakistan to Sweden costs around $2,400 per person in smuggler fees.
She is traveling with a group of young Balochi men whom she refers to as her “Baloch brothers.” They met in Iran. They know about her husband because he is a popular singer in Balochistan. The men look after her sons, taking them to get food at the camp in Lesbos, or walking them to the bathroom. From Iran to Turkey they walked for 18 hours. “We crossed 45 mountains. I was counting.”
Near the end of the mountainous walk she slipped and fell quite a long way. “I lost my bag. It was dark and I couldn’t find it. There were Kurdish men there shouting ‘go down, go down, the police are coming.’ My children were crying.” She lost the last $200 she needed for the trip to Greece.
Her traveling companions and others in Turkey helped her with small donations. They managed to reach $200.
From Istanbul they took a bus to Izmir. “The bus was full of people: Syrians, Afghans, and Pakistanis. There were no seats so I sat on the stairs.”
At 4 a.m. the bus stopped and men said, ‘hurry, hurry, get out.’ “We got our bags and luggage. Then the men said, ‘run.’ I said, ‘where?’ And they said, ‘straight.’ I thought we had reached the sea but it was just jungle. I asked the driver, ‘Why are we running? … He said the police were behind us.” Refugees in Lesbos report incidents of the Turkish police arresting refugees on buses bound for Izmir.
They crossed two more mountains before finally arriving at the sea. They sat on the shore for a long time.
“There was sunshine. We felt good: scared, but happy also,” Omera says.
Finally the smugglers appeared with a boat. They were 85 people on the beach, about 45 Syrians and 40 Pakistanis, all bound for Greece.
“We had to go. It was 6 p.m. The children were hungry so we decided that everyone would go. The children were crying, they were so scared.”
When they arrived Omera was surprised by the welcome of the people on the shore. “They were very kind, the people in Europe,” she says, “We were so wet. They changed our clothes and the doctor checked me.”
She knows she still has a long way to go, but she is optimistic.