Our ‘Mygration Story’ series tracks the family histories of staff and fellows at UNU. The aim is to show that many of us owe our lives and careers to the courage of migrant ancestors. People who left their homes to build safer or better lives — for themselves and for their children. With this monthly series we want to show that migration is not an historical aberration, but a surprisingly common element in family histories worldwide.
My ‘mygration’ story is rooted in the politics of a fractured subcontinent; politics that are emblematic of the region. My maternal grandfather moved from Delhi to East Pakistan during partition in 1947, with a desire to build a new life in this new nation. But in 1971 Pakistan was split in two. My grandparents became prisoners of war and were incarcerated in India, until being freed in 1974. Home then became Karachi in Sindh, the southernmost region of Pakistan. Reflecting their migratory heritage, my grandparent’s worldview was always expansive.
My paternal great-grandfather, Khan Bahadur Pir Bux Munshi, always called Sindh home. He was conferred the title of ‘Khan Bahadur’ (‘Brave Leader’) by the British Indian Empire during their colonisation of India in recognition of his public services. The title was often used by the Empire to buy loyalty from their subjects, and perpetuate oppression. My grandfather, and father, also spent most of their lives in Sindh, which is reflected in my family’s staunch loyalty to the region. Their fierce love for our home keeps me grounded.
I was born in Karachi. I spent my childhood swimming in the Arabian Sea, and playing with bears in Sindh’s countryside. My teenage years were spent breaking rules, ditching school for days at the beach, disregarding every security advice we ever received, and flirting with the boundaries of the permissible. My friends and I lived in a privileged bubble with incidents of violence puncturing our existence infrequently; a luxury afforded to few.
Baba (my father) and I travelled Sindh, listening to ghazals (lyrical Urdu poems set to music), learning about Sufism (the mystical dimension of Islam), and visiting the jails he had been incarcerated in as a political prisoner in the turbulent 1980’s. Despite his experiences, Baba’s commitment to Pakistan has never wavered. I was brought up with a sense of responsibility to my country, and the need to use my voice for those less fortunate. What I learned from my mother was to make my gender my strength, in a society that often teaches you otherwise. Together, they instilled a sense of wanderlust and showed me the world in their own thoughtful way.
In 2009, I left Karachi for the UK to study law, and I became a migrant for the first time. I missed the chaotic familiarity of Karachi – the streets that held my stories, the overwhelming noise, the warmth of the sun, and comfort of shared histories and childhoods. At Warwick, my friends came from a variety of countries and socioeconomic backgrounds, and the cultural contrasts were stark. Warwick, to me, represents the happiest years so far. I was given the intellectual and physical space to explore my individuality, and revelled in my independence. As my community grew at Warwick, I realised pieces of me would always remain in the UK.
In 2011, I found myself once again a migrant, specialising in international law in Budapest. Despite my unpreparedness, my parents, in their characteristically trusting way, put me on the plane and never looked back. I became one of only 60 Pakistanis to live in Hungary, and as an Erasmus student from the UK, strangely found myself becoming a representative of the UK. Most people I met were unfamiliar with my part of the world, which accorded a certain freedom. My conception of belonging became multifaceted and fluid. Armed with a willing travel partner, I discovered Europe: from the hipster paradise of Christiania, to the sunsets of Santorini. I travelled, as Anais Nin said, to seek other states, other lives, and other souls.
Returning to the UK, I spent a year training for the Bar in London, and appreciating the beauty and dynamism of multiculturalism through art and theatre. In 2014, with my ‘only child’ status catching up to me, I was told that it was time to come home. Instead, I further exasperated Baba by deciding to read criminology at Cambridge, in a bid to expand my intellectual horizons. In 2015, I applied for a position at the United Nations University and, to my surprise, ended up in Tokyo. I now live in arguably the world’s most fascinating city and work on issues of international terrorism and transnational organised crime.
Japan’s ancient culture, innate spirituality, humility, and subtle brilliance has changed me irreversibly. My experiences in Tokyo have taught me to be a global citizen, and value my sense of self. Influenced by Japan, I have developed interests in technology, nature, sustainability, and have come to appreciate the juxtaposition between the modern and historic. Living in a pacifist, and polar opposite culture, has been an unparalleled journey.
Despite my varied migrant experiences, I have never seen myself as a ‘migrant’ in the widely understood sense of the word. If this series teaches us anything, it is that the word is deeply personal and has myriad definitions. I have never disconnected from Pakistan, personally or professionally. I have never envisioned a ‘long-term’ elsewhere. In the words of Kamila Shamsie, a Pakistani novelist, “every other city in the world only showed me its surface, but when I looked at Karachi I saw the blood running through and out of its veins; I knew that there were so many reasons to fail to love it … that it made love a fierce and unfathomable thing”. I have been blessed with the opportunity to discover the world while retaining a strong sense of home, and having the choice to return. To quote Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet, I have found through my migratory experiences that “I move in many directions, but my compass always points towards home”.