I travelled 4,000 miles to find my dad
Oct 19, 2018
The sealed envelope sits on my desk. I know what's inside but I'm still
scared to look. My heart races as I carefully prise open the flap and slide the images
into the light.
These photos of a man I don't recognise from a time I don't remember.
I'd never had an image of my father in my head before. Now I do.
My journey to find my dad started in the attic of my London flat in January this year. That's where I sat to look at these pictures of him for the first time.
I'm an only child and my parents split up when I was a baby. Nobody in the family had heard from him since. But I always knew there would be a moment in my life when I would need to go and meet my dad at least once.
I’m 27 now and live in South London. I grew up in Birmingham and went to Leeds University where I presented a specialist music show on the student radio station. The show received a bit of notice and won a few awards, and this ultimately led to my current career as a radio show host for BBC Radio 1Xtra. I've done some acting too: my first feature film, Freehold - a horror with comedic elements - came out in 2017. And I recently landed a role in the new BBC drama series Informer.
I’m happy with the way my life is going so far, but before I started on this journey, I always had a nagging feeling that something in my life was unresolved.
Nobody had seen my dad for 26 years. All I had were three decades-old photos, the year of his marriage to my mum, and his name from my birth certificate. The idea of trying to find a man I knew so little about seemed almost inconceivable. I was afraid of the emotional impact of discovering he was dead, or that he didn’t want to see me, or of simply not finding him.
And I was angry with him.
I was raised by my nan on my mum's side and had spent some time living with a family friend.
My mum has experienced mental illness throughout her life and has never been able to talk to me about my dad
or their relationship.
But I know from my family that it didn't end well.
They met through an advert in a newspaper that he placed stating that he was looking for a wife, and my nan's sister
thought they would be a good match.
When things went bad, my nan made it her duty to get her daughter away from him.
Growing up, I often wondered exactly what happened.
Are all boys their father's seed?
If my father was bad, did that mean I was destined to be bad too?
I decided that if I was really going to find my dad, I’d turn it into a work project. I wanted to document my journey, whatever happened. I approached BBC Three with the idea of making a documentary because I thought my story – of a son trying to reconnect with his father – was something young people could relate to.
At this point, my dad was still not a real person to me - just a fragmented collection of photos and stories filtered through my relatives. I was determined to keep an open mind and stay as objective as possible to find out what really happened – and what I really thought and felt.
The first place to look for my dad was the City of Westminster Archives Centre. This holds the published indexes of births, marriages and deaths, and I needed my parents’ marriage certificate. It took hours of searching – but it was worth it.
My father's name was Khalid Wralk.
I was surprised to find he had been married before my mum - but that the marriage had been disolved.
What was more, he had been 50 while she was 31. A 19 year age gap that mean he was now 78.
My heart sank. There was a good chance he had already passed away.
After this discovery, Something shifted in my mind.
A little of the anger I felt yielded to a small desire for understanding.
I spoke to family members including Zahida – a family friend who took care of me while my nan devoted herself to caring for my mum – who showed me some pictures of me from my childhood. I wanted to know why my parents separated.
She told me she had heard that my father’s behaviour with my mother was “not very good” and that my mother had been very sick. I had always understood that my mother’s condition deteriorated during her relationship with my father. I was told that he had even been abusive towards her. But I wanted the other side of the story.
My parents’ marriage certificate showed that dad had lived in Dudley in the West Midlands – a large market town ten miles northwest of Birmingham.
I checked the electoral roll hoping he might have returned – but there were no current addresses registered to his name. I went through every former residence – including one where he had apparently lived with his first wife – but nobody remembered him.
I realised I may never find him, and there was something in me that may never be figured out.
I didn’t have many leads left to follow. I called a local politician who I had been told knew a lot of people in the area. He didn’t know my father, but he pointed me to a mosque in my dad’s old neighbourhood. It was a long shot – but I asked him to set up a meeting.
The three leaders of the Cradley Heath mosque had lived in the area for years, and knew everyone in the community.
One of them had been in the town for 51 years.
I showed them some photographs of my father, keeping my hopes in check.
I'd come to several dead ends by this stage.
They studied the photographs carefully and nodded at each other.
"Yes," they said.
They knew who he was straight away.
One of the men had lived with my dad in the same house – along with eight or nine other people. He was “1,000% sure” that he knew who he was from the photo. I couldn’t believe it. What was he like?
The men exchanged glances.
“Put it this way,” said one. “He didn’t have a very good reputation.”
My dad was very impatient, and not “strong”, the men said. But he was alive – in Pakistan. He’d been living there for at least 10 years.
They had a phone number for him. One of them even remembered the address of my father’s home town of Thara, in Kashmir because he had written letters for my father – who was illiterate – when he had lived with him.
My dad was in Pakistan.
I was reeling.
It took me a few days to take it in. But I’d come so far there was now only option: I was going to go to Pakistan to find my dad.
I was scared of rejection, so I tried calling him first. My dad hung up the phone – twice. But after everything I’d been through, I wasn’t about to give up.
So I wrote him a letter and told him that I wanted to meet him in July. “I am travelling to your country, and in return I just require an hour of your time. That’s all I want. Please, for the son you have brought into the world, just allow yourself to have a conversation with him.”
I landed in Islamabad, Pakistan. The colours, the sounds, and above all the traffic were alien to me.
I called my dad. He didn’t want to meet.
“You being in Pakistan – what relation is that to me?” he said.
He turned his phone off.
I was crushed. I felt rejected. It didn’t make any sense to me. I had travelled so far and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to see me.
But overnight I received a message from my dad. He wanted to speak. He explained that the day before he was in shock that I was in Pakistan. He said he would meet me – but he refused to be on camera. So our first meeting wasn’t filmed out of respect for his wishes.
My dad lives in Thara, Azad Kashmir – a small village about two hours away from Islamabad. Throughout the journey I was filled with a mix of nervousness and anticipation. We weren’t expecting a reception but when our car pulled up there was a crowd of about 10 to 20 men gathered around, all wearing Shalwar Kameez (traditional Pakistani dress).
“Oh my god,” I thought. “How many people have come out here?”
The car door opened and my eyes fixed on one man – and his eyes fixed on me.
And that was my dad.
He had a well-kempt white beard and looked frail but healthy. I recognised him instantly. I had no memories of him, but I still knew he was my own blood and flesh. I didn't have to look at anyone else to know that this was my dad.
I had a box of mangoes in my hand. I put them down and embraced him. He started crying. In that moment I didn't feel anything towards this man, and that really surprised me. I was just so numb. I think I was still protecting myself from what was about to happen. I realised afterwards that I needed some time to be able to process it in my hea
“It feels very good,” my dad said to those around us. “He is my son. He tried so hard to come to his father. He came to Pakistan and we embraced each other.”
In the end I stayed in Thara for several days. I wasn’t expecting such a warm welcome into the family. We took photos together. I played cricket with my two younger brothers and met my sister.
I've lived my whole life craving brothers and sisters, and it was amazing to bond with them.
Now I know I can pursue more of a relationship with them if I want in future.
My dad even opened up to me. I was able to talk to him about the breakdown of his marriage to my mum. He firmly denied abusing her and said my mum’s family plotted against him to take me away.
I will never know for sure what happened between my parents given that my mum can’t tell me and I have heard contrasting accounts from different people. But I saw from my dad’s household that he is very strict, non-negotiable and adamant on having things a certain way.
I was grateful I wasn’t raised in an environment like that. But at the same time my dad has a softer side. He cried when he saw me, and was emotional throughout our meeting. He can still have a laugh. He still makes jokes. He is a complex character for sure.
Three months on from that visit, I'm just taking it how it comes. I’m not putting expectations on anything, or having any fairy tale fantasies about us all being one big happy family.
We don’t speak on the phone every day to each other, like, "Hey, what did you have for dinner tonight?" But we speak here and there, whenever we get an opportunity.
I can’t quite believe that we’re in contact and have a relationship. It has taught me that if I ever have children, I never want them to go for so long without knowing their father.
Has the experience helped me understand who I am? Well, I’ve lived a very different life to my dad. I was brought up in a Western country. I received a lot of love and support from my friends and family. I don’t think I would be as strict as he is, and I think I am probably more reflective too.
But even though my dad and I are very different, I still have his DNA. There is one thing I noticed we have in common. During my time with him, I remember him laughing at something that I didn't find that funny at all. He laughs at very weird things sometimes. It was confusing to me – until I realised I do exactly the same thing. I'm always laughing at weird things too.
At least in that sense I’m still his seed.
Mim Shaikh: Finding Dad is on BBC iPlayer now.