A twist of faith

Learning in exile Rohingya children in a makeshift classroom at the refugee camp. photos: vijay pandey
Learning in exile Rohingya children in a makeshift classroom at the refugee camp. Photos: Vijay Pandey

Abdul Shakur sits in a small room devoid of any furniture, with a thin rag on the floor masquerading as a bed in Uttam Nagar, New Delhi. The 28-year-old short-statured Rohingya Muslim refugee with a wide smile has an extraordinary story to tell. His faith, that led to his persecution in his homeland Myanmar, was put to a different kind of test in India.

Three years after reaching India, Shakur and his wife Yasmin ended up at a refugee camp in west Delhi’s Ranhaula area run under the name of Rohingya Christian Assembly. There he was given a rickshaw and his debts were paid off. He was also baptised and converted to Christianity.

However, six months later, he decided to leave the camp owing to ‘unease’ with his new religion. His rickshaw was taken back and the money also allegedly retrieved. Now he stays in the room, a month’s rent paid by friends, facing a future as uncertain as when he crossed the Naaf river to Bangladesh on a fishing boat.

Shakur and Yasmin had crossed into West Bengal from Bangladesh with the help of an agent. After reaching there, they were left to their own devices, scrambling for food or shelter. Shakur tells Tehelka about yet another unexpected blow: “I went to get food for my wife, but when I returned, I found that she was gone.” He searched for her, but in vain. Without a refugee card, he felt he lacked the wherewithal to approach the state authorities for help.

Undaunted, he decided to seek help from the UNHCR office. India does not prevent the un agency from giving refugee cards to the Rohingya. However, the card has little use other than saving the refugees from arbitrary detention. It is not even entertained as an identity proof to get phone sim cards issued. It is also not a work permit, which means even the most educated refugee are confined to menial jobs. Shakur ended up washing dishes in a hotel.

Two years later, he got information that his wife was in a Kolkata jail. Taking his earnings and borrowing from his friends, Shakur set out to free her. Luck was on his side this time as he managed to get her released, but not without paying bribes to officials.

Shakur and his wife were now free but penniless. They spent two days and two nights in a park near the UNHCR office in Vikaspuri. At a juncture when they had no one to turn to, they met a Christian convert. It was this gentleman who led them to the Ranhaula camp.

Shakur’s is one of the three families who left the camp: 18 families still reside there. Amir Ahmad, who was at the camp temporarily, has his own story to tell. He says his friend Ismail had promised he would get a rickshaw and free rations for two months at the camp. “They told me if my wife doesn’t come with me, I would get a new wife there,” he says. Heeding his friend’s words, Amir went alone to the camp, leaving his wife behind in Mehwat, Haryana. He stayed at the camp for two months but left because he “didn’t like the religion”.

Mohammed Syed was staying in Bangladesh when his parents, who had been converted to Christianity back in Myanmar, asked him to cross over to India. He says he decided to join the camp when he was tired of being hungry all the time. “After I came here, I decided to survive on my own,” he says.

The journey for the Rohingya coming from Myanmar sometimes resembles an intricate video game, with the finishing point at the UNHCR office.

Rohingya have been systematically discriminated against by successive governments who have wielded Burmese nationalism mixed with Theravada Buddhism is an effective tool. This has led to an entire generation of Rohingya growing up without citizenship rights and as refugees in their own country.

Ironically, the Rohingyas are accused of being immigrants from Bengal, both during the British rule and after independence. In 2014, the government abolished the term Rohingya and insists on calling them ‘Bengalis’.

The first wave of refugees fled the communal riots that shook Rakhine, a province of Myanmar, in 2012. The persecution and genocide that followed was perpetrated by the security forces. Shakur removes his shirt to show the scars left by the security forces.


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