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Pakistan mourns death of star athlete in shipwreck off Italy

Shahida Raza had represented Pakistan in football, hockey and martial arts in several international championships.

Social media users in Pakistan have expressed their grief and paid tribute to former national field hockey player Shahida Raza, who died in a shipwreck last week off the coast of Italy.

The Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) confirmed on Thursday that Raza was one of 62 people killed on Sunday when a boat sank near the Italian coast.

Raza, who had also represented Pakistan in football and martial arts, had engaged smugglers to get her out of the country as she sought a better future for her disabled son, her friend Summaya Kainat told Reuters news agency.

The 27-year-old belonged to Pakistan’s Shiite Hazara minority community and hailed from the southern province of Balochistan.

Hazaras have been regularly targeted by armed groups in Pakistan, leading many to seek asylum abroad.

According to Kainat, Raza left her home on the outskirts of Quetta four months ago. She crossed the southwestern border from Pakistan into Iran and then traveled to Turkey, eventually reaching Italy or Australia and seeking asylum there.

Kainat said her friend chose to apply for asylum because she believed refugee status was easier to obtain than a regular visa.

“She was the family’s sole breadwinner,” Kainat, who played hockey with Raza, told Reuters news agency.

“She told me she would take her son Hasan with her as soon as she got a job,” Kainat said of Raza’s three-year-old son who had a disability that left him unable to speak or move without help.

Raza was one of two nationals killed in the shipwreck, according to Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry. Another 17 Pakistanis were rescued while two remain missing, the ministry said in a statement Thursday.

Balochistan’s chief minister expressed grief over Raza’s death and said in a statement that she had brought honor to the province and the country.

All-round athlete

PHF records show that Raza has represented Pakistan in several international tournaments from juniors to women’s national team.

Nicknamed “Chintu”, Raza played as a half-back and was known for her sprints splitting defenses and scoring goals.

She started playing hockey in the women’s national hockey championship in 2007, representing the military and Wapda (local water and energy authority) teams.

In addition to being a hockey star, Raza also played football and was a part of the women’s national football championship.

Social media users in Pakistan have described some of Raza’s sporting achievements and expressed grief over her death. Among those paying tribute was Pakistani cricketer Hasan Ali, who wrote on Twitter, “May Allah bless her with the highest rank in Jannah,” a term for paradise.

Kainat said Raza was unemployed when her sponsorship with the department sports team ended and struggled to make ends meet amid rising inflation. Raza’s husband divorced her, citing his inability to live with a disabled child.

“Whenever I spoke to her on WhatsApp during her stay in Iran or Turkey, she would cry and ask about Hasan,” Kainat said.

Turkey is part of one of the most used routes for people smugglers bringing asylum seekers to Europe. The journey can involve walking miles and being locked in shipping containers for days on end.

The United Nations refugee agency said about 15 percent of sea arrivals in Italy last year were from Turkey.

Each year, several thousand Pakistanis pay millions to smugglers for a perilous journey by land and sea to reach Europe in the hope of a better life. Pakistani officials said they have a new action against people smugglers in Punjab province after the boat tragedy.