Away from home, calling for help

Who do Pakistani students call when in need of assistance abroad?

Away from home, calling for help


alha*, a 19-year-old medical student, arrived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in February this year. In the months that followed, he found the locals friendly and quickly adjusted to the life in Kyrgyzstan. He would often go out with his local friends and enjoy his evenings in their company. Bishkek felt safe to him until last week when a brawl between Kyrgyz and Egyptian students escalated into mob violence targeting international students residing in the city.

The universities promptly issued directives for their international students and instructed them to remain within their living quarters till the situation was under control.

“My university has been providing us with meals and giving us directives to stay safe,” he tells The News on Sunday over a phone call. “We don’t know what is going on. We are indoors. We have not stepped outside for days. We are just reading updates on social media. We have no ways to verify the information we get on social media. The university has told us not to leave our residence.”

Like Talha, many international students in Bishkek spent the entire week speculating about the events unfolding beyond their doors. Many of them returned to their home countries. Talha has still to decide whether he should return to Pakistan or stay in Bishkek. He is hoping that the situation will improve in the coming days to allow him to continue his studies there.

Away from home, calling for help

Hundreds of thousands of Pakistani students travel to different parts of the world each year in pursuit of higher education. While they learn invaluable lessons during their stay abroad, sometimes they find themselves in difficult situations.

“One has to deal with everything on one’s own,” Talha says. While most days pass without any incident, when problems arise, he says, they have to deal with those on their own.

Incidents like these are cited by some students to claim that they receive assistance only when an issue gets media attention or government leaders issue special directives.

As reports of the incident in Bishkek made rounds on social media, Hasan Zaigham, Pakistan’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan posted an advisory on social media platform X (formerly Twitter) on May 18 asking Pakistani students to stay indoors till the situation returned to normal. “We are liaising with the local law enforcement authorities to ensure safety of our student fraternity.”

The post was followed by another sharing emergency numbers and email to contact the embassy. Several other posts by the official X handle of the Pakistani embassy in Kyrgyzstan shared emergency numbers and advisories from May 18 onwards.

The embassy was working day and night to provide relief to Pakistani nationals in Wuhan during that period. Two embassy officials remained in the city throughout the crisis to ensure the well-being of stranded Pakistani students, while Chinese universities extended support to their international residents.

Following the events and with the repatriation of some Pakistani students, the government announced to form an inquiry committee to investigate how the events unfolded in Bishkek. Deputy Prime Minister Ishaq Dar, who was in Bishkek recently to meet injured Pakistani students, has said that the committee will also assess how the issue was handled by the Pakistani mission, and “how much responsibility they had shown.”

In early 2020, hundreds of Pakistani students found themselves locked down in Wuhan, China, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the virus spread, students living in hostels of universities in Wuhan were confined to their rooms. No one was allowed to leave the Hubei province. International students living in dormitories were prohibited from visiting common areas or friends residing in the same building.

“The universities were providing us meals or anything we needed,” recounts one student who was in Wuhan that time. “Some Pakistani students requested their university to provide them with flour so they could make roti. The next day, their university administration gave each of them a bag of flour,” he recalls.

Unlike the Bishkek incident, the government of Pakistan had then refused to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan. It said the Chinese authorities were taking good care of Pakistani nationals there. The embassy had told students in China to register on its website. It separately developed a record of students in Wuhan. The students living in Wuhan say they were asked multiple times for their records.

However, it announced monetary help for stranded students in Wuhan and also pushed the embassy of Pakistan in Beijing to make all out efforts to take care of Pakistani nationals in Wuhan.

Back then, twenty Pakistani students in two universities of Wuhan claimed that they had not received financial aid from the embassy of Pakistan despite several reminders. That financial aid was delivered to them a month after it was distributed among other Pakistani students in Wuhan following the story’s coverage in Independent Urdu.

The embassy was working day and night to provide relief to Pakistanis in Wuhan during that period. Two embassy officials remained in the city throughout the crisis to ensure the well-being of stranded Pakistani students, while Chinese universities extended support to their international residents, providing them with facemasks, daily temperature checks, and essential supplies, including meals, fruits, and accommodating special requests.

At the time, some Pakistani students in Wuhan decided to push the government to devise an evacuation plan for them. In order to do that, they would tell media that their lives were at great risk and that they were not receiving any supplies. However, two Pakistani sisters studying at a university there started making vlogs showing the situation in Wuhan wasn’t as bad as was being projected. Their story was covered by Al Jazeera and soon became viral. But that triggered a backlash from the Pakistanis in Wuhan who wanted to evacuate. The sisters started receiving threats for speaking to media independently.

“They told us not to talk to the media. They would send us abusive messages on WeChat and WhatsApp. They boycotted us and made the lockdown extremely terrifying for us,” one sister said in an interview. “They even got our father’s number and sent him threatening messages. They just wanted to go back. They said no individual should talk to the media without consulting the Pakistanis there.”

The two sisters reached out to the Pakistani embassy in Beijing several times. The officials advised them to “keep a low profile and contact them if something happens.” In an interview with The News on Sunday, they revealed that the students who had lobbied to pressure the government into evacuating them never actually left Wuhan. They remained in the city during and after the lockdown.

Muhammad Husnain, a cyber security student at Sapienza University in Rome, said he had never encountered any issues requiring embassy assistance during his stay in Italy. He visited the Pakistani embassy there a few times to acquire some documents. He said the staff was extremely cooperative.

Asma Minhas, a master’s student at the university of Leicester, UK, echoes a similar sentiment. She notes that while clashes between Pakistani and Indian nationals occasionally occur, particularly during cricket matches between the rival nations, most international students and workers strive to follow laws and avoid trouble.

Minhas says she and her husband, who works in the UK, rarely visit the Pakistani embassy but have not encountered any difficulties when they have. While they witness a “typical working environment of any Pakistani government office” there that, however, has not caused them any difficulty, she says.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore

Away from home, calling for help