Washington — Ehsan Rehan never imagined he would end up in Washington, D.C.
When he left Pakistan for the last time in 2012, his expected final destination — by way of New York — was Canada, where the then 21-year-old asylum-seeker had a network of friends and extended family waiting for him.
But the more Rehan talked to friends in America, the more he became convinced Washington, with its access to government and policy experts, would be a better location to help bring change for members of his harshly persecuted community back in Pakistan.
Rehan is Ahmadi, a tiny minority sect of Islam famously shared by Academy Award-winning actor Mahershala Ali that many Muslims consider heretics.
A majority of the estimated 10 million Ahmadis in the world reside in Pakistan under daily threat of persecution that has grown dramatically in the last decade. They are banned from worshipping at mainstream mosques or reading the Quran in public. The punishment can be death.
In the last few years, hundreds have been killed at their mosques and homes, sometimes by vigilante mobs. In one 2010 attack on two Ahmadi mosques, over 90 people were killed and 108 injured. Two Ahmadi doctors and a college professor were murdered this March in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
The Pakistani Constitution only makes life harder for the community, which is legally barred from identifying as Muslim on official documents.
While many Ahmadis tend to be highly educated, they struggle to find sustained employment due to their faith.
Unsurprisingly, Ahmadis constitute a majority of Pakistanis seeking international asylum on the basis of religious persecution.
Over the past five years, many Pakistani Ahmadis have traveled to the U.S. as refugees after first claiming asylum in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Hundreds of other Ahmadis have traveled to the U.S. legally on tourist visas and then sought asylum upon reaching the country.
Rehan had no family in the U.S. His only connection was the local Ahmadi community in the D.C. area. His first job, at an Ahmadi-owned business, was also a result of his community network.
Now he is one of 16,000 Ahmadis making their home in the U.S.
Good to go
Rehan, 26, grew up in Pakistan’s small, Ahmadiyya-majority town of Rabwah. A precocious child, he began to question the pervasive fear around him early on.
His father, who worked in marketing, was fired from one job after another, and family members who had moved to larger cities for work lived in secrecy, hiding their faith from their closest friends and colleagues.
While still in high school, Rehan founded Rabwah Times, a digital magazine about religious freedom and minority rights in Pakistan. He also applied for the Pakistan army, clearing the written exam. He was rejected as soon as his interviewer learned he was Ahmadi.
After college, he tried to launch a weekly print newspaper in Rabwah, but the political atmosphere for Ahmadis had gone from bad to worse, and Rehan was flatly denied registration for the newspaper.
Dismayed by the rejection and the increase in targeted violence against his community, Rehan decided he didn’t want to live like this.
“I felt I had to get away, one way or the other,” he said.
Given his fiery online writings about minority rights — a potential death sentence for Pakistani activists and journalists — Rehan’s parents encouraged him to leave the country, despite the fact that he was their only child.
He applied for a U.S. visit visa, contemplating the path a majority of his Ahmadi classmates had taken: seeking faith-based international asylum once in the U.S.
His tourist visa was denied. Feeling hopeless, Rehan left Pakistan to backpack across Nepal and Malaysia. He returned a few months later and decided to give it one last shot – almost certain of another rejection.
This time he was called for a visa interview at the U.S. Consulate in Islamabad.
The American visa officer, seated behind bulletproof glass, opened Rehan’s passport and pointed his finger to the column declaring his religion. He then asked, “What’s this?”
Rehan guessed that the officer didn’t want to go on record questioning him about his religion and that he was hinting that Rehan’s actual purpose for the visit was to later apply for faith-based asylum.
“I simply said yes, I am Ahmadi. I told him honestly about my views and work. And then he said I was good to go.”
Even as he got his visa, he was struck by how his Ahmadi faith was singled out by the U.S. Embassy.
“I felt like my religious identity, as conveyed on that passport by the Pakistani state, was stuck with me forever. Whatever I did in life, it would always be secondary to that identity.”
Amjad Mahmood Khan, an adjunct professor at UCLA Law School, said the U.S. government should pay closer attention to Ahmadi persecution.
“The U.S. should be very concerned about the weaponization of laws in Pakistan against religious minorities,” Khan said. “Restoring religious freedom there should be a national security imperative here. Ahmadi Muslims escaping religious repression frequently look to the U.S. as a beacon of hope, and we hope the U.S. State Department continues to actively process and resettle Ahmadi Muslim refugee cases from Pakistan.”
While Pakistan is not on the list of countries in the Trump administration’s travel ban, some immigration attorneys claim restrictions for most predominantly Muslim countries, including Pakistan, have tightened — making the already desperate situation of asylum-seekers such as Pakistani Ahmadis even more precarious.
The Pakistani origin of Tashfeen Malik, one of the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack, though she was not Ahmadi, didn’t help matters.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency was criticized for its failure to screen Malik, and she quickly became a poster child for a campaign to halt what some people contended was an unstoppable wave of radical Muslims entering America.
According to the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration statistics yearbook, just 1.7 percent of over 1 million immigrants who received permanent U.S. residency in 2015 were from Pakistan.
And out of nearly 18,000 asylum applications approved by the U.S. in 2015, about 1.5 percent were from Pakistan.
Targeting of Muslim travelers is not new.
President Obama tightened restrictions on the number of Iraqi immigrants and refugees entering the U.S., and a notorious Bush-era program targeting Muslim immigrants to date was brought to light through a 2016 lawsuit against Citizenship and Immigration Services by 13 Muslim Missouri residents.
Anam Rahman, a lawyer in Fairfax, Va., who handles asylum and refugee cases, said there’s no guarantee asylum policies won’t get even more difficult for Muslim refugees. She is telling her asylum clients to be patient and expect longer waits.
“We still don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that my Syrian clients’ cases continue languishing when others aren’t,” she said.
A pathway to freedom
Rehan arrived in New York in June 2012, just shy of his 22nd birthday. He then made his way to Washington’s Maryland suburbs to hire a lawyer and apply for asylum.
Within a few weeks, the USCIS had taken his fingerprints and begun its screening process. In January 2013, Rehan appeared for the interview that would ultimately decide his fate.
Interviewers for asylum applicants seek concrete evidence of persecution and are trained to spot the signs of falsified information.
In Rehan’s case, they also relied on reports issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to verify claims of Ahmadi persecution in Pakistan. Extensive background checks confirmed that Rehan was indeed a practicing Ahmadi who wasn’t feigning his faith.
While his application was pending, Rehan received a work permit and, with the help of the Ahmadi community’s network in the U.S., found a place to live and a job managing information technology systems for an Ahmadi-owned business in Maryland.
Once Rehan’s application was accepted, he had to give up his Pakistani passport. He became eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship a year later and is awaiting his permanent residency card. While he can now travel to Pakistan, he doesn’t think he will, for fears of his and his family’s safety.
Along with his full-time job, Rehan continues to run Rabwah Times – which international human rights watchdogs now rely upon for news about Ahmadi persecution.
He routinely reports on human rights organizations working on religious tolerance in Pakistan and often meets with American policymakers and those visiting from Pakistan in a quest to influence positive change in Pakistani policies as well as educate the American public about his community.
“I was very surprised as to how open and welcoming Pakistani-American Muslims were to me at large,” he said.
But Rehan notes that mainstream Muslim organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America and the Council on American-Islamic Relations still refuse to accept Ahmadis as Muslims, and avoid engaging with them at a community level.
Going forward, he hopes to make some difference for his adopted country as well as the loved ones he was forced to leave behind.
He has been taking courses at a local college to improve his understanding of U.S. politics and media, and he plans to use this education to become more involved in international-level advocacy for human rights in Pakistan.
While continuing to expand Rabwah Times, he has also joined AdvoPak, a nonprofit group that advocates for religious freedom in Pakistan.
“I do not think there is anything more important in my life than this,” he said. “I feel like America didn’t just give me refuge and a pathway to freedom. It’s given me a stronger sense of purpose.”