KARACHI: Sabiha Ilyas says March 12, 2020, will forever be etched in her memory as a reminder of the day when her lifelong dream to go on Hajj nearly came true.
Ilyas, a 54-year-old widow and resident of Karachi’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal area, had been saving up for years to accumulate Rs4,55,957 ($2,722), the minimum fee required to enlist for the Hajj program under the government's scheme.
Once an intending pilgrim applies, he or she can either get selected the same year or, as in the case of Ilyas, wait five years for a slot.
Therefore, Ilyas says she was overjoyed when she received the call on March 12 informing her that she had been selected for the pilgrimage this year.
“When my husband passed away, I faced a lot of hardships, including financial problems. But my desire to go on Hajj kept me going. I wouldn't get new clothes stitched or buy unnecessary things. I even cut down on grocery items to save money for Hajj," Ilyas told Arab News on Sunday.
Three months later, however, her dreams came crashing down.
With several countries across the world going into lockdown to limit the spread of the deadly coronavirus disease, Pakistan followed suit, as did Saudi Arabia, with the latter announcing the cancellation of Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages for the year to avoid mass congregations of people.
“Saving the money is very tough and getting oneself selected is also very tiresome, but hearing that Hajj has been cancelled [after everything is done] was very painful,” Ilyas said, adding that she had been selected for the government scheme after regularly applying for five consecutive years.
Up until last year, nearly 2.5 million pilgrims had amassed in Makkah, Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage, which holds a lot of religious and spiritual significance for Muslims across the world.
This year, before the COVID-19 outbreak, nearly 179,210 Pakistanis had registered for the pilgrimage, with 107,526 out of those enlisted under the government scheme, while 71,684 pilgrims had registered with private operators.
And while Saudi's announcement on June 22 limits international pilgrims from travelling to the country, a maximum of 1,000 nationals and expatriates residing within the Kingdom will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage this year.
It means that Ilyas is among millions of other international pilgrims who will not be able to embark on their "once-in-a-lifetime" journey.
“That’s the place where everyone wants to go and never wants to return from. I have a great desire to visit. I'm heartbroken because I had made full preparations.”
After losing her husband five years ago and with no kids, parents or siblings for company, Ilyas says she desired to "visit the home of God and mausoleum of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)" in Madinah, Saudi Arabia that kept her going and had become her life's aim.
“Even if I'm alive next year, I won’t be able to manage it as the government continues to increase it [fee] by Rs50,000,” she said, before urging Pakistani authorities not to increase the fee next year and "give priority to those who couldn’t perform Hajj this year".
She added that while she respected the Kingdom's anti-virus measures, she wished Saudi "could have allowed at least a few foreigners to perform Hajj with precautions and after testing for COVID-19".
“We are at an age where we don’t know if we will live to perform Hajj next year or not. God forbid if the government increases the fee next year, how will I manage it? I wish I could fly and go there,” she said before picking a framed photo of Masjid-e-Nabvi and kissing it.