As Someone Who Worked With Refugees, Here's Why I Want To Thank Mahira Khan

By Rabiya Jaffery | 11 Sep, 2018

Mahira Khan just joined hands with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to bring awareness to the plight of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. She recently visited a refugee camp in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and shared a glimpse of her experience on her social media and by talking to the press about what it was like to visit a refugee camp.

While talking to the media she mentioned that while she had read up about the issue before, this was the first time she had ever visited a refugee camp and was now getting better at understanding the gravity of the situation.

I completely get what she means.

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A lot of times my job has allowed me to witness days and moments that humble me. Today was one of those days. Today I’m also proud to say that my country is one of the most generous countries of the world. The Government and people of Pakistan – with the support of the international community – have been generously hosting Afghan refugees for nearly forty years. Since 2002, around 4.3 million Afghan refugees have returned back to Afghanistan under the largest voluntary return programme in the world. The UN refugee agency has been closely working with the Government of Pakistan and other partners to ensure that the rights of refugees are fully protected. Pakistan continues to host 1.39 million Afghan refugees. You may ask, why should we care? We must care because more than half of the refugees are kids. A lot of them came unaccompanied, without their mothers or fathers.. a lot of them were even born here. They are our future, every child in the world is. No one chooses to be a refugee. No one chooses to leave their home. #unhcrpakistan #UNHCR @unhcrpakistan

A post shared by Mahira Khan (@mahirahkhan) on

I am a recent journalism graduate and one of the first major freelance assignments I took was a fellowship that involved covering underreported stories about refugees in the Middle East.

While I was preparing for my fellowship and collecting pointers from other colleagues who have worked with refugees, I was repeatedly asked to make sure I was ‘emotionally prepared’ for this assignment.

“I was posted at Lebanon’s border at one point,” one of them told me. “I was so excited and humbled with the opportunity to work so personally for a cause I care about so much and just grow so much as a person and a professional.”

“It took about three work days before I was no longer able to sleep on my bed when I’d get back to my base after a day’s work,” she went on.

“I just couldn’t – you can’t spend your whole day speaking to people who have lost everything, including their homeland, and just get back home not full of guilt for not doing enough to solve this problem.”

The global refugee crisis is one of the biggest problems the world is facing right now. According to UNHCR, 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home and among them, there are nearly 25.4 million refugees (and over half of are under the age of 18.

Basically, nearly 1 person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution.

Through my tenure, I talked to some of those people. Some were full of hope that one day their lives would be ‘normal’ again, some were grateful that another country was letting them stay even if their living conditions were far from ideal. Some were bitter, some were just tired.

Very soon did everything my colleagues and mentors say start to become very real. I was constantly frustrated about how insignificant my role was in all of this. The more up-close I saw the problems, the more frustrated I would become at how not enough people were paying attention to any of it.


One family that plays at the back of my mind nonstop was a Syrian family in Jordan who had lost their six-year-old son to leukemia.

They did not get the time to grieve, though. Because they were unregistered and finding a piece of land just big enough to bury the child meant exhausting every possible resource they had.

That day was tough. Not that this was – or is – about me or how I felt, I try to remember that I am here to just tell the stories of people who were being deprived the tools and platforms to do it themselves. But that was one of the days I particularly felt resentful at the world for not listening when I do. There is so much about the plight of a refugee – from any and all conflict-torn countries in the world – that we simply don’t know enough about.


Pakistan, for instance, with nearly 1.4 million refugees, ties in at second with Uganda as the top-refugee hosting countries in the world (Turkey is first with 3.5 million) and hardly do we discuss this issue.

But how often do we talk about this – and them? Be it in the mainstream media or on little pockets of conversations that take place on social media or even over dinner at home?

There are as many opinions as there are people about the roles host countries should be playing to the refugees who live there. And I am not trying to analyze any of the economic, political, or social implications of whatever stance you might have just now.

All I am saying is that 1.4 million voices are too many to ignore.


We need to start listening. We need to read more about what it is like to be a refugee, what are global initiatives doing to assist them, what role Pakistan plays in all this, and why all of this matters.

And seeing Mahira Khan’s posts on Instagram made my heart melt.

I don’t think she is going to fix the global refugee crisis or even the struggles of Afghan refugees in Pakistan but she is suddenly normalizing the conversation. And for that, I thank her from the bottom of my heart. People who till a week ago did not even know what the UNHCR stands for now at least know it has something to do with refugees.

I hope more and more try to raise awareness about this. Being cocooned in our comfortable lives may be easy, but the burden of responsibility falls on all of us – for the sake of dying humanity, if nothing else.


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Cover image via @mahirahkhan/Instagram

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