Halfway Home: Talking with Pakistani refugees in Sri Lanka

Originally published on adda · January 23, 2017

A lone shaft of afternoon light filters into the cavernous church hall. Today, the light reveals a glint of joy in Paul’s eyes. An elderly musician is playing the mandolin, another visitor is strumming the guitar, and the melody seems to shake something loose in Paul. He flashes a rare smile, his teeth stained red with betel, and asks the musicians in his Urdu-tinged English if they would listen to a song he has composed. It is a song about unrequited love, with a lone English line in the chorus, and although one may cringe at the lyrics, he sings them with complete self-assurance. As the music rises and fills the church hall, it becomes harder for the others to resist. Shyly at first, and then more confidently, Peter begins to sing. He sings about Yesu; gospel songs in Urdu that are unfamiliar to my unaccustomed ears. Neena joins in, her voice teetering and shrill, and everyone begins to clap. They sing about Christmas — and even though it’s still September, in a place so far from the one they call home, their absolute faith lends the empty church hall a strangely festive fervour.

In all the months that I have known Paul, Peter, Neena and their families, this brief interlude is the closest I have seen them come to happiness. They are always glad to see me — if only for the simple pleasure of speaking Urdu and being understood — but inevitably, the conversation returns to their current living situation. This limbo, how long will it last? How long before we can dream of a new country to call home? And every so often, a doubt laced with dread: what if that day never comes?

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