Early in the morning I was standing before the statue of Abraham Lincoln whose life, I believe, is still a source of inspiration for millions of people around the world. I kept silent, closed my eyes for a few minutes and imagined all the movies, books and anecdotes I have known about this great man. There were a few African American boys and girls who were standing behind me, just looking at him without saying a word, gazes fixed at his grandeur.
It was truly a dream come true. In the US, I visited the White House, Eisenhower Building, Pentagon, US Capitol, US Department of State, Martin Luther King Center and many other amazing places. As a part of a delegation of 15 Emerging Young Leaders of Pakistan, I had meetings with different tiers of American leadership. But looking back at my past, especially my childhood, who could guess that one day I would be able to avail such an opportunity?
I was born in a gypsy family in Depalpur, a small town in Punjab where my father worked as a fruit hawker and my mother as a farm laborer with other peasant women. As a stray child, I spent time with other gypsy children playing and roaming in the streets.
My family’s migration to Lahore at my early age opened up a new world for me; big city full of cars, big roads, green parks and so many cousins to play with. In Lahore, my father began working as a laborer at construction sites, while my mother worked as a house maid. Even though my parents worked day and night, they still could not earn enough money to sustain a decent living. In order to help them, I started garbage picking like other gypsy children. Under the unbearable sun of summer, I used to walk around bus stops and traffic signals selling drinking water and newspapers. While in winters, I would sell a dozen or two boiled eggs circling around tea shops, hotels and markets. I would return to the slum late at night when my parents would be asleep but my younger brothers and sisters would be waiting for me to finish their homework. We used to finish our homework in candlelight and sleep together on a floor mat.
Summers used to be extremely tough for us due to monsoon rains and wind storms. Our huts would blow away from the foundation, leaving us under bare sky. However my biggest concern during this ordeal would be to save my uniform, books and school bag from the wasting away. As if uprooting of huts was not enough, the accumulation of the downpour right in front of our huts would naturally become an ideal home for mosquitoes and insects.
After the fortunate day when my father got me enrolled in a high school, I had to live with a tougher routine. I would wake up early in the morning, pick up my garbage bag and stroll around different places in the entire city. I would then come back home, perform my ablutions and go to the madrassa where I was taught how to read the Holy Quran. After returning back to my slum, I would finish my breakfast, put on my uniform and head to school.
Initially going to school in the morning was a wonderful experience. But unfortunately, the image of a gypsy child dressed up in untidy, clumsy shalwar qameez, and carrying a dirty, stained school bag attracted unwanted attention. Mostly we went to school on foot but sometimes we would be carried by a donkey-cart. The people in the street would look down upon us, give us spiteful names, and make sarcastic and insensitive comments. I clearly remember how not only elders but also children would thrash us just because we were gypsies and they knew very well that we were helpless, unable to fight back. Every single moment passed in such situations was extremely wounding but I gradually became accustomed to it. What else could I do? Instead, I made myself a commitment to study hard and prove all these unkind, heartless people wrong.
I think and believe that one performs better when he is challenged to his limits. I would spend my days working and reading. Reading was like an intoxicating drug. Through books, I would travel across the world in a few hours without leaving my hut. While reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, somehow it occurred to me through the imagination that even in the poor, clumsy and shabby surroundings which constituted my life, I still had the freedom: freedom to think, dream, work, change myself and inspire the people who disliked me. Later this developed in me that free thought means a world of possibilities. The choice I make, between freedom and being victim of my circumstances, would become the story of my life.
Books gave me a totally novel worldview. They gave me a sense to think and feel the pain of others in society. I started participating in different social and political activities in Lahore. With other likeminded comrades I began spreading awareness in the society about pressing issues like terrorism, dictatorship, and the rights of minorities and other marginalized groups. At a social meeting, I met Kathryne Kiser, an official of the US Consulate, who encouraged me to apply for a fellowship with the Atlantic Council for emerging young leaders of Pakistan. This is how I came to visit the US and gather a great wealth of exploration.
My family was so much surprised to know that I was going to the US for a two-week visit—they could not believe it. My mother, overwhelmed with joy and pride, shared this news with every house where she worked as a maid.
Earning a fellowship and traveling to the US may not be the greatest goal in life. But at least I may say that while living in a slum I dared to dream higher and tried my best to realize them. And the journey still goes on…