After being tortured for 21 days in Pakistan, blogger and poet Salman Haider finally feels comfortable in Canada – at least enough to share the saga that brought him here, a place with notable press freedom compared in Pakistan.
“There’s a lot more freedom here when it comes to writing focusing on minorities, indigenous communities, and religious freedom,” Haider said. Canadian New Media.
But while he finds there is widespread coverage and “condemnation by different levels of leadership” against domestic racism and hate crimes, he says there is a lack of coverage of the events that are happening. in developing countries like his native Pakistan.
“Canada is a torchbearer for human rights, but we don’t see media coverage of the atrocities happening (elsewhere in the world),” he says.
He believes that “Canadian media can play a vital role in human rights issues by promoting their values and supporting causes outside of Canada.”
Although he has limited access to news in Canada due to paywall restrictions, he says he is still closely following human rights developments around the world.
Human rights activism in Pakistan
As a psychology professor in Islamabad, Haider championed minority rights and religious freedoms.
He was particularly critical of the enforced disappearances of civilians in Balochistan – a province in southwestern Pakistan bordering Afghanistan and Iran, and the epicenter of a decades-long separatist movement allegedly backed by India.
As a columnist, Haider regularly publishes political satires for a national daily in Pakistan. He was also the editor of the progressive newspaper called Tanqid, or “Critique”, which focuses on the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.
He says the paper has covered and criticized the military, including its support for the Taliban, as well as how the media has covered these issues.
Haider and four other activists co-founded a Facebook page called “Mochi,” which translates to “cobbler,” where they campaigned for human rights and religious freedoms. Their satirical messages and poems denounced human rights abuses by security forces and religious extremists who “have always been linked to the military”, Haider said.
“The term was used for journalists who supported the military in the media, or politicians who supported or were supported by the military,” he explains.
This, he believes, “is what triggered their persecution.”
Death threats and kidnapping
In January 2017, Haider was kidnapped in Islamabad along with his fellow activists.
The Pakistani government has denied accusations that its covert militant agencies were involved in the kidnapping.
In the months leading up to the abduction, Haider had received a slew of abusive comments and death threats on social media, unknown calls and messages containing racial slurs and accusations of blasphemy, which is a crime in Pakistan. .
Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency ordered an investigation into Haider, and he was banned from leaving the country until it was completed, although eventually the police found no evidence of this.
Pakistan is caught in a vicious circle of debates over blasphemy, minority rights and religious freedoms, with the nation and authorities divided on these issues.
Haider says hundreds of people, including university professors, human rights activists and poets from all over Pakistan, had come in the streets to demand that the authorities release the bloggers.
“Human rights groups and people I worked with came forward and started protesting,” Haider said, adding that the protests had been noticed around the world, with the White House issuing a statement. statement for the safe return of activists.
“It was discussed at the UN, and Amnesty International came forward to save (all the activists),” Haider said. “I was released after 21 days.”
Although prominent religious scholars condemn such atrocities, in 2011 the government sentenced to death a guard who had killed a former governor of Punjab over allegations of blasphemy.
For his part, Haider suggests “strong federating units” to limit the powers of Pakistan’s central government, as well as “taxing the corporate empire, run in the name of military welfare, and reducing non-combat expenditure of the army”.
He also opposes state support for terrorist organizations, which he says “oppress religious and ethnic minorities.”
Travel to North America
Prior to his abduction, Haider had applied for a scholarship to the University of Texas, where he arrived after US authorities expedited his visa process.
Due to the unaffordable medical system and fear of being blamed at home for being influenced by Americans – a charge which, in Pakistan, can lead to threats against his family – he decided to seek asylum in Canada. , considered more neutral.
He was granted permanent residency in early 2021.
Haider is grateful for the Canadian healthcare system and the sense of community support he has found here.
He was even able to become a licensed psychotherapist and says he will likely find a job this year. It aims to support refugees in Canada through counseling and mental health services.
His own experiences, however, continue to haunt him. He says the torture he suffered during his abduction continues to affect his physical and mental health.
“I had developed post-traumatic epilepsy,” he says, which was diagnosed much later.
The blasphemy allegations have also affected Haider’s relations with the Pakistani diaspora in Canada. To avoid any untoward incidents, he says he usually has a friend who accompanies him to religious places – “so I feel safe”.
Recently, he was invited to a talk by other community members in Calgary, but another group from the same community “distributed pamphlets against me,” he says, blocking his participation in the event. .
Haider is currently translating a collection of poetry and continues to raise her voice against blasphemy and human rights laws via social media.
Haider says he has resigned himself to his new reality as a permanent resident in Canada, where, overall, he, his wife and son “have nothing to complain about.”
He nevertheless remains hopeful of reuniting with his family at some point, including his parents, whom he has not seen in years.
“I don’t know if I will raise enough money even to invite them with a visit visa,” he said.
So, for now, he waits and writes.
This article is based on the results of the first Canadian study on the socio-economic conditions of first-generation immigrant and refugee journalists, currently underway.
Please complete our survey of immigrant and refugee journalists here.
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