University program helps Pakistani activists

By Estera Barbarasa

When Kamran Rizvi’s work as a human rights advocate in Pakistan forced him to relocate with his family to the United States, he had few resources to rely on. Over a year later, the Scholars at Risk (SAR) network of the University of Chicago has arranged a temporary teaching position at Loyola University for his wife, Naseem Rizvi, a Pakistani scholar. This development comes as one of few gains the Rizvi family has made after receiving political refuge last May.

“In 1999 I was here by invitation of the United States’ government for the International Visitors’ Program on Dynamics of U.S. Foreign Policy,” Mr. Rizvi said. “And the next year I was here doing an odd job in a gas station trying to save my family and trying to fight the issue of survival.” With their arrival, the Rizvi family had to overcome the obstacles of harsh living conditions, difficulty finding work, and psychological grief.

The Rizvi family was forced to seek asylum in the United States in the face of threats from religious fundamentalists opposing Mr. Rizvi’s work.

Mr. Rizvi was actively involved in the 1993 blasphemy case of three Pakistani Christians: Manzoor Masih, Rehmat Masih, and Salmat Masih. Two local Muslim priests, Maulana Fazal Haq and Maulana Master Innayat Ullah, charged the three with defiling the name of the holy Prophet of Islam, an offense punishable by death by the blasphemy law in Pakistan.

Mr. Rizvi’s position at the time, head of the Human Rights Cell in the Ministry of the Interior, involved the responsibility of providing safety to and protecting the rights of the three Christians. “This case became one of my babies,” he said. “I tried my very best to succeed in protecting these victims. I tried to convince the complainants that this is not fair and that this is defaming Pakistan as a country.”

The announcement of the innocence of the two Christians — Manzoor Masih had been killed by unknown Islamic fundamentalists during the appeals process — from the high court of Lahore and their successful escape triggered a strong response and a violent opposition from the Muslim extremists. The tension escalated further when Haq and Ullah announced a religious decree that those who aided the escape were also accused of blasphemy, putting Mr. Rizvi in a dangerous position.

“The traditional Islamic groups in Pakistan are very strong, especially on the streets,” Mr. Rizvi said. “But I was in the government. I tried to keep very quiet. For us, the mission was successfully done.”

When local Pakistani papers published stories of Mr. Rizvi’s involvement with the blasphemy case, his family’s safety was compromised. They began receiving threatening phone calls and after their home was broken into by three perpetrators, the Rizvis fled to New York City on May 3, 2000. They received political asylum shortly after on May 25.

A different set of challenges faced the Rizvis in their new life in the United States. “There’s a lot of pressure living here because we are not really used to doing all the housework, going outside without any guidance,” Mrs. Rizvi said. “Life was very comfortable. We were the privileged class in Pakistan.”

According to Mr. Rizvi, the family was reluctant to reveal their complete story to the Muslim community in the U.S. because they did not expect a sympathetic response. “The problem was it was very difficult to inform the Pakistani or the Muslim community about our case because they thought we had committed a kind of sin or crime because we supported Christians,” Mr. Rizvi said. “As an activist it was my duty to support them. However, it was my Muslim duty not to support them. I supported them out of my own commitment that they are human beings.”

The response from Witness and Forefront, the human rights organizations the Rizvis contacted in New York, disappointed them. While they did not expect a high-profile job offer, they anticipated a better response and outreach. According to the Rizvis, the groups did sympathize with the family and did invite them to the meetings to share their experience, but the groups did not offer an opportunity for Mr. Rizvi to rejoin the field of human rights.

The Rizvis relocated to Chicago last month as the result of expensive living conditions in New York. The shortage of resources and the lack of work contributed to the family’s unsettled state.

The family now lives in a sparsely furnished apartment on the North Side of Chicago. They do not have proper bedding, only blanket spreads that serve as a mattress. Although the situation is slowly improving, the Rizvis doubt they will be able to reach the point where they can live as they once did in their homeland.

“I understand people come here and find it a fascinating place but not for us. Not for people like us who have very deep roots back in the country and who were placed in a very high position,” Mrs. Rizvi said. “People who don’t have to lose something and who come here to start a new life, this is the land of opportunity to them. But me and Kamran were blessed with opportunities in Pakistan. We worked hard, and we were very happily settled.”

Recent work possibilities, however, brighten the otherwise bleak picture of their situation. Mr. Rizvi has contacted the Pakistani owner of a local 7-Eleven convenience store about a position and has expressed a desire to begin volunteer work with the human rights group Amnesty International.

The University of Chicago has also been able to reach out to the family through the Scholars at Risk Network. SAR was launched in June 2000 by the Human Rights Program of the University and is in its first operational season. It is a network of 70 universities and colleges, professional associations, and nongovernmental organizations across the country.

The stated mission of SAR is to promote academic freedom and to defend the human rights of scholars worldwide. “The beautiful part of my job is that I am put in the lucky position to channel help from the University and community to help people in need,” said Robert Quinn, director of SAR.

The Network dealt with over 60 candidates and scholars last year and has successfully found positions for two scholars: a visiting scholar from China in the political science department at the U of C, and a scholar from Bangladesh at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

Now, SAR is playing a key role in the reestablishment of Mrs. Rizvi in academia. The network reviews two criteria for the placement of scholars: the applicant’s professional qualifications and standing in his/her field and the nature and severity of risk the applicant faces. Mrs. Rizvi’s situation meets both criteria.

Prior to her asylum in the U.S., Mrs. Rizvi taught International Relations for ten years at the prominent Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan. “It was my passion to teach. I loved my job. To be with the students, to give them something that really gives you life,” she said. “My personality is to be intellectually involved. I am a person who wants to share, to transfer the knowledge I have.”

Mrs. Rizvi was officially offered a temporary part-time position starting in January to teach a course in the Political Science department at Loyola University in Chicago. Anne Rockwell, faculty in the Department of Modern Languages, was instrumental in the offer. Mrs. Rizvi had previously met Ms. Rockwell at a hate crimes conference at Loyola University, and passed along her resume. Rizvi plans to accept Loyola’s offer to teach “Politics and Foreign Policy of Afghanistan.”