I cannot find the words to express my grief over the disappearance of my dear friend, Raza. When I received the message that Raza is missing, it shook me to the fibre of my being. How is that possible? I wondered. How can a man who never raises his voice, hardly argues, politely shares disagreements, and has not hurt any living being pose any threat? What will anyone gain from his disappearance? I am unable to imagine what he is going through now. Is he cold? Has he eaten? Has he slept? Is he hurt or is he in any kind of physical pain? I don’t know where he is, but it is important that we all know who Raza is and move heaven and earth to bring him back. Only if I could walk across the Wagha border to look for him on foot. If we abandon him at this hour, there is no coming back from that place of darkness.
Raza Khan is the Pakistan Convener of Aaghaz-e-Dosti and the Coordinator of Hum Sub Aik Hain, a registered organization in Pakistan that provides a platform to people across classes and religion to share their dreams and hopes for a peaceful Pakistan. He comes from a humble background and decided to pursue his education in gender studies in his thirties. Not only is he self-funding his education, but has made social activism, peacebuilding through education and interfaith faith harmony his life’s work. I have known Raza since the year 2013. We met through Aaghaz-e-Dosti when I was teaching at an international school in Mumbai. I reached out to AED to connect me with an individual who could put me in touch with educators and schools in Lahore. Devika Mittal, convener of Aaghaz-e-Dosti connected me with a gem of a person, named Raza Khan. A cross-border letter exchange blessed me with a friend for life. However, it is a deep regret that Raza and I have never met in person. I don’t wish to sound as though I never will, but soon I will, if not beyond the meshed wires, then in another land, one that does not prevent us from meeting, because we are supposed to be enemies, and not friends.
I vividly remember the day I sent the Independence Day cards to Lahore through Aaghaz-e-Dosti. My friend Devika had sent me the contact details of a man named Raza Khan. The address did not have the area code. The school courier person was going to arrive any minute and I was running out of time. I got his number, and made an international call to Lahore. He was in a crowded place. Later he told me, he had stepped out of his class to attend my phone call. I thanked him immensely for working with me on the greeting card exchange project, and he replied, “We are not doing a favour to each other, both of us are working toward this project because we are passionate about building peace between the two countries.” That was the beginning of a new friendship, not a cross-border alliance to fill our Facebook wall.
In March 2016, Lahore bled in the aftermath of the Gulshan-e-Iqbal blast, killing mostly hundreds of innocent children and mothers. I contacted Raza to ask if my students could send solidarity cards to children in Lahore. Not only did he find a school, with a vast majority of the Christian community that was attacked in this blast, but also ensured that these cards heal students who had lost their siblings and friends in a horrific manner. Raza lauded my efforts and praised me for inspiring him, even though he was the one who did the groundwork. He had to seek contacts, build networks, deliver the letters and organize the distribution of the letters. He would go with his jhola, wear a simple kurta and pajama and post images of students receiving and sharing greeting cards. He was like Santa Claus – not the one that brought presents, but a bagful of love, hopes and dreams. It brings him immense joy to move hearts, to provide education to children where they learn to question and challenge the systems that advocate hate and animosity. He strongly believes that all children have a right to education that allows them the freedom to meet new people, bridge barriers and break stereotypes.
As a full time, teacher, I was often very busy and even though I tried my best to make India Pakistan networking the soul of my career in education, I was never able to do enough. The rigmarole of exams, tests, assessments and unit planning did not allow for many opportunities. Raza steered our future activities, travelled across cities, met all my requests, initiated Skype talks, people to people contact, and sometimes chased me to finalize dates. I have interacted with armchair activists who use oratory and elitist writing to promote peace. While I do not discount their work, I could see that the focus of their work are not the people they are working with and for, but their polished and politically motivated social media image. But Raza is different; from a humble Urdu/Punjabi speaking background, he rarely focuses on his own accomplishments, he brings to fore the voice and faces of Pakistani children, facilitates dialogue from behind the scenes and captures their stories of friendship, without highlighting his role in the process.
As Raza and I connected over these projects, we started having discussions on the role of interfaith harmony. He shared that if we cannot find a way to restore harmony in our country, how can we ever strengthen the ties between India and Pakistan? He realizes the importance of interfaith harmony in both countries; we discussed possibilities of creating a peace education programme, but Raza is a visionary. He saw the opportunity to construct a platform to have intersecting conversations on interfaith relationships, violence, patriarchy, environmental issues and the role of arts in peacemaking. His idea transformed into a vibrant space – Low-key Lokai to realise his mission of ‘Hum Sub Ek Hain.’
Since I moved to Japan, we never had the opportunity to work with each other again, but Raza kept the letters alive, exhibited them at influential places in Pakistan, cared for them and preserved them. These letters are until this date, and will forever be symbolic of our friendship. He frequently asked about my well-being, my food and adjustment in a new country. On my birthday, when I was eating alone at a restaurant in Japan, I listened to his beautiful voice message. I had shared with him the loneliness and anxiety of adjusting to a new environment, and he had offered words of comfort.
I knew I was never alone, and far away in Lahore, this friend will always attend my phone calls even in the middle of the night. If ever he is unable to receive phone calls, he is profusely apologetic. Whenever I call him or receive his call, he says, “Good Evening, Kaise hain aap?” The conversation begins with his warm Lahori tehzeeb. He is a man who wishes me on Diwali, inquires after my parents, conveys his best to my family, and always listens with empathy and compassion.
If something ever happened to me, this man will stand with a placard in his hand on the streets of Lahore. Even if you have differing viewpoints, he will stand up for you. Raza believes in the power of humanity; loves and cares deeply for people beyond caste, sect, creed, gender, faith and religion. The State, the people of Pakistan, and also the people of India who believe in humanity must fight for Raza’s return. Let us bring him back.