My flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco was overbooked. There was a generous voucher to take for a volunteer who was willing to take the next flight. The next flight was scheduled for the next day in the morning! I wondered why not take a bus through the California hinterlands instead. So, I volunteered.
At the bus station’s waiting area, an Indian-looking man walked towards me. Before I could say something, he asked me in Hindi where I was from. “Haryana”, I replied, assuming he was an Indian. He didn’t recognize it. “That’s beyond west Punjab”, he asked further in Hindi. “Yes”, I replied.
“Where in Pakistan are you from?”, I asked, as only people from Pakistan use the phrase “west Punjab”. “Azad Kashmir”, he replied, with an emphasis on “Azad” (liberated). That’s what Pakistan refers to as the PoK territory.
Coincidentally, he was taking the same route as me. He could neither speak nor read English. I helped him book the ticket. As we were going on the bus, he spoke fluent Spanish with the ticket checker. That confused me even more.
We sat next to each other. And that’s when he started his life story, “So, after Bhutto’s murder, the army came to my home. In my absence, they told my mother that they would make an example out of politicians like me. She begged, and they agreed that if your son leaves the country quietly, everything would be fine”. “Then?”, I asked. “So, I left for Venezuela to live with my brother’s family and become a car mechanic there.”, he replied. Now, I understand the origin of his fluent Spanish. “Aren’t you from “Azad” Kashmir”, I asked. This time, the emphasis was mine. He laughed and skittishly admitted, “Our [Pakistan’s] leaders only know how to talk big”. [Note: This wasn’t hyperbole, Pakistan has seen 4 military coups, and not a single Prime Minister has ever finished a full 5-year term!]
Less than a decade later, Venezuela was devastated by Chavez’s socialist regime. This man’s savings were destroyed. So, were his brothers’. His brother, with a family and a house, was trapped in Venezuela. While he eventually left and made the journey northwards.
“I encountered many Indians on the journey”, he emphasized. I was reading news about Indians crossing the US’s southern border all along, but this time, I met someone who saw that. “All heading for the US border? How?”, I wondered. “Yes. They used to come via Ecuador. The US government pressured to close that route.”
Ecuador used to be one of the few visa-free countries for Indian nationals. Infact, it was the first South American Spanish-speaking country that I visited. Under US pressure, Ecuador, now, requires a visa to visit Ecuador.
A(shish): “So, what’s the route now?”
H(e): “Brazil”.
A: “Why so?”
H: “They don’t have good relations with America, so, they don’t care.”
A: “And what’s the journey?”
H: “Painful and dangerous. If you don’t speak Spanish, it is even worse. You start from Brazil, walk upwards, going from one agent to another rill you reach the US border”.
A: “And what happens at the US border?”
H: “You apply for asylum and are sent to the detention facility”
A: “How’s that like?”
H: “It is comfortable. They serve halal food, vegetarian food, everything. But it is a prison after all.”
A: “And how do you get out?”
H: “An immigration judge looks into your case. We help each other clear that.”
A: “How?”
H: “Language is the most important factor. For example, I gave my interview in Urdu. I passed but if I failed, I would have filed for re-appeal that I don’t understand Urdu and they should interview me in Kashmiri.”
A: “Why?”
H: “They have a shortage of official translators for obscure languages, so, judges under pressure approve the case much more easily.”