Shahida Raza played on Pakistan’s national soccer and field hockey teams, but her athletic prowess did not make her rich or allow her to emigrate to Europe legally.
That helps explain why Ms. Raza, a mother of one, was traveling to Italy from Turkey last month on a boat with other economic migrants from Central Asia. Ms. Raza, 29, was one of at least 63 people who died when rough seas dashed the boat against rocks about a hundred yards from the Italian shore — agonizingly close to the land where she had hoped to start a new life.
Ms. Raza had left her 3-year-old son, who is partly paralyzed, with her ex-husband in Pakistan before starting her dangerous journey. But her family and friends say her plan was to settle the boy eventually in Italy, where she hoped he would receive better medical treatment.
“She was deeply concerned about his health and wanted him to have a normal life,” Saba Khanum, one of her longtime soccer and field hockey teammates, said in an interview.
Ms. Raza was one of at least two Pakistani citizens who died in the Feb. 26 shipwreck off Italy’s Calabrian coast. Eighty people survived, including 17 of her compatriots. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry called the crash an example of “unscrupulous individuals” taking advantage of economic migrants.
This week, Pakistani journalists descended on Ms. Raza’s family home in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, a vast, arid province in the country’s southwest that borders Iran and Afghanistan. They found her room adorned with sporting medals and the green coat she had worn as a member of the national field hockey team.
Quetta is home to many people from the Hazara ethnic minority, a predominantly Shiite group that has been targeted by Sunni extremists in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some Pakistanis saw Ms. Raza’s death as emblematic of the hardships that the Hazara face in the region and the pressures they feel to emigrate.
Others in Pakistan, a country where professional male cricket players are lavished with attention and money, lamented that Ms. Raza’s athletic success had not shielded her from tragedy.
“I wish this country would recognize and respect its athletes, its people!” Hajra Khan
Ms. Raza had played on field hockey teams representing Quetta, the capital of her home province, and several government agencies, according to Saadia Raza, her sister. She also represented her country on many occasions, traveling abroad six times for field hockey and four for soccer.
Ms. Raza eventually joined the Pakistani military’s field hockey team, a job that came with an army salary and enabled her to send her son for treatment at a military hospital, Ms. Khanum said. But the army team cut her a few years ago because she had refused to stop playing for other teams at the same time.
The loss of the army salary left her financially vulnerable and desperate to find new doctors for her son, her sister said. He suffers from brain injuries and is paralyzed on his left side.
Around the middle of last year, Ms. Raza told Ms. Khanum, her former teammate, that she was planning a trip to Italy because she thought there would be better care for her son there and more economic opportunities for herself.
The other migrants on the ill-fated boat journey from Turkey to Italy were mainly from Afghanistan, but also from Iran, in addition to Pakistan, the authorities said after the shipwreck.
Ms. Khanum said that her former teammate had arrived in Turkey in early October. Several members of the Hazara community in Ms. Raza’s hometown, where she once coached youth soccer, have settled in Australia. But Ms. Khanum said that making the journey there had become more expensive in recent years.
About an hour before Ms. Raza was expected to reach Italy, she sent a few voice messages to her family and appeared to be in good spirits.
“She was constantly thanking Allah that she had made it to Europe,” her sister said. “She thought now her economic worries would be over.”
Then the messages stopped abruptly and never resumed.
After the migrants’ boat washed ashore in pieces, Italian news outlets showed a priest blessing the bodies of the dead, hidden under white bags. But Ms. Raza’s sister said on Friday that the family was still waiting to receive her body to give her an Islamic burial.