Shazia came to Hong Kong in September 2009 from the dusty Pakistani Milpur region. There her family struggled amid corruption, violence and escalating militancy for decades, until forced to find sanctuary abroad. Nothing could have prepared them for the twisted fate that saw Shazia murdered by her estranged husband on Tuen Mun beach last week. Hers was a life of hardship till the bitter end, an existence that prompts reflection on our tenuous grip on life. Shazia (her full name in a culture that normally lists father and grandfather too) was introduced to Vision First by ISS in an email lamenting the theft of her paraplegic son’s wheelchair. This unscrupulous act started a chain of positive events with our charity kicking into action. And yet we wondered, “How could anyone steal a handicapped kid’s transportation?” That sense of unreal permeated the life of this diminutive, gentle mother who struggled against adversity with resolute purpose and admirable perseverance. In the wake of complex events, Shazia abandoned her hometown when death threats against her children proved too much to bear. Since her husband fled to Hong Kong in 2006, her predicament worsened and peaked with armed thugs assaulting her to discover his whereabouts. At that point she knew escape was her only option.
Forced from the familiarity of her hometown, Shazia embarked on an arduous trip across Pakistan, Guangdong and finally to Hong Kong. The fact she was a single Muslim mother with three young boys – the youngest with congenital hydrocephalus always in her arms – made travelling more arduous. She begged her way through China to a coastal village, where smugglers extorted every last dollar to ferry them across the waters. Without a HK visa, she had no choice but to brave the illegal crossing that almost cost her sons’ life. This was the night of her deepest terror, she later recalled. She couldn’t swim and neither could her frightened children. The flimsy speedboat jetted through pitch darkness over what she feared where abyssal waters – she’d never seen the ocean before, you see. Suddenly the men tossed them overboard into neck-high waters and, grasping for her screaming kids, she was helpless to save the bags that drifted away with their scant belongings in the propeller wash.
In the safety of Hong Kong, a benign fate might have smiled upon her, instead Shazia found her life to be marooned between survival and hopelessness. We first met her when she shared a hellhole in Chueng Sha Wan with another family, a place so small Shazia slept with the boys on one mattress in a doorless room. Our first commitment was to buy Hadi a wheelchair. It was too stolen within a week! However, this time, remorse anguished the thief who returned it to their doorstep three days later. That was our clue Shazia required a home with a lift, as she couldn’t leave those precious wheels unattended for a minute. With ISS help Shazia moved into a decent home along Nam Cheong Street and VF ensured they had everything they needed. The next stage was ensuring the boys attended school and the Education Bureau did everything possible to ensure placements, even for Hadi at a special school with door-to-door transport. Within months the kids flourished, scoring high points on tests which we celebrated with ice-cream in the park. Today we realize those were the happy days: they came running to hug and smiled with confidence as they adjusted to their new environment with youthful excitement. Meanwhile, Shazia studied English one-on-one with our tutor and shared the sadness of explaining to her sons why they couldn’t afford the stuff and outings their classmates enjoyed. There’s no easy way to deal with this, as every refugee parent knows all too well.
Below the surface not all was well. After putting her sons through the wringer of exile, instead of finding the peace she deserved, Shazia found heartache discovering her husband had taken up with another woman – apparently marrying her and having a baby. This plunged her life into a second ordeal of which she had had no foreboding. Her dreams of reunion, that strengthened her from the Kashmir Mountains to the streets of Kowloon, shipwrecked onto the rocks of betrayal. Instead of gaining her husband’s support, she suffered rejection. Imagine coming so far, through hardship and despair to witness the breakdown of your family! There’s something unreal about it. The boys hardly saw their father and together rallied in support of their beloved mother. Today these kids’ family and home have been smashed by a senseless act that nobody will ever understand. Human nature can still be as wild as ever it was! Words fail to describe the loss these three brothers suffered. Their mother was taken from them at an age when they needed her most. At least they still have each other and we hope they won’t be separated by social services. They’ve suffered enough.
Our members who didn’t know Shazia, referred to her as the ‘elegant Pakistani woman,’ despite her always wearing the same drab clothes. It was her stoic demeanor, her dignified comportment, that something-different-about-her that made her stand out as a person of profound strength. We once visited a doctor and she carried eight year-old Hadi without resting a moment, without yielding to fatigue as we waited endlessly for a rush hour taxi. She appeared unfazed by hardship she’d handled so much without ever yielding. She never complained or allowed the slightest sigh to betray irritation at her many burdens. Shazia projected a resoluteness that went beyond the ordinary, beyond what is expected of mothers in extraordinary circumstances. She was blessed with a character that inspired others to face adversity with unvanquished confidence – if she could do it, certainly others could too! We often spoke with admiration about her determination. She was a paragon of humanity for all who knew her, both refugees and citizens. Her sudden departure reminds us that the true value of a person is only felt in their absence. It shouldn’t have been this way for Shazia, not with three young sons whose precarious life depended entirely upon their mother. While her senseless death raises tough questions, it also elevates Shazia as a shining example of an indomitable spirit in adversity. There might be little good in a refugee’s life, but it’s how they bear themselves under physical and psychological pressure that makes them worthy of our respect. The challenge now is how to help these three kids …