The first Oak Fellow, Zafaryab Ahmed, was a Pakistani academic, journalist, and human rights crusader. When Ahmed came to Colby In 1998, he was leaving life-threatening living conditions back home in Pakistan. His human rights work, particularly his efforts to end the country’s bonded labor system that exploited children and adult workers, had marked him as a threat to the state; treason and conspiracy charges meant he could pay a hefty price for his activism: death by hanging (See New Internationalist 1996).
Ahmed was born in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province and the nation’s second-largest city. He went on to study at Punjab University, eventually earning a masters in “International Relations and Politics” as well as “Eastern and Western Political Thought.” He also studied abroad at the University of Manchester, adding a masters in sociology to his academic record. Briefly, he worked within academia, teaching at multiple institutions: Faisalabad Agriculture University, Atchison College and the Administrative Staff College (see Rodriguez 2011; Pakistan Press Foundation 2006; Dawn 2006).
However, journalism was where he thrived. He was a writer and editor for various English-language newspapers and journals in Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore. For example, he worked for the Daily Dawn, Weekly Viewpoint, and the Frontier Post. In 1990, he served as editor for Pakistan’s first Punjabi newspaper (see Pakistan Press Foundation 2006; Dawn 2006).
Although his career as an activist began in the 1960s when he took part in Pakistan’s student protest movement, Ahmed’s political activities never subsided. By 1995, as alluded to above, he was arrested for his efforts. When a twelve-year-old leader of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front was killed (see New Internationalist 1996), Ahmed was not a passive bystander. Calling for the independent investigation of what looked like a murder, he was arrested by the Federal Investigation Agency and charged with treason. He spent two months in prison in Lahore; his wife, Maria del Nevo, described his living conditions as “subhuman.” When he got temporary bail, del Nevo found her husband “gaunt and weary” (see New Internationalist 1996).
For the next eight months, Ahmed was unemployed, living in a state of limbo as he awaited legal approval to travel to the United States for his Oak Fellowship. Confronted with international pleas for Ahmed’s freedom, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif acquiesced and granted the journalist a 90-day travel permit. Hence, the first Oak fellow was delayed and only arrived at the end of the fall semester – in December. He was subject to return in February, when he would face the charges against him and potential death.
However, Ahmed’s story did not end when February 1999 rolled around. His arrest and incarceration were protested by Amnesty International; the organization appealed to have the treason charges dismissed. Ahmed remained in the United States until 2005 (see Pakistan Press Foundation & Dawn 2006). Amnesty International and The Body Shop named him one of twelve “Defenders of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” In 1999, Toronto, Canada honored him with the CJFE Press Freedom International Award for “his meritorious services to journalism” (see Pakistan Press Foundation & Dawn 2006).
At age 53, he returned to Pakistan. His poor health was apparent – his liver and respiratory system weakening. A heart attack proved fatal two months later on January 25, 2006 (see Pakistan Press Foundation & Dawn 2006). Despite his untimely passing, he was never successfully silenced. Even when targeted by the government, he bravely said, “…let them hang me. They will do so knowing that I’m innocent” (see the New Internationalist 1996).