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On a wing and a prayer

Published 07 Jun, 2016 12:10pm

When Mohammed Ismail was 11 years old, his maternal uncle disappeared from their village in Gujrat. Nobody heard from him; nobody knew where he had gone. Some worried he might have had an accident, or died, but Ismail’s mother was insistent that the dead don’t pack belongings for their graves. Two months later, he called on a landline phone — the only one in the neighbourhood. It was a few streets away from Ismail’s home and was installed at the house of a woman whose husband worked as a labourer in Dubai.

Ismail’s uncle was in Greece. He had found work on the docks in one of the islands, he was safe, he was also sorry. He had to sell some family heirloom, jewellery, to be able to venture that far but he would be compensating his sister for that soon. He apologised for making everyone worry but there had been no time to explain. The immigration agent arranging his journey demanded immediate departure. Travelling without official documentation required both secrecy and urgency.

For the next 10 years, Ismail heard stories about his uncle’s life abroad. His uncle would travel often, sometimes for work, sometimes on the run from immigration authorities; he moved around inside Greece, then left for France, eventually settling in Spain.

He opened a shop on the famous La Rambla street in central Barcelona, a place with such a dense population of migrant business owners from Pakistan that people from Punjab speak of finding long lost relatives there while buying cigarettes.

Ismail also came to know of other migrant settlements, like Southall in London, where some of his distant relatives were now running a grocery store. Just two years after starting college at the University of Gujrat as an engineering student, he dropped out, put together some money, packed his bags and decided to try his luck abroad as well. This was 2008; he was 21 at the time. Back when he had both his legs.

This is an excerpt from the Herald's June 2016 issue. For more, subscribe to the Herald in print.