Hospitality tradition helps ease Pakistan’s refugee crisis


The solidarity derived from traditional hospitality has provided a pillar of strength to the embattled nation.

children in swat valley

Scene from a camp holding refugees from the Swat Valley.
Photo courtesy of Gulraiz Khan.

Amjad Khan, of Katland village near Mardan, earns US$110 a month. Since mid-May, he has been giving food and shelter to his cousin’s 10-member family, who had to flee their home in nearby Swat Valley because of war. Together with Amjad’s wife and three children, they squeeze into his one-room house. All his life savings have been spent. Yet the labourer insists: “I will never ask them to leave. They are our brethren. If we do not help them today, who will help us when we need it?”

Stories like Amjad’s are not uncommon in Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province, where hospitality is an ancient tradition still kept well alive. The locals believe their guests bring blessings of Allah, or God. It therefore comes as no surprise that thousands of families have welcomed refugees with open arms. In this conservative society, people also feel more comfortable staying with distant relatives than in relief camps, where space constraints force men and women to live in uncomfortable proximity.

In fact, almost 90% of Pakistan’s refugees are currently living with host families instead of in camps, according to the International Federation of Red Cross. Although unusual, this phenomenon is welcomed by aid agencies who otherwise could not have managed the flood of refugees pouring out of Swat Valley.

children n swat valley

children in swat valley

Children putting up at a refugee camp near Takht Bhai, Mardan, Pakistan

Wali Khan has been playing host to a family of 14 strangers that came walking down his street one night. His two-room house was too small to accommodate everybody, so he crammed his own family at his brother’s place nearby.

Given the local culture of complete gender segregation, Wali feels like an outsider in his own house. “I cannot move around the house because of the ladies’ presence. I cannot even make myself a cup of tea in the morning.” 

After three more refugees arrived, the kitchen was turned into a bedroom. Wali’s wife now does her cooking outdoors, and neighbouring households have helped by bringing by cooked meals and dry rations for Wali's family and their guests. Some have even offered shelter. The sense of communal affinity in this poverty-stricken town cannot be more evident.

Wali and Amjad, like the majority of the locals in north-western Pakistan, are ethnic Pushtuns. They claim – and not without historical proof – that their forefathers lived on both sides of the current Pakistan-Afghanistan border for centuries. Their lives have been governed by an unwritten, pre-Islamic code of honour called Pushtunwali, which has now been reconciled with Islamic values. It lays down the entire code of conduct for a Pushtun, from day-to-day matters to business transactions and settling disputes.

Hospitality is a central theme of Pushtunwali. A Pushtun is expected to go out of the way to entertain his guests, who are never allowed to leave without having a meal. Even for the not-so-well-off families, it is customary to slaughter an animal from their herd in order to prepare a special meal for visitors. The guest does not necessarily have to be a Pushtun. Even former British colonial officers and their families fleeing tribal attacks recall having been given shelter by friendly locals.

Hospitality goes hand in hand with the concept of panah, or “refuge”. Even enemies can be extended protection. Failing to protect a guest is considered a disgrace, and Pushtuns are even expected to lay down their lives to uphold this principle. Western governments and media, who have frequently accused Pushtun tribes for providing sanctuary to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban that fled Afghanistan in 2001, clearly have not understood that it is next to impossible for Pushtuns to reject the requests for protection from such “guests”. As such, many tribes in Pakistan have chosen to bear the wrath of the country’s military and US air strikes rather than surrender their “guests”, which would be a dishonourable act.

Pakistan’s own refugees have all benefitted from the local panah. According to the United Nations, more than 2 million civilians today have been displaced since the launch of the operation “Rah e Rast” (“The Right Path”) in May following the collapse of a peace deal between the government and the Taliban. Some sources put the number at 3.8 million.

The influx of refugees has been so great in the area that a local government school had to be converted into a makeshift camp for them.

As the army prepares to launch a major ground offensive in South Waziristan, another refugee crisis may soon erupt. The influx of displaced people into resources-deficient districts is a huge burden for local governments and families. A spontaneous informal social welfare system in the form of host families has helped to avert a major humanitarian disaster the last two months, but clearly, that cannot be a long-term solution. 

Photos courtesy of Gulraiz Khan

*Footnote: "The photographer Gulraiz Khan is a senior at Lahore University of Management Sciences, who was a part of the humanitarian efforts by local aid group Swat Relief."

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Hira Tajwar Born and brought up in Pakistan, Hira Tajwar is a mathematician by academic training but maintains a keen interest in socio-economic issues surrounding her country. She is a god-gifted vocalist and has been part of the Pakistan National Choir for over six years. Based in Singapore now, she intends to pursue a career in research apart from working as a freelance writer.

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