Essays Issue 3

In the Darkness of the Night, I Was Dreaming of the Light

It was 3 AM in the morning. The moon and the stars had fallen asleep behind the cosy velvet of the clouds, along with the rest of the world. The gust of wind was swirling around me, enveloping me with cold air. The crickets were breaking the sinister silence that had taken over the gloomy night. Perhaps they were singing goodbye to me. 

In the darkness of the night, I was dreaming of the light. In order to reach that light, I had to pass through darkness. I took my suitcase, packed a few clothes and all my old and worn-out memories, dreams, and hopes for a bright tomorrow.

In the darkness of the night, I chose life over death and started my journey towards Indonesia with a thousand hopes making fuss in my heart.

I was born as a Hazara and Shia Muslim in a small village in Afghanistan. I can’t recall a lot of the memories – only a few of them are still breathing in my heart. I still remember the various fruit trees around my house that were the beauty and life of early summer mornings; the lake with a calmness that radiated from its core where I swam and played from morning to sundown; the mountains that had kept the soul of my land safe; the woods where there was a sense of divine peace that settled my heart and nurtured my imagination; my childhood friends and our loyal golden dog who once saved my mother and sister from a hungry wild wolf in the middle of the night. 

Our home was made from mud, with dark blue windows and doors facing the yard. In the corner of the yard there was a stable where we kept our sheep, goats, and chickens. We had a huge berry tree in our yard under which my siblings and I slept during the summer nights. There was a sort of music, a poetry that can not be spoken in words. I was lying on my back, watching the stars and moon in the sky, and I imagined myself walking on the velvet of the floating clouds and catching those twinkling stars.

I thought the world was so tiny and my hometown was the only place that existed on this planet. I was enormously enthusiastic about getting to explore the end points of the world. I thought if I kept walking for hours I would eventually reach a dead-end on the other side of the planet. I had no clue the world was so huge, and that there existed many other countries and people completely different from me. I did not know that when I finally saw them, it would be because I had to flee my village to seek safety and never see my hometown again.

As a child I did not know what war, or power, or politics, or religion, or ethnicity and persecution, were. I did not know hatred was all that was left in the world, passed like a dark flame from one generation to the next. I was only 3 years old when I first had to flee my hometown to escape it. 

As Hazaras and Shia Muslims in Afghanistan, we were not accepted and loved in our own country due to our facial features and religious beliefs. Hazaras are the third-largest ethnicity group in Afghanistan, but we have been systematically persecuted and discriminated – or worse, violently abused and massacred throughout history. During the brutal reign of Abdur Rahman Khan from 1880 to 1901, 62% of Hazaras were massacred. Khan, a Pashtun (the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan), ordered the beheading of Hazara men and the slaughter of newborn babies in their cradles. Hazara women and young girls were raped, kept as comfort women and were sold for 1 kilogram wheat in Afghanistan bazaars. This genocide continued at the hands of Khan’s sons and grandsons until the 1990s, where it was taken over by the Taliban in Afghanistan as well as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a supremacist and jihadist terrorist group in Pakistan, where more than one million Hazaras are living today.

Sometimes my mother tells me stories about what she went through during the Taliban regime. She tells how she was terrified all the time and unable to go to sleep at night. How difficult it was for her to get out of the house. She tells me about the way the Taliban looted Hazara homes, taking away their belongings, money, animals, and food; about Hazara men who went with them and never returned to this day. How ruthlessly they killed people and discarded their bodies in wells. How they seized young women and girls and took them away for themselves. In a pained voice, my mother reveals that she had promised herself that if ever the Taliban came for her, she would take her life by jumping in a well or jumping from the roof of her house.

In 2003, we sought refuge in Pakistan. My parents were hoping for a peaceful life away from the endless persecution they’d faced. A normal, ordinary life where their children could go to school, my father could find work, and we could go home to a shelter that kept us all together. That was the only thing my parents ever wanted in life. 

I have fond memories of my first day in Pakistan. It was a whole new world full of excitement, even if it did seem outlandish at times. I was amazed by how the houses were modern in comparison to the ones in my village, how the streets and roads were all paved, how there were so many shops in every street where I could buy chewing gum. My father rented a house in Hazara Town in Quetta. A majority of the population in Hazara Town were Hazaras who had fled Afghanistan during the war and the Taliban’s regime. We all shared the same culture, background and language so it was easy for me to habituate myself and make friends.

My father home-schooled my sister and me at first because he couldn’t afford the school fees. But I was able to finally enroll in a public school from the second grade. Before starting school, I’d fantasise about sitting in a big classroom, in a chair with a desk in front of me. But instead, I was badly disappointed. It was a school for Afghan refugees who did not have Pakistani ID cards. We were following Afghanistan’s curriculum and wore Afghan school uniforms. Instead of a smart blue skirt and white shirt with a red tie (my childhood motivation for enrolling to a public school), my mother made me wear a long, baggy black dress that had been donated by one of our relatives. When I stepped into the classroom – which I’d imagined to be big and spacious with lots of desks and chairs, crafts, colourful charts and a big soft board just like on television – I found myself in a tiny, darkened room with over 20 students sitting on an old and torn carpet on the floor. It had a small window and an old black board. The headmaster introduced me to my classmates and asked them to make space for me. Their new, unfamiliar faces made me feel like an alien.

I stood awkwardly in the middle of the class and tried to make room to sit. But the place was so tiny that there was barely enough carpet for me to stand on. Finally, the teacher asked the students in a commanding voice to cross one of their legs so that I could sit down.

For a living, my father bought a cart and started selling cold drinks and snacks in front of another school. He also made me his assistant. I would go to school in the morning and help him out in the afternoons, handing out popsicles and juice to school children. After some months my father began to realise that his cart wasn’t making enough money to support our family’s needs. So he started selling kocha and bolani, a leek-and-boiled potato dish, but that failed too.

Then a family friend helped him to rent a small shop, where he started selling groceries. I hated shopkeeping. It was not only boring, it was also stressful. The shop was very cold in the winters and very hot in the summers. We did not have fans or heaters, so I warmed my hands and feet on candles whenever it was too cold, and fanned my warm face with a piece of cardboard whenever it was too hot. The only things I liked were getting to eat snacks when my father was not around, or playing games with my sister if there were no customers.

Most of the time, I would wait until my father was distracted enough before sneaking off home to watch cartoons and Bollywood movies. The shop and our home were on the same street, so it took me less than a minute. My joy was short-lived, however, because my father would always come after me and take me with him back to the shop. I loved Bollywood movies, but Indian television dramas were our nightly family activity. We would all gather in front of our television and watch at least three shows back-to-back. We enjoyed every second of it. We felt safe, complete, cosy and loved. We felt at home.

I lived most of my childhood in my imagination. My mind could go anywhere it wished. Every time I was alone, I immersed myself in a rich fantasy world. In the mornings while sweeping the yard, or walking to the bakery to buy bread, or making the 15- or 20-minute walk to school. I imagined myself being an important person one day and buying a very big and luxurious home for my parents where we had a lot of food to eat, new clothes to wear, and a maid who would take the burden of household chores from my sick mother’s shoulder. Through my imagination, I had become the president of my country, a police officer, a business woman, even a pilot. In these daydreams, I was as free as any person had ever been. 

I had a hard yet happy childhood in Pakistan. After all, childhood is supposed to be a time of innocence, love and wonder. All I cared about was playing and food, and all I wanted were a new pair of school shoes and a ball. My imagination led me to believe the world was a perfect place. 

But time was moving fast. The earth was revolving around the sun, and days and nights were passing me by. Seasons turned and quickly steeped themselves into the next; hours followed on hours, weeks on weeks, months on months, and years on years. With every sunset and sunrise, with the turn of each season and the relentless passing time, I grew up. The lives I’d imagined for myself still danced in the back of my mind, but the older I got, the harder they became to spot. I could no longer connect as easily with my precious imagination, perhaps because I came to know too much – or was it that I knew too little? But it was beautiful, when I believed in everything. 

Life gave us space to breathe during our first few years in Pakistan. Then a bombing occurred in 2010, specifically targeting Hazaras. At least 73 people were killed and 160 were injured. Then terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi began a full-fledged Hazara genocide in Pakistan. They conducted attacks on Hazaras at schools, on buses, in the markets, on the streets, at Majids, in the playgrounds. These attacks happened even during religious festivals such as Eid and Muharam, one of the four sacred months of the year, when violence and war are strictly forbidden.

My young eyes witnessed countless attacks on my people in Pakistan. I have seen them being killed simply for the crime of religious affiliation. Our studies were interrupted and we had to often leave school in the middle of class with teary eyes and horrified hearts because of bomb attacks and outbreaks of violence in the area. I can still see the scenes vividly in my mind – collapsed houses on fire, the broken windows of my home, shards of glass everywhere, the streets running red with blood. The painful howls of terror-stricken kids, the hoarse shouts of women and men calling their children’s names. People covered in blood, racing around desperately in search for their loved ones. Dead bodies on the ground. Disembodied heads, legs, and hands on my neighbours’ roofs.

These memories have become a part of me, like my Shadow. They are deep and terrible. They are like frightening birds that sit on a branch nearby and sing sad songs, and I don’t have the power to scare them away.

Pakistan, the country that as a child I’d thought was my nest, had turned to shambles.

I did not know much about Indonesia as a country other than that it was to be my new home. It was especially hard to say goodbye to my friends in Pakistan. On my last day, we sobbed and wept and hugged one another. Not only did I have to leave our house behind, I also left my loved ones, my education and my unfulfilled dreams. 

It was June 2015. I was 15 years old. I packed all my school books and placed them in a big suitcase. I did not know what the weather in Indonesia was like, or the people and their culture, food or language. Indeed, I didn’t really care. All I was thinking about was what my new school would be like and whether I would make new friends that were as good as my old ones. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to continue my studies in Indonesia.

Then the smuggler told me that I was not allowed to take any books with me – not a single one. “Especially anything that is scripted in English,” he said. “Talibans will slaughter you if they catch you on the way and find any books or English scripts with you. They are against education for girls and believe English is the language of Kafars (‘infidels’), so Muslims are to avoid learning it.’’ Hearing this felt like a hole in my heart.

Getting to Indonesia was hardly straightforward. We had to return first to Afghanistan to get passports and visas into India. Out of fear of the Taliban, I was told to wear a long dress and burqa so that I remained well-covered. Road journeys were not safe in Afghanistan. Travellers were scrutinised by the Taliban along the way, and anyone who was a Hazara would almost certainly be singled out and killed. 

It was 3 AM again. The blanket of stars above stretched to infinity. Under the cover of darkness, we fled Pakistan in the pursuit of our next “normal life”. My mother, four sisters, and I sat in a small white old car that did not have adequate space for six people. We were going to be in Afghanistan again after so many years. I did not know how to feel about it. Excited or scared? 

My imagination, which had once been so good to me, was a scary place to be in at that moment – a looming shadow that follows you and makes escape impossible. Closing my eyes I saw dishevelled monsters with long messy hair, beards and kohled eyes. I could no longer see anything but the Taliban, stopping our car in the middle of nowhere, with guns in their hands and bullets strapped across their shoulders.

By midday we had entered Afghanistan’s border. We passed through dry deserts, plains and mountains. The majesty of the mountain and the silence of the deserts were magical. They were like unspoken nuances that seeped through and out from the very canyons of my heart. They were strangers to my eyes, but not to my soul. They made me feel the invisible line between myself and everything else. I wished I was able to get out of the car and embrace it, disappear between its arms, and tell it I was home again.

It was already dark when we arrived in Kabul. Kabul, a city that hides thousands of untold stories and sorrows in its wounded heart. A city of darkness and light, of beauty and terror, of life and death. A city of worriers and mourners, a city of war and resilience. A city that is both home and ruin. I had only seen Kalbul on television before, and now I was there. I was in Kabul! It was the strangest feeling – the feeling of belonging, of being home, and of having a place to call mine no matter how sorrowful and broken it was. War had devastated much of the city, and people looked exhausted because all they wanted was the peace they’d never gotten. I thought my mother resembled Kabul – wounded, tired, and broken, with wars still waging deep within but standing tall nonetheless in order to shelter her children.

We stayed in Kabul for a week to get our passports and visas to India. Before leaving Kabul, I made sure to buy a lot of booklets about chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics for my future education in Indonesia. 

Getting to India was safer as we were able to travel by airplane. From there, it took another three weeks to prepare all the travel documents we needed for Indonesia. Although I was the third child, I had the heaviest responsibility on my shoulders despite my age – I was in charge of coordinating with the smugglers. I was entrusted with many illegal travel documents, and had to listen to their instructions on how to guide my family through the airports without attracting attention. Just a tiny mistake of mine could jeopardise my entire family’s lives. We could get caught by the police, jailed, tortured or deported back to Afghanistan. Cold spider-like fingers raced up and down my spine at the thought. 

From New Delhi airport, we flew to Singapore. After Singapore came our final destination, Indonesia. After the plane landed in Jakarta, we left the airport with the help of some Indonesian policemen who had taken bribes from the smugglers. The policemen picked us out among the other passengers, gave us a sign to follow them, and took us into a small room where we waited for around 30 minutes before being accompanied to an exit gate. It was nerve-wrecking, but we were fortunate to be arriving in Indonesia like this. Countless other refugees have drowned in the sea and lost their lives trying to seek refuge by boat. 

The smugglers were waiting for us outside the airport in a black car. “Are you Homaira?” one of them asked. He identified me from the pictures that were sent to him earlier. The time was 1 AM, on a moonless night in July 2015.

In a few minutes we were all in the car. Everyone was exhausted, bewildered and sleepy. I exchanged only a few words with the smugglers during the whole trip. I pulled down the car’s window and let the wind touch my tired face and ruffle my hair. The night sky was aglow with bright city lights. In the serenity of the night, my dreams of a new beginning in a new country once again began to play in my sweet imagination. I imagined what my school, university major would be. In my imagination, I was wearing a light brown uniform with a red bow tie this time. I pictured my new home and the neighbours around it, the peace and harmony that I had been deprived of for so long. I was so lost in my imagination I did not know when I’d fallen asleep in the car.

My mother shook me gently. “Wake up, we have arrived.” It was 3 in the morning. I opened my eyes and found myself in a narrow alley in front of a tiny white door. Exhausted but excited, we entered our new home.

The first thing I saw was a bunch of grey lizards with eyes of living marble, lurking on the walls and making weird sounds like they were welcoming us. I did not take a tour of the house and instead went directly to one of the bedrooms and passed out. 

The sun poured through my window. I rubbed my bleary eyes and walked to the balcony. There was a pearly glow in the sky. Mountains dressed in evergreen surrounded the town. It  was breathtaking. A new day had dawned. 

Down the street I saw locals. Children played cheerfully while women swept their yards. A bunch of men were smoking and sipping coffee while chatting. Their facial features, clothing and language caught my attention. I was as curious as a cat to know what they were talking about. What kinds of things do people like to talk about here? What were their values? What did life mean to them? What inspires them everyday to wake up ? Are they as amazed by the beauty of nature as I am? Do they realise what a peaceful part of the world they are living in? Did they know why I was here? Will they accept me? Will they be my friends?  

It was such a strange feeling. There were thousands of unanswered questions in my mind.  

Everything looked very unfamiliar, very new and very mystifying. We did not know where to start, or how to move on. My mother exhausted herself wondering where she could buy groceries to feed her children. I was nervous about whether my new classmates would speak English or “Indonesian” in my new school.  

On the third day of our arrival, an Afghan refugee paid us a visit. I was as happy as a pig in mud to finally find someone I could direct my millions of questions to. After exchanging some words of greetings, I said, “Can you help me get admission to a school here?’’

He looked me straight in the eye as though he were trying to read my mind. Then he let out a quick bark of laughter and said, “You are not allowed to go to school here, because you are a refugee!” He paused for a second and continued, “Not only that, you are not allowed to work, travel interstate, open a bank account, own a driver’s licenses, and all the other things enjoyed by those who lead normal lives.’’ 

I felt like a part of me had been ripped away by his words. I could feel myself deflating, never to be whole again. A great pang gripped me – what was I supposed to do with my life?

I quickly grew tired of my daily routine. I spent my first month in Indonesia eating, sleeping, listening to Marjan Farsad’s songs and staring at the booklets I had bought with me from Kabul. They laid in a lonely corner of my room, more abandoned and lifeless than I was. That murky feeling you get before bursting into tears was pushing against my heart every second of every day. I was in an open prison, a bird with wings but no sky to fly in. I was confused and heartbroken as to how I could be denied the most fundamental of human rights: no education, no job. I had no friends, no one to seek advice from, and worst of all, I couldn’t even understand the language that was being spoken around me. 

Indonesia is known as a “transit country” for refugees. This meant that although we were living here, it was not to be a permanent arrangement – nor will Indonesia ever accept us as citizens. When refugees arrive in Indonesia, most of them register themselves with the local UNHCR chapter in the faint hopes of meeting the criteria for resettlement to a third country. The only alternative would be to hang around like headless chickens or worse, be deported. But the process often took years. Refugees here lived without knowing how many more days, weeks, months or years of uncertainty were ahead of us. There was no break from the stress, anxiety and mental pressures of being trapped and unable to escape. Getting sick, for example, could mean waiting up to several months to visit a doctor – and even then UNHCR did not always approve requests for bill assistance. Women would be sexually harrassed, but unable to seek protection or safety from local police. I’d longed for new friends in Indonesia, but we were instead discriminated against or treated coldly. I’d come here hoping to belong again, but little did I know Indonesia was just another captor. 

In the middle of one of those fruitless days, I met a refugee whose name was Assad. Assad was a tiny ray of light in some of the darkest days of my life. He told me that he volunteered with a refugee-led learning centre that provided basic education to young refugee children. He looked deep into my eyes as though he were trying to read my mind, then added, “There are a lot of girls of your age who teach. They also play football twice a week.’’ Now that really got my attention. In Quetta, only boys played football. Girls were expected to make handicrafts instead. Such a big disappointment I was to my mother, as I never showed interest in crafts like the other girls and did not fit in. 

The entire night, I kept thinking about what Assad told me. I replayed it in my mind like a song you listen to time and again, yet somehow it stayed new and fresh. I imagined myself among people who understood my language. How I had missed talking, I had missed people, I had missed words, and perhaps my own voice. I saw myself on a football field in a football uniform, running so fast. I remembered how I’d longed for a ball of my own to play with when I was a child in Pakistan, how my heart had melted into a passion over a memory that never existed – so much so that it turned into ashes and began to feel like fiction.

The next day I woke up earlier than I normally did. I had a quick breakfast with my two younger sisters and made my way to the learning centre Assad spoke about. It was lively and bustling. I saw kids in the yard, playing happily. In there, time seemed to be moving.

I met the manager of the centre, who told me about his own journey, his family, and his life in Indonesia. “You should know your blessings,” he said. Your family, you have got them beside you. Have quality time together, be there for each other, chat and laugh. Then you will see life will feel a bit easier.”

Then he told me I can start teaching from next week.

Survival takes bravery. You need a warrior’s soul to live and keep going despite tough challenges. But it is not only bombs and grenades that kill. Inequality and uncertainty kill, too. As does a lack of freedom, a lack of hope, and separation from the ones we love. Anxiety, stress and depression are worse than the bombs, and more painful, because we die at their hands every day and suffer over and over with each breath we take.

But I have to be brave.

I am 23 years old. 7 years have passed since the day I arrived in Indonesia. But 7 is not just a digit – it is the years subtracted from my life, a subtraction of my rights as a human, the addition of uncertainty, and the multiplication of suffering and sorrow. 7 is the picture of dirty politics, superpower countries that have caused the displacement of millions of people around the world. 7 is the constant heavy feeling of having no place to call home. 7 is the death of freedom – the freedom to be more than a refugee, the freedom to feel equal, and to be an equal.  

In everything I have done, I have searched for an answer. An answer to my unknown future, an answer to my unfulfilled dreams and pain, to uncertainty. I understand now that my power is to help and uplift others in similar situations. Whether it is teaching, or volunteering as an interpreter, I want to connect with others so I can see myself in them and let out the pain one tiny drop at a time. I still want to see myself in a black graduation robe someday, tossing my cap high and far in the sky.

The world had snatched my rights from me in the name of the law. But still I am free to imagine. 7 years have passed, and I will keep searching for an answer in my imagination, where nothing can limit me. 

Homaira Zamiri is a 23-year-old Hazara refugee based in Indonesia. She is a former refugee teacher, a refugee advocate, and a community worker. She is also the co-founder and project manager of the Jakarta Bersatu Project, and an advisor board member at the Centre for Asia Pacific Refugee Studies. Homaira enjoys music from the old days, gazing at the moon and stars, blowing dandelions into the blue sky, and creative writing. She does her best work in the absolute darkness of night, when the world falls asleep and the crickets begin to sing.