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He Fled Terrorism At Home. An MBA Helped Him Rebuild His Life

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Kashif Khaleel, with his wife Mariam and daughter, in South Africa. Khaleel fled his home country of Pakistan in 2009 because of terrorist violence, settling in the UK, where he got an MBA at Warwick Business School. Courtesy photo

Kashif Khaleel could hear the gunfire from his office. Looking from his third-floor window across the skyline of Islamabad, Pakistan, he could see the smoke rising from Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque, one of the city’s oldest mosques, only a couple of kilometers away. It was the third major terrorist attack since he’d moved to the city. And he suddenly realized he had to get out.

What Khaleel didn’t know was that in 10 years’ time he would be a Warwick Business School EMBA — his second postgraduate business degree — working as an operations manager for one of the world’s largest retailers, Amazon.

In 2007, Khaleel was a dairy manager in the Islamabad offices of Nestle when the Red Mosque was stormed by Taliban fighters in an attack that left more than a hundred dead and hundreds more wounded. It was a major battle in the Pakistan government’s war with the Taliban, a war that continues today with frequent suicide bombings and car bombings, sudden and unexpected violence in markets, embassies, hotels, police stations.

Pakistan is a beautiful and diverse country, and even during the worst periods of sectarian violence it has been, for the most part, safe. Yet things were spiraling out of control in the latter half of the last decade, and Khaleel found himself in the midst of the mayhem: As part of his sales job, he regularly visited market areas and other crowded places of the kind often targeted by the Taliban. “I used to go to Peshawar, I used to go to all these places that were most impacted,” he tells Poets&Quants. “So I had quite a firsthand view of what was going on. There were a few close calls.”

‘IN THE THICK OF IT’ — AND FINDING A WAY OUT

inspiring business school stories

Kashif Khaleel and his daughter outside the Natural History Museum in London. Courtesy photo

According to Pakistan’s National Internal Security Policy, from 2001 to November 2013, 48,994 people were killed by terrorist attacks. Even now such attacks continue on an almost monthly basis; in 2017 alone hundreds more have died, including more than 120 in February alone.

When Khaleel looked out his Islamabad office window that day in 2007 and saw smoke rising from the Red Mosque, he knew it was time to leave. “When I moved to Islamabad for the company, the Danish embassy bomb occurred, the Marriott bomb happened, the Red Mosque incident happened. And every time something happened I could physically see it out the window or I could hear about it. It was getting a little too close to home.

“It’s a huge country and it’s not as bad as the media makes it, but I was just in the thick of it at that point in time.”

Worried about his and his wife Mariam’s future, in 2009 Khaleel quit his promising job and began to look for a way out. He found one through a program that was about to be discontinued: the United Kingdom’s High Skilled Migrant Program, which allowed immigrants without specific work offers to move to the UK to look for employment. And that’s just what Khaleel did, becoming one of the program’s last participants when he moved to England in July 2009.

“I said, ‘I have all the qualifications, I have everything that it takes, I might as well just make the move and start a life somewhere where at least I don’t have to worry whether my wife is going to get home in one piece, or if I am going to get home in one piece,'” Khaleel says.

EPIPHANY: THE BENEFITS OF A RETURN TO B-SCHOOL

In looking at options to migrate out of Pakistan, Khaleel had a few advantages. For one, he had family in the UK, including a brother who is an orthopedic surgeon. Khaleel also has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering as well as an MBA from Lahore University of Management Science, one of Pakistan’s premier schools. So he was clearly qualified for the UK migrant program.

But his wife, Mariam, a banker, was not. She had to stay behind.

“I stayed with my brother, (and) I was unemployed for four months and left my wife behind,” Khaleel recalls. “It was tough, but at least I had a future to look forward to. I needed to get a job and bring my wife Mariam over.”

He finally got a job, a retail position “five levels below where I was in Pakistan” — but he only had to endure it for a month before he landed a position as a route revenue manager for Virgin Airlines. Weeks later, Mariam joined him.

It was in this job, and in the one that followed with Hilton Worldwide (where he also was a revenue manager), that Khaleel began seriously considering a return to business school. His MBA from Lahore was not well-recognized in the UK, yet he knew the value of the degree for lifting someone through the corporate ranks. If he wanted to rise, it was time to go back to B-school.