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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
'How could I have gone through that?'

As part of BBC News Online's series on migration, our readers have been telling us their experiences as migrants.

Pakistani-born Akmal Mehmood told the BBC's Urdu service about his "obsession" with the West and how he tried to accomplish his dreams by paying for smugglers, expensive visas and a "paper marriage".


Illegal immigrants on hunger strike in Spain, 2001
An immigrant's hunger strike in Spain led to Akmal's move there
My journey from Gujrat, Pakistan, to Barcelona was not an easy one. It's a tale of getting shoved and pushed around the world for 10 years. There were times I came very close to death.

I left Gujrat to go to Germany in August 1992, when I had completed my university degree. Two of my brothers were living in Germany and tried their best to persuade me to stay in Pakistan. But I was obsessed with becoming a "citizen of Europe".

My plan was to go via Bulgaria. So I arrived in Sofia on a six-month visa, which I overstayed.

I was living with a Pakistani man I had met in Bulgaria. One day another Pakistani turned up. While I was out working, he disappeared with my passport and bag.

I had no passport and didn't know what to do - there was no Pakistani embassy in Bulgaria.

Death threat

I heard about an Indian agent who smuggled people into Austria for $2,000.

Somehow I got the money and boarded a bus to Austria. Along with seven others, I was hidden in a space at the back, behind the toilet.

We were told we would have to stay there for 24 hours without water or food. What we were not told was that the same bus had twice before been searched on the Bulgarian border.

Hardly an hour had passed when the bus was stopped and we were discovered. The bus had been surrounded by Serb forces.

I don't know why, but we never gave up... I guess, you become hard-skinned
The war in Balkans was raging and Bosnia was under siege. Borders were closed and nobody in their right mind would have taken the risk of crossing the Yugoslav frontier.

The agent had warned us not to carry any papers that would betray our identity.

But two people in my group were carrying Pakistani passports, and the Serb troops decided that we were Islamic militants. They gave orders for us to be taken to the nearby forest and shot dead.

Hard-skinned

This was November 1992. Everything was covered with snow and it was very cold. They kept us in the forest all night and tortured us.

Almost every night, one or two of us tried to slip through the border - most were caught, kept in detention for a while and released
At one point I had no doubt that it was my last night and I would be dead by morning.

But early in the morning, one of the Serb officers who spoke English turned up. We pleaded with him and told him we had no clue why we were being tortured.

Finally, we were taken to a lock-up where we were detained for three days. We then appeared in a court, where the judge ordered that we be sent back to Bulgaria and the bus drivers to prison.

A Bulgarian court fined us and ordered us to leave the country within two weeks. We tried to look for the Indian agent who had taken $2,000 from us but he had disappeared.

During this period I met a lot of people in my situation.

Almost every night, one or two of us tried to slip through the border towards Greece, but most were caught, kept in detention for a while and released.

I contacted a girl for a "paper marriage" - she demanded $10,000 in advance
I don't know why, but we never gave up. I guess, you become hard-skinned.

After about six months, and having earned some money, I flew to Moscow.

I went straight to the Pakistani embassy and got a letter from them stating my situation and why I didn't have a passport.

'Paper marriage'

Back in Gujrat, life seemed strange.

I tried to get a job but couldn't. I felt ashamed of myself all the time.

My family gave me some money which I used to pay an agent who got me a six-month visitor visa for Canada.

In Canada, I applied for political asylum on the basis of being a Kashmiri. But it was done in haste and I did not know the system well.

Six months later, and before my application could be rejected, I slipped into United States with the help of a Canadian girl.

One day, I returned from work to find a police car waiting for me
I stayed in New Jersey for five years.

Here too, I applied for political asylum on the basis of being a member of the opposition Pakistan People's Party but my claim was rejected within a year.

It was difficult to find work and I badly wanted to legalise my situation. So I contacted a girl for a "paper marriage".

She demanded $10,000 in advance.

We got married and I applied for legal status. This meant I had to undergo medical tests and appear in court with my "wife".

But, we were living separately and, in July 1998, on the appointed day, I arrived in court but the girl didn't turn up. The court gave us another two weeks time before a final decision was made.

I managed to trace her, but before the fortnight was up, she had left her job and disappeared. My application was rejected.

One day, I returned from work to find a police car waiting for me.

I was arrested and held in a New Jersey jail for a week before being deported to Pakistan.

Obsession

When I landed at Karachi airport, I only had a passport, some clothes and a gold locket. All the money I had earned was gone.

I still look back and wonder that how could I have gone through all that
Back in Pakistan I was extremely depressed and in despair. Precious years had been wasted struggling from one place to other.

I still don't know why I was so obsessed with the West - but in August 1999, I started all over again.

This time I arranged for a tourist visa - issued in Bangkok - to go to Cyprus. In Nicosia I obtained a French visa.

I stayed in Cyprus for two weeks and then travelled to France, where I lived with a friend.

Looking back

In 2001, a huge number of illegal immigrants went on hunger strike in Spain demanding legal status. Among them were many Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians who had taken refuge in churches.

Finally, the Spanish government said migrants residing and working illegally in Spain for many years would be given legal status.

On hearing the news, my friend suggested we go to Spain. He said it would take months, or even years, for the authorities there to interview us.

By that time, he said, we would have learnt enough Spanish to communicate and we would be able to pretend we had been in the country for a long time.

I still find it strange. I did everything I could and I never got the right to be a citizen of the West. And then I didn't do anything and it happened.

Now I own a cyber café in Barcelona. I am a Spanish citizen and in many ways my journey has ended. But I still look back and wonder that how could I have gone through all that.

AKMAL'S ROUTES TO THE WEST
map
1. Akmal's first goal was to reach Germany via Bulgaria and Austria - but he was detained at the Bulgarian border with Yugoslavia.
2. His second attempt began in Canada, from where he crossed into the US - he lived there for five years before being deported.
3. His third and final attempt saw him travel to Cyprus and then France, before managing to get residence in Spain


Your comments:

People are crazy and happier doing all sorts of non sense things in Western countries ranging from begging, taxi driver, and petrol pump operators, running across borders. They can as well take some decent profession in their own country and pursue it. But by the time they realize it is too late. I think this guy is a bit lucky to end up as a guy owning a internet cafe.
Robert, Mumbai, India

My only question is: Was it worth it, wasting the prime time of your life like that?
Ali Haider, Karachi

It is not strange to hear about Akmal's story although I must say that his determination is very impressive. Usually people would back off after coming so close to being dead and then being deported and hurdled around from one place to another. But Akmal's story just tells us that when there's a will there's a way.
Ahmad Ali, Houston, TX

I came to Canada legally 10 years ago and I'm obsessed with going back to Pakistan. Akmal, want to switch places?
Ali, Toronto, ON

I think this man's determination is amazing. With that much heart a person could conquer the world. To me, it seems that he did.
Scott Hoff, Saint Louis, USA




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