For asylum seekers like Muatasim Qazi, sometimes the threats they face are so horrific, they’re hard for the judges who decide their cases to believe.
“He was shot dead,” explains Muatasim Qazi, floating his cursor over the face of a man in a white tunic.
He clicks away and a new photo pops up, this one of an older man sitting alongside a sunny riverbank, “He was a poet and a scholar … we were at a picnic” says Qazi. “He was also killed.”
We’re looking at photos of Qazi’s life in Balochistan — the province in
eastern western Pakistan where he grew up. And every one of them reveals a story so graphically violent they’re hard to reconcile with the 25-year-old journalist’s dormlike apartment, complete with stacks of pizza coupons, tangles of bikes and rooftop views of the University District.
When I first met Qazi and learned he was seeking political asylum in the United States, I assumed it had something to do with religious extremists in Pakistan.
But in fact, Qazi is caught up in what many call Pakistan’s “dirty war,” a conflict between ethnic Baloch separatists looking to create their own country and the Pakistani government that desperately wants to stop them.
“There’s been a long-term secessionist movement in Balochistan,” says Bob Dietz, Asia coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists , an organization assisting Qazi with his asylum case, “It’s the poorest part of Pakistan, but paradoxically it has a lot of resources — especially natural gas.”
Baloch journalists, especially those seen to have a political point of view, can become targets, says Dietz.
CPJ’s online list of the 52 journalists killed in Pakistan since 1992 regularly lists Quetta or other regions of Balochistan as the place of death.
Qazi says that he knew he was taking on some risk when he decided to pursue his profession (a choice he made as a teenager, motivated by a love of writing). But he had no idea it would lead to his exile.
In 2010, an international community-college exchange brought Qazi to the Pacific Northwest to attend Everett Community College. While he was here, news from home went from bad to worse.
The government banned the paper he worked for — The Baloch Hal — and news of journalist killings intensified.
“They started being people I knew,” he says.
And then there were the phone calls. “My brother started getting these phone calls from blank numbers” says Qazi, his voice quieting at the memory. “They’d be asking about me, who I was, where I was, and when I was coming back.”
In June of 2011, Qazi decided to miss his flight back to Pakistan and instead applied for political asylum.
In doing so, he hopes to join the ranks of the more than 300 people granted asylum in Washington state each year.
Jordan Wasserman of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a legal aid organization, says most asylum seekers his organization sees are from Africa.
They also see a large number from Central America who are fleeing drug or gang violence or domestic violence.
Qazi’s path hasn’t been easy. Next week he will submit his asylum application to a judge at the immigration court downtown. This is his second attempt. His first application was denied — a failure he blames on an inability to talk about his emotions.
Qazi’s stories are horrific. In them, mutilated bodies float down the river that runs through his hometown, permanent encampments of mothers mourn the disappearance of their children, and newsrooms are surrounded by armed men. And it’s true that he can tell them with a sort of matter-of-factness — the kind that comes with too much exposure to too many bad things.
“A lot of times there are cultural issues that make it difficult for people to discuss things that have happened to them,” says Wasserman of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which connected Qazi with a pro-bono lawyer.
“Their histories are often times so horrific that it can be hard to believe that one human being would do that to another human being.”
But when Qazi tells me of his dreams, the ones where a blindfold is pulled over his eyes and he’s dragged off the bed into the night, there’s no questioning his emotions — or the pure fear in his eyes.