Pakistan Ex-Hockey Player’s Dreams of Better Life Shatter in Italy Shipwreck

QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) — Seeking a better future for her disabled son, former national hockey player for Pakistan Shahida Raza enlisted human smugglers to get her out of the country. Her life ended last month off the coast of Italy when the boat carrying her and scores of others sank.

According to her friend and former teammate Summaya Kainat, 27-year-old Raza left her home on the outskirts of Quetta, in southwestern Baluchistan Province, four months ago for neighboring Iran and then Turkey, with the aim of eventually reaching Italy or Australia and seeking asylum there.

Raza was a member of the Shiite Muslim Hazara minority, a sect often targeted by Islamist militants, and had opted for asylum because she believed it was easier to gain refugee status after illegally entering these countries than to get a regular visa, Kainat added.

“She was the sole breadwinner of the family,” Kainat told Reuters at Raza’s modest family home, while Raza’s widowed mother and younger sister sobbed uncontrollably in a room that had been turned into a makeshift shrine filled with certificates, medals and trophies celebrating her sporting achievements.

“She told me that as soon as she got a job, she would take her son Hasan away with her,” she added. Hasan, aged 3, was born with a disability that left him unable to speak or move unaided, Kainat added. She could not name the disability.

Raza’s mother and other family member did not want to be interviewed for this story.

The chief minister of Baluchistan expressed grief over Raza’s death saying in a statement she had brought honor to the province and the country.

The vessel, which authorities believe was carrying up to 200 migrants, sank in rough seas before dawn on Feb. 26. Those on board were mostly from neighboring Afghanistan.

Raza started playing hockey in the national league in 2007 and for years was sponsored by the army and the water and power authority, Kainat and Baluchistan government officials said. She also played soccer in domestic competitions.

When the sponsorship ended, Kainat said, Raza was left jobless in a country suffering its worst economic crisis in decades. Raza’s husband divorced her, citing his inability to live with a disabled child, according to Kainat.

“Whenever I talked to her on WhatsApp during her stay in Iran or Turkey, she was crying and asking after Hasan,” Kainat said.

Turkey is part of one of the most-used routes for human smugglers to bring migrants into Europe, who at times travel by road, walk for miles and endure being locked in ship containers for days. The U.N. refugee agency said that last year people travelling from Turkey made up about 15% of arrivals to Italy by sea and that nearly half of those using the route were Afghans.