As I walked out of the hospital to start my new life – nearly three months after I was airlifted to England from Pakistan to save my life – the first thing I felt was a cold that cut through the purple parka someone had given me. It was two sizes too big, and I felt like a small doll. The frigid air crept down my neck and up my sleeves and penetrated my bones. I thought I would never warm up. The grey skies cast a subdued, almost gloomy effect on the white snow dusting the ground. I felt a deep longing for the warmth and sunshine of home.
We drove through Birmingham’s streets to the high-rise building where my parents had moved after spending several weeks in a hotel. Birmingham’s busy-ness reminded me a bit of Islamabad, although the skyscrapers here were so tall you got dizzy looking up at them. Some buildings lit up with neon signs that pulsed a rainbow of colours, while others looked as if they had been wrapped in tinfoil or shingled with mirrors.
The people were different as well – a mix of white and brown and black, European, Asian, and African. Women in burqas walked the frigid streets alongside white women in miniskirts, goose bumps covering bare legs that ended in impossibly high-heeled shoes. I laughed to myself at the memory of seeing women not wearing headscarves in Islamabad and thinking that was liberal!
It did feel as if we had landed on the moon – everything looked, smelled, and felt different. Just getting to our flat meant using an elevator. I had been in one the summer before with my father, so at least I had experienced being transported in a small metal box. But for my mother, it was like boarding a spaceship. She would literally close her eyes as soon as we entered and say prayers beneath her breath. And then once safely in the apartment, I would hear her speaking to herself. “We’re on top of this building! What if there is a fire? Or an earthquake? Where would we go?” In Pakistan, we would just run out of the house. My mother liked being on the ground.
Those early days in Birmingham reminded me of being internally displaced in Pakistan – except the faces, the food, and the language here were foreign.
We were comfortable, we were being well taken care of – but it had not been our choice to come here and we missed home.
At first, I thought our stay in Birmingham was temporary. Surely, I would go home in time to take my exams in March. I didn’t know threats were still being made against my life. My parents didn’t want to scare me.
March came and went, and I missed my exams. But still, I would go back. Soon. And I would catch up with the other girls in my class. Then I enrolled in a local girls’ school in April. It started to sink in that while I’d had the same feeling that I’d had in the hospital, minus the fear of not knowing where my family was – that this was all temporary – that maybe this life in Birmingham was mine now.
There was so much to get used to – starting with wearing itchy dark blue tights beneath my long wool skirt. I missed the comfort and ease of my shalwar kamiz! The school building was enormous – three stories made of stone – with three sets of stairs, red, blue, and green, that all led to different parts of various buildings that were connected with hallways and even bridges. It was a maze. It took me weeks to figure out my way around.
At least in the classroom, no one could tell how out of place I felt. It was impossible to fake it between classes and during study periods and at lunch. That was when I felt the most alone: I didn’t know what to say to the other girls, who would sit together in clusters, giggling or rolling their eyes. I would pretend to read whatever book I had with me, missing Moniba, Malka-e-Noor, Safina, and all my friends back in Mingora in a deep way that gnawed at my stomach, like a hunger I could not feed. These girls in Birmingham seemed so different from my friends. Their mannerisms, the way they spoke, so quickly that all the words ran together. I did not know whether I should introduce myself and talk to them. Or should I wait to be invited? Should I laugh at their jokes? Should I tell a joke? They often used words I wouldn’t use. Should I join in? Start swearing? Laugh when they laugh?
I was so exhausted from trying to figure it all out that I could not wait for the bell to ring, signalling the end of the day. At least at our new home, I could speak Pashto with my family and tease my brothers. I could Skype with Moniba and watch Indian soap operas with my mother. This was the only solace.
I still didn’t accept how hard it was going to be for me to go back to Pakistan. By then, I knew the Taliban had publicly threatened me again, but in my young and hopeful mind, I knew I would go back. So even as I was growing more accustomed to it, I continued to hold on to the idea that Birmingham was temporary. Not the beginning of our life in exile. It was possible to both feel that it was temporary and somehow know that it was not.
One thing that helped was the thousands of letters I received from people all over the world, specifically from young girls and women thanking me for standing up for their rights. They reached me at a time when I was on the precipice of making a decision: to continue my fight for girls’ education or not. That’s when I realised the Taliban had failed in their mission: Instead of silencing me, they amplified my voice beyond Pakistan. People from all over the world wanted to support the cause I was so passionate about, they wanted to support me, and they welcomed me. That inspired me to continue my work.
From then on, whenever anyone asked, “What are your plans?” I’d reply, “To continue fighting for girls’ rights to an education.” I had begun my activism in Pakistan, and I would continue it here in my new home.
**This article actually appeared in The Guardian