It Comes Down to Life or Death
Ahad Khan ’19 spent winter break of his junior year learning about ways he could be murdered.
He had seen it happen in his own family. His uncle was killed in 2010. His cousin and brother-in-law were injured in a terrorist attack.
As members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Khan and his family are “the wrong kind of Muslims” in Pakistan.
“I belong to a sect of Islam that Pakistan’s constitution declares as ‘non-Muslim,’ and that has led to a lot of persecution,” Khan says. “We believe there should be no revenge. You may persecute us, but we will not retaliate.”
Ahmadis in Pakistan are not legally allowed to carry the Quran, visit a normal mosque, openly cite the Islamic call to prayer, make the pilgrimage to Mecca, or even vote. Those who violate the law are subjected by the government to fines, imprisonment, and sometimes death. Some citizens take the law into their own hands.
“A lot of young students receive direct threats, especially men, because if you’re well-educated and if you are male, you have the potential to be a contributing member of society. And that doesn’t sit well with those who are trying to maintain the status quo.”
Khan went back home for a visit the winter of his sophomore year and had trouble trying to leave his house at times. Home wasn’t safe anymore, so when he came back to Wabash, he decided to apply for asylum.
Khan and Director of International Programs Amy Weir worked on his application every day over his junior-year winter break—not much money, no personal lawyer, and only one shot at success.
Fortunately, Weir had previously worked with family-based immigration as a paralegal, so she knew of a couple local lawyers who specialized in asylum and refugee law. With what little money he had, Khan was able to afford an hour-long consultation with an immigration lawyer in Indianapolis.
“Along with the application,” Weir explains, “you have to write a supporting letter that shows proof you are being persecuted. And if he and I were not convincing, we both knew there wouldn’t be another opportunity for this.
“We needed to find stories about people who were similar to him—Western-educated Ahmadi men who went back to Pakistan and faced consequences.”
Members of Khan’s family also stepped in to help him through the process. A cousin who had been granted asylum gave them copies of his filing and supporting documents. Family members wrote letters confirming the persecution they have faced in Pakistan.
His father came to the United States to help with the application and provided photographs, including one of a sign that had been placed on the family’s gate that read, “Infidels live here. Persecute them as you will.”
Weir says, “We wanted to show that, if he can’t stay here and has to go back to Pakistan, this kind of death is probably waiting for him.”
“This wasn’t a project or an assignment,” Khan says, “this was a legal document. This was serious stuff! I was just so grateful for all of the support.”
Dean of the College Scott Feller was impressed by Khan’s persistence and focus.
“Facing this situation, most of us would have been bitter and decried the motives of others while bemoaning our fate, but Ahad struck out boldly on his own by researching asylum options, applying, and at the same time educating all around him on the effects of decisions made by political leaders. He did all that while excelling in the classroom and as a campus leader.”
Khan’s advisor, Professor of Political Science Scott Himsel ’85, says that’s simply the way his student comes at life.
“I marvel at how understanding and kind Ahad is even when he is defending a position zealously. He has so many traits our society needs.”
Khan’s application was submitted in January 2017 and, in an interesting turn of events, a process that normally takes years took just months. A few days after his application was filed, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services announced they were facing an overload of asylum applications. To deal with the backlog, they decided to address the most recent applications first.
Khan got the first bit of good news the summer of his junior year at the Louisville Legal Aid Society, where he was the Jeffrey Been ’81 Intern. Weir sent him an urgent email—the College had received a document addressed to him from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“Amy had worked with me through this entire process, so I asked her to open it.”
Khan’s interview for asylum was scheduled for two weeks out.
“For some people, it takes two to three years, and I got mine just two months after applying. Unheard of.”
Mentors at his internship encouraged Kahn to take the time he needed to get ready.
“I’ve learned at Wabash that when something exciting like this happens, you prepare. You get ready to put your best foot forward.”
He met his attorney in Chicago, the asylum interview went well, and Khan got an unexpected gift on the drive home. His roommate of three years, Dominic Rivers ’18, had played and sung a song and sent it via text.
“He made a recording of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’,’ and, at the end, said, ‘This one is for you, Ahad.’ He cooked dinner for me and a small group of friends, we jammed and celebrated.”
Two weeks later, Khan learned his application for asylum had been granted.
“I felt a big sense of relief. It was something I had worked so hard for, and so many Wabash people had helped me. The best feeling was knowing that I was in the right spot here—it felt like this was an accomplishment not just for me, but for Wabash.”
Khan is now officially an asylee and is in the process of becoming a permanent resident. Once he receives his green card, it will be another four years before he’ll become a citizen.
“I’m a political science major. I want to feel what it’s like to vote.”
Khan has taken his political science degree to Dallas, Texas, where he will be working in the financial crime compliance division for Goldman Sachs.
“They didn’t tell me exactly what it means or what I’ll be doing.” Khan laughs. “It’s very complex, and the trajectory is something I never would have thought about, but I’m very excited.”
He hopes to attend law school eventually because, not surprisingly, he believes his calling is in the legal field of human rights.
“Yes, there is Islamophobia in the United States, but it is not persecution. We have full freedom to practice, profess, and preach our faith. That is a basic human right. Everyone should be able to, but it wasn’t the case for 19 years of my life.
“America is a very special place to me, and I am so grateful to be here. But people in the United States take the inherent rights they have for granted—and that’s okay! But we have to think about people in other countries.”