QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) — A Pakistani national soccer team player who died in a migrant shipwreck off Italy's southern coast embarked on the voyage to find medical treatment for her disabled 3-year-old son, her sister and a friend said Saturday. Hospitals had told her that help overseas could be her only option.
Shahida Raza, who also played for Pakistan's national field hockey team and was from Quetta in southwestern Baluchistan province, was one of at least 67 people who perished in the shipwreck. The overcrowded wooden boat they were traveling in broke apart in rough waters in the Ionian Sea off Calabria before dawn last Sunday.
The boat that set sail from the Turkish port of Izmir carried people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and other countries who were seeking a better quality of life in Europe. According to survivor accounts, the vessel had at least 170 passengers before the tragedy happened.
Raza’s sister, Sadia, said Shahida’s attempts to emigrate had one motive: “She only wanted her three-year-old disabled son to move, laugh and cry like other children,” Sadia told The Associated Press. “Shahida’s sole dream was the treatment of her disabled child. She risked her own life after hospitals in Pakistan told her that overseas medical aid could be the only option.”
The boy, Hassan, was not on the boat and remained in Pakistan. He suffered brain damage as a baby and is also paralyzed on one side of his body, from head to toe. It was not clear how Shahida intended to help him by traveling overseas and leaving him behind.
“She was a brave woman, as strong as a man,” said Sadia. “My sister got her son treated at the Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi. She was told that if he was taken abroad, there could possibly be good treatment.”
Aga Khan authorities were unable to comment on Shahida’s case. Sadia said Shahida also approached Quetta’s Combined Military Hospital, which also said it could do nothing for her son.
“What a mother does for her children, nobody else can. Shahida always wanted to handle things on her own," Sadia said. "We are proud of our sister."
Pakistanis have paid tribute to Shahida across the country.
Photographs of her donning the country's national colors and sporting accolades have appeared on television and social media, although it was reported that most people came to know of her after her death as women's sports are not widely televised in Pakistan. Local media also quoted her family as saying she had previously spoken about the lack of acknowledgement and recognition for her achievements.
Pakistani President Arif Alvi on Friday said Raza’s tragedy had “deeply moved” him as the country had failed to provide her son with medical facilities.
The president, who was speaking at an international conference on cerebral palsy, said the professional training of health experts and an inclusive approach from society was vital for accommodating people with disabilities.
Shahida’s friend, Sumiya Mushtaq, said the 29-year-old athlete often expressed her concern about her child’s health.
“The inability to get cured of the disease at local hospitals compelled her to find a better future for her son abroad,” she said.
Her family in Pakistan on Saturday was still awaiting the repatriation of her body.
Associated Press writer Adil Jawad contributed to this report from Karachi, Pakistan.