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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    Just three parts to go: Umar Khatab is close to memorizing the whole Koran – one of the most exalted acheivements for a Muslim. It may be his saving grace in his fight to remain in Hong Kong – it helps him stay calm and it gives him a high profile in his mosque community, which has rallied to help him.
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Hong Kong

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.

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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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

Though Pakistan may be his homeland by birth, it’s Hong Kong he calls home. It’s where his community of friends is – the mosque where he began devoting himself to the discipline it takes to earn the title hafiz.

It’s also where his family is: Idrees has four children, and though Umar is technically their uncle, he refers to them, including Idrees’ wife, as his brothers and sisters.

Idrees has lived legally in Hong Kong since 1986 and supports his wife and the five children solely on the modest salary he earns from a job in a factory control unit. They share a small two-bedroom apartment wafting with the smells of roti and curried fish. His father, a man of little means but a consistent donor to the mosque, also lived with the family before he died.

“Before my father died I made a promise,” says Idrees. “We sat down and specifically discussed the future of Umar. He was worried so much. He specifically told me that I should promise Umar that I would provide for him. And I affirmed my promise.”

Umar and his brother come from a conservative Pakistani background where men are the providers and women stay home. Because both of Umar’s sisters are married and dependent on their husbands’ families in Pakistan, they have no obligation – nor right – to invite him into their homes should he be forced to leave Hong Kong, says Umar’s pro bono immigration consultant, Richard Aziz Butt.

Idrees holds no bitterness that he can’t get help from his sisters, he doesn’t mind his houseful of children: “These are my children. To love them is my tradition. This is also my religion.”

• • •

A letter dated Oct. 20 from the Department of Immigration states that “given the substantial change in circumstances that your father passed away ... in 2007” Umar is no longer eligible to remain in Hong Kong on dependent child status and that there are “insufficient justifications” to warrant an exceptional approval.

It’s unclear, however, why the justifications were insufficient.

“Part of the problem with the [Hong Kong Department of] Immigration is that none of the detail of their policies is available or transparent to the public,” explains Mark Daly, a Hong Kong-based human rights lawyer, who, though not involved with Umar’s specific case, is familiar with the vagaries of immigration law here.

“And that runs right through regular immigration, say, family reunion type stuff, to refugees. There are no statutes, no regulations, and none of this is public. So the Department of Immigration gets wide discretionary powers.”

The Department of Immigration declined to speak to the Monitor about the case.

Mr. Butt has taken Umar through a series of legal wranglings, including reconsideration of a decision to send the boy back and arguing successfully for an official “tolerance” for him to stay temporarily. But Umar’s appearance Nov. 17 involves yet more uncertainty as Butt asks for another tolerance period while the boy’s application is reconsidered by immigration authorities.

• • •

Umar is a student at Jordon Road Government Primary School in Kowloon, where he studies math, Chinese, and his favorite subject, English, which he perfects by watching Tom & Jerry cartoons. If he’s lucky – and in charge of the remote control – he’ll switch to a cricket game to cheer his favorite team, the West Indies. But if Kobe Bryant’s shooting hoops on TV, it’s a tough call, says Umar, switching seamlessly from Urdu into English.

Sometimes, though, even if cricket is on, Umar will quietly slip into the small room he shares with two of his siblings, take his Koran from the shelf, and begin to recite. Often he’ll turn first to Surah Yaseen, the 36th chapter, considered by many Muslims to be the heart of the text. It’s not only a fountain of calm, but practicing it brings him a step closer to securing the same title as his mentor hafiz.

“I get peace of mind. I believe [the Koran] stories are true ... and it tells me the right path,” he says. “When I grow up, I want to help people who are in trouble. But at this moment I have to pass through my own very troubled time.”

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