'We're feeling helpless': Kashmiris in Edmonton worry for family back home

Kashmiris living in Edmonton say they are worried for their families back home who they haven't spoken to for more than a week since India downgraded Kashmir's status from a state with some autonomy to two territories.

Canadians cannot communicate with family in Kashmir due to a communication lockdown

Nasir Sheikh,33, stands with his wife and daughter. Sheikh says he hasn't spoken or been able to contact his family in Kashmir for more than a week. (Nasir Sheikh)

Nasir Sheikh says he has many negative thoughts running through his mind.

It has been a month since Sheikh has spoken to his wife Nuvaid Ahad, who travelled to Kashmir with their three-month-old baby to spend time with family.

"What if they run out of supplies and out of baby food?" Sheikh said on Wednesday.

He also worries about his parents, who live in Kashmir.  

"What if they get hurt? How will they get help?"

Sheikh couldn't get time off so he couldn't travel with them to introduce his first baby to their parents.

Sheikh's feeling of helplessness is what a lot of Kashmiris living in Edmonton and Canada have been feeling for more than a week since India downgraded Kashmir's special status.

India's government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and downgraded the Himalayan region from statehood to a territory.

Since the change of Kashmir's status, India has imposed a security lockdown to try to prevent any violent reaction to Kashmir's new status, cutting off all communication and enforcing a strict curfew.

Sheikh moved to Canada two years ago from Kashmir. He says he's known that an insurgency has simmered for decades.

An Indian Paramilitary soldier orders a Kashmiri to lift his robe before frisking him during curfew in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir. (Dar Yasin/Associated Press)

Kashmiris are used to blockades, he added, but the one imposed after the Indian government's surprise move is something Sheikh has never seen before.

"Before they used to just block the internet, they never used to block landlines. Maybe at some instance, they block the phone services as well but landline was always working," Sheikh told CBC News. 

Sheikh, 33, who was a civil engineer in Kashmir and is now taking engineering courses in Edmonton, says his 33-year-old wife is a PhD student at University of Alberta.

With his wife and daughter gone, he is having a difficult time focusing on anything other than his family.

"We're feeling helpless at this moment," he said.

As Muslims all over the world celebrated Eid-ul-Adha this past weekend, Sheikh said he spent his daughter's first Eid with other worried Kashmiris with relatives back home.

You just feel anxious and helpless because you can't do anything- Rahique Handoo

Muslims typically eat big feasts during Eid, but Sheikh says he didn't even cook.

"How can we celebrate when you know that your family is not safe and you don't know anything about them?"

His wife and their daughter were set to return on Aug. 28.

'What if she's hurt'

Rahique Handoo, 23, shares Sheikh's concerns about family members abroad. Her grandmother is living by herself.

"You just feel anxious and helpless because you can't do anything and you have no idea what's happening," Handoo said.

"We have no idea if that's still happening because the entire city is shut down. What if she's hurt?"

Indian security forces personnel patrol a deserted street during restrictions after the government scrapped special status for Kashmir, in Srinagar Aug. 9. (Danish Ismail/Reuters )

Handoo's mother has been calling the grandmother every night, with no answer.

"Even though the phone lines are cut, she's trying every night to maybe somehow get connected."

Raise awareness

Sheikh says the Pakistan Canada Association of Edmonton sent a letter to MP Amarjeet Sohi's office on Aug. 8, urging the federal government to speak up about the turmoil in Kashmir and condemn India for its actions.

Sohi's office confirmed they received the letter and have spoken to many constituents about it. 

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday that Canada continues to closely follow developments in Jammu and Kashmir.

"In recent days, I have spoken to many Canadians — including Canadians of Kashmiri descent who have family in Jammu and Kashmir — about this important issue," Freeland said in a statement posted to the Government of Canada's website.

"Like them, Canada is concerned about the risk of escalation, infringements on civil rights and reports of detentions. We encourage meaningful discussions and consultations with affected communities. We call on all parties to maintain peace and stability along the Line of Control and in the region," reads the statement.

But according to Rahique, Canada's response is still not enough.

"We are trying to raise awareness, we are holding rallies, but we just feel helpless."

With files from Canadian Press