It does not happen very often these days that there is a positive story containing the words “America” and “refuge,” but against all odds, human rights activist Gulalai Ismail has managed to slip across Pakistan’s borders in order to seek political asylum in Brooklyn, New York.
Since she was 16, Ismail has been outspoken about Pakistani human rights abuses including forced marriages and honor killings. Recently, the Pakistani government accused her of treason after January 2019 social media posts revealed rapes and sexual abuse committed by government soldiers against its own citizens.
In May, Ismail was tipped off to an upcoming raid of the home she shared with her elderly parents and spent months moving from house to house across Pakistan, hidden by a network of friends and supporters, rarely going outside. Finally, she was able to flee the country and make her way to a sister in Brooklyn on a visa she already had from trips to discuss human rights abuses with women leaders like Michelle Obama. Though, according to the New York Times, Ismail isn’t revealing how she managed to slip through Pakistan’s heavily guarded borders:
“How she did that — whether it was crossing overland into Iran or Afghanistan and then onward to Europe or America, or perhaps getting smuggled out by sea — remains a tantalizing mystery. The Pakistani government had barred her from leaving the country and tried to seal all the exits.”
As Ismail moves through the application process for political asylum, attorneys are optimistic that she will be allowed to stay. Prominent human rights activists along with politicians have also pledged to fight to keep her here:
“I will do everything I can to support Gulalai’s asylum request,” said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York. “It is clear that her life would be in danger if she were to return to Pakistan.”
But escaping comes with new worries. Ismail’s parents, still in Pakistan, face trial for financing terrorism, and even in New York, she remains fearful of Pakistani agents or government supporters. She tells the Times that she is considering going to law school and has founded an advocacy group called Voices for Peace and Democracy devoted to protecting women in conflict zones.