In search of a country to call home
For refugees from conflict-torn regions such as West Asia and Afghanistan, New Delhi is a waiting room where they cannot imagine living permanently. But they don’t know where they can go from here
Text by G Vishnu
Photos by Vijay Pandey
In the months of July and August, as Israel carried out a merciless assault on Gaza, killing over 2,100 people, and the world indulged in fatuous condemnations of violence, a tiny community of 50-odd families in New Delhi saw their hopes fade a little more as each day passed. These were Palestinian-Syrians — born second- or third-generation Palestinian refugees, who have fled Syria sometime in the past five years. They have never been considered as citizens anywhere. New Delhi is their waiting room, in their transit to a better life somewhere. Anywhere.
In the past decade, however, not just Palestinians, but desperate individuals from all over West Asia, running away from conflicts at home, have been seeking refuge in New Delhi. Though, unlike the Palestinians, these people were not born into ‘refugee status’, they are united in seeing New Delhi as a sort of waiting room, before a developed country grants them asylum. The degree of their suffering and victimhood varies, but in their status as refugees in India, they are solely dependent on luck. That is because India’s asylum policy is ambiguous and differs from case to case.
Though the exact figures are unavailable, there are reportedly between 2 lakh to 4 lakh refugees in India. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN agency that works with refugees all over the world, claims to have 30,000 “persons of concern” in India. India does not have a law dealing with refugees and provides asylum on a case-to-case basis, depending on various factors, including bilateral ties with the country in question. For instance, currently India is smoothening the process of providing asylum to Pakistani and Afghani Hindus and Sikhs, so that eventually, these individuals are given Indian citizenship. However, India does not have the same policy for Burmese refugees.
As per the UNHCR, apart from the Tibetans and Tamil refugees directly supported by the government, some 25,000 are recognised as refugees and another 5,000 are currently registered as asylum seekers. Most of them are based in New Delhi, with others living in various places in Andhra Pradesh, Jammu, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Some 12,000 refugees and asylum seekers from West Asian countries such as Syria, Iran and Iraq, besides Palestine and Afghanistan, are registered with the UNHCR in India, with the largest group coming from Afghanistan (10,500).
The US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the civil war in Syria and the Israel-Palestine conflict have taken away thousands of lives. Worse, these conflicts have rendered several thousands homeless. India, too, is a destination for these unfortunate refugees.
UNHCR officials claim that the Refugee Card given to these individuals is acknowledged by the authorities and save the cardholder from unfair arrests and harassment. Due to UNHCR’s efforts, many refugees are able to earn and stand on their own feet. However, the reality is that without job permits, most refugees are stuck doing odd jobs that earn them only a basic livelihood, regardless of their education qualification.
TEHELKA met nine such individuals from four countries who live in New Delhi as refugees, staring at an uncertain future. Will they ever go back home? No one knows. Here are their stories.
|Mohammed Dawod Sharifi | 50 | Afghanistan
On some evenings, the Muslim cemetery in Bhogal, New Delhi, has a quiet visitor, who sits next to a grave, lost in himself, reminiscing about home. For Dawod, his father’s grave is the only place where he finds some solitude in this alien city.Life used to be better. It had seemed things were finally in place when Hamid Karzai was elected as the president of Afghanistan in 2004. Dawod, a police officer in the prestigious narcotics division in Kabul, never had a dull day, thanks to the opium trade that saw an unfettered boom after the American invasion. Little did Dawod know that opium would one day drive him out of the country along with his family.
A brush with the local mafia got Dawod in trouble as he began to be threatened to facilitate the narcotics trade or face death. Unable to cope, Dawod decided to leave. With little knowledge of India’s policies, he came to New Delhi with the hope of starting a new life. Things, however, did not go as planned.
“Here I don’t have a proper job. All the Afghans I know do odd jobs. The Indian government should not keep us here for too long. We are just guests here,” he pleads, hoping the government will somehow enable him to leave.
|Habiba Yusofzia | 46 | Afghanistan
A teacher by profession, Habiba used to travel the countryside, teaching at village schools every day. A new Afghanistan is possible, she was convinced. Thanks to help from international agencies, teachers like her were going to the villages to empower the young boys and girls with education. However, it all ended when fundamentalist elements suspected her of helping in religious conversions.“I did not leave Afghanistan when the Taliban were leaving. I did not leave when the Soviets came. But I had to leave when democracy came,” she says. “It was difficult to get into Iran. We thought India would be a peaceful place. After my son was martyred, we had to come here. Now, we are wondering how to leave. Our passport has expired. We don’t have a visa. We can’t live here anymore,” she says. For Habiba and her three children, no day passes without the thought of escaping their current reality. “We are Muslims. Being hopeful is a must in our religion,” she adds.
|Sayed Arab Shah | 38,
Raihana Ahmadi | 32 | Afghanistan
Raihana breaks down when asked about the number of children she has. The family, which came to New Delhi in 2010, fearing attacks from the local mafia in Afghanistan, lost a child as medical attention was not quick to come by. Her husband Sayed was a lawyer in Kabul, before he made powerful enemies. Like Habiba, Sayed too keeps details out of his story as he still fears retribution from the people he antagonised. His miserable existence in a single-room apartment in New Delhi, while doing odd jobs, has driven him to the edge. However, unlike Dawod and Habiba, Sayed has little hope for the future. He simply shakes his head nonchalantly, even as he looks at his five-year-old daughter Nilofer, who is lying on the floor with fever.
|Vandad | 31, Vista | 38 | Iran
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been notorious for its intolerance towards dissenters, be it people of other faiths or homosexuals or rights activists. Vandad, born into a liberal family in Ghaemshahr of Mazandaran province, was always a radical. He believed in equality and human rights for all. Once Vandad was identified for dissident activities, it was only a matter of time before the State authorities got to him. Vandad was first made an offer to work with the intelligence agencies, which he refused. Physical assaults followed. Vandad, who had met Vista by then, decided to flee. Soon after reaching New Delhi in May 2010, he converted to Zoroastrianism as per Vista’s wish.
In New Delhi, it is a fight to survive and stay true to one’s beliefs. “Sometimes, even the Iranians we hope would be our friends, get wary of our political stances. There is alienation. Also, the uncertainty about the future drives us insane. It has been five years since we came to New Delhi. It has been a waste. We just hope some country takes us,” says Vandad, even as Vista makes tea in their single-room apartment in New Friends’ Colony. “No familiar faces, no friends, never a feeling of home,” Vandad adds in his broken English.
However, all the odds notwithstanding, Vandad continues to blog about human rights violations in Iran. Even a physical assault in New Delhi has not stopped him from standing up for his beliefs.
|Abdullah Hamuda | 48 | Palestine/Syria
“I just hope these two will find citizenship somewhere,” says Abdullah pointing at his two daughters Maria, 6, and Marjana, 3, who will grow up to be third-generation Palestinian refugees. Abdullah’s parents had been displaced during the creation of Israel in 1948 and officially became refugees in Syria. Abdullah worked as a photographer in Al-Maliha near Damascus, before the government jailed him for frivolous reasons. The “oppression” against Palestinian refugees pushed him to come to India, a country he was reluctant to choose. A promise of a job fell through and Abdullah became a cook in a restaurant, cooking kebabs and biryani. “Every month, I have to pay 6,000 as rent for the single room in which my entire family of six lives. My brother has cerebral palsy. Do you think I will be able to afford to send my kids to school?” he asks. “I was not born in Palestine. I have no memory of a home because we had no home. But we are living in hell now — it’s worse than what we left behind in Syria… I hope I can go to a country where my children have a future and I can find a good job.”
|Muhab Zaidan | 31 | Palestine/Syria
Several years ago, as a teenager from a Palestinian-Syrian family, Muhab undertook an extremely dangerous voyage from Libya to Syria on a boat filled with refugees. “Syria did not let us disembark from the boats and we were stuck on the coast,” he remembers. He came to India three years ago to do a Master’s degree from Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. Over the past five years, his parents — first-generation refugees rendered homeless during the 1948 ‘Naqba’ — fled Syria and went to Sweden. As for Muhab, he is stuck in India, negotiating the bureaucratic nightmare of getting a visa from another country. Translation work, which fetches him some money, is not always easy to come by. “The other refugees will go back when their situation improves. However, the question with us is where do we go? A Palestine occupied by Israel? Syria? The UNHCR can help us. It can send our files to the governments that will help us,” he says, still hopeful of an exit from here, before his youth fades away. “I am waiting for nothing.”
|Anonymous | Palestine/Syria
“I prefer you don’t put my name in your magazine,” he says, even as he talks about his past in mesmerising detail. “I lived a simple life with my parents and eight siblings, who are now shattered here and there as a result of war and violence. I was a very curious child, who loved learning about history, loved the outdoors, music, adventure and making things. I remember making something resembling the Oud (a stringed instrument commonly used in Middle-Eastern music) out of an olive oil can and other recycled materials. I studied in schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees where all the students and teachers were Palestinian refugees. As a child, I often thought of my father’s village and dreamt of the day we will return there. Though I was born and raised in Syria, Palestine and my father’s village is in every atom of my being. Occupied Palestine is like a mother, who you do not choose, but she is where you are from, where you belong. Syria is like a wife; you choose her, have memories with her and love her. I love Syria just as I love Palestine, I am as Syrian as I am Palestinian.” He came to India to study and has not been able to go back because of the civil war in Syria.