An orphaned Koranic prodigy finds his place in the world
A Hong Kong mosque rallies to save Umar Khatab – who has nearly memorized the whole Muslim holy book – from being sent back to Pakistan where he has no family to care for him.
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The prayer room is abuzz with an insectoid hum where more than 30 young boys sit cross-legged on the floor, reciting lines from Korans propped on wooden desks in front of them. Some recite quietly to themselves, others chant more loudly while swaying rhythmically back and forth. But one in the front of the room is more intense than the others.
The green cloth cover that protects the yellowed pages of Umar Khatab’s Koran is faded and frayed. The beginning and end of each day’s assignment is jotted in the margins of the text every 15 lines. Today, the 13-year-old’s task is to memorize a full page from the 25th “part.” He’s just three parts short of memorizing every verse in the holy book.
It’s a task few Muslims ever achieve. And it may be the saving grace – both spiritually and practically – for Umar, a newly orphaned immigrant facing a bureaucratic battle that could alter his life.
In this teeming immigrant employment mecca, the struggle of a Pakistani child suddenly alone in the world might easily fall below the humanitarian radar. When his father died last year and Umar lost his immigration status, he was ordered to leave by Nov. 3 to return to Pakistan, where he has no relatives able to take him in. But because of his gift of learning the Koran, Umar’s high profile in his mosque community meant there was a core of determined adults to take up his defense – the latest round of which is Nov. 17 when his advocates hope to stall the order to leave while they argue his case to stay.
Umar’s uncertainty of his place in the world is perhaps the quotidian experience in the global economy’s tidal currents of immigration. His biggest fear is returning to Pakistan, a place his parents took him from to find bigger and better opportunity here in Hong Kong – an opportunity now threatened.
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The white marble walls of the Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Center is where Umar spends at least an hour each weekday evening – double that on weekends – studying at the mosque with his teacher, Hafiz Mohammad Zafar. Hafiz is the Arabic word for guardian (of the Koran), that is a person who has fully memorized the Koran, considered one of the most exalted achievements for a Muslim.
“I knew [Umar] was extraordinary when I saw how fast he began to memorize the Koran,” says Mr. Zafar, who searched out an immigration consultant to help Umar. “He was faster than any other student.... But more than speed, I feel he recites with his own free wish and happiness.”
That happiness, though, seems to be in the hands of the Hong Kong Department of Immigration. Forget toys, Happy Meals, or new sneakers, there is just one thing on this 13-year-old’s wish list: a very important pink sticker – an extension of his visa – pasted into his passport.
What lies between him and this sticker is the Department of Immigration’s approval of a sponsor. His father was his original sponsor, but he died last year. His mother died last month in Pakistan. Those who remain are his older brother, Mohammad Idrees, and two older sisters in Pakistan who cannot take him in.
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In all of this – beyond the family tragedy and beyond the intensity of his prodigious focus on the Koran – Umar is a boy like any other.
Sitting for an interview on a bench near his mosque in a freshly pressed salwar kameez, traditional Muslim garb, that his brother’s wife irons every night, Umar’s hands are clasped in his lap. He breaks into a toothy grin, eyes widening, when asked what he wants to be when he grows up: A pilot.
His brother, Mr. Idrees, chimes in: “But I thought you wanted to be a teacher?”
“I want to be that, too,” Khatab replies, grinning.
The first time Umar boarded a plane was in 2006 when he left behind his sick mother and the dusty streets of Attock, two hours from Islamabad, for a new life with his father and brother already living in Hong Kong. He chose a window seat, where he recalls laughing at the clouds passing by.
His reflections upon those early years seem haunted. “I grew up alone there. I only had one or two friends,” he says. He cannot remember his friends’ names but he can remember that his mother, weak and frail, prayed at home five times a day. And it is this vision of his lonely past that has kept him up crying at night for weeks, says Idrees.