IMAGINED COUNTRY

Refugees from across the troubled world have made Delhi their home, bringing along their longings, aesthetics and flavours

Souzeina Mushtaq Delhi 

From historical monuments to a cosmopolitan lifestyle, the city, with the canopy of new trends, is never bored. It is hard to ignore the old and new Delhi. With delicious cuisine to enthrall the tastebuds and swanky, sky-high showrooms, the scads of globetrotters who visit this eclectic city have everything to adapt to. Not to the overcrowded potholed roads that pull the cars deep in a desperate attempt to invite attention to these ignored bugging beings, homeless people trying to sell the same thing to every passer-by at traffic signals — all this becomes invisible as the city flawlessly hides its despair and its poor to present its high-end façade even as thousands of automobiles create new bottle-necks beyond the maze of flyovers.

A narrow alley, formed by sandwiched buildings that squeeze the sun, its rays quivering through the cramped spaces; it is morning. A group of chirping men continue with their chores — one fixing his roadside dhaba, others smoking, chatting politics. The potholed back-lanes in Khirki Extension in South Delhi direct me to the ‘homes’ of the refugee settlements in Delhi. Amidst the hanging electric wires, squishing mud underfoot, and strange high singing of car honks, is the house of Zara, a refugee from Afghanistan.

Zara converted to Christianity, leaving behind her Muslim identity, which provoked indiscriminate attacks on her from her own people in Afghanistan. Fearing for her life, as minorities are routinely harassed and brutalized, she, along with her four daughters, sought asylum in India. They have been living here for the past six years.

Sitting in her two-room apartment, which flaunts a picture of Jesus on the wall and an old TV set, Zara, surrounded by her daughters and one of her daughter’s kids, was married off by her rich businessman father when she was 13. Contrary to the life she had dreamt of, Zara’s husband was an alcoholic and a womanizer, who constantly beat her. As life chaffed interminably, year after year, Zara gave birth to kids. As the kids grew up, she sought to redefine her life and started meeting people who talked about Jesus. This gave her solace, and soon she found herself as a part of this new group.

“I started preaching to other women too, and converted 25 people to Christianity,” says Zara. This was the starting point of her exile. As attacks became perpetual, she fled for her life with her daughters to India. “This is my home now,” she says, as her grandson plays in her lap.

Faarsi, Raas, Amici, and Bagel’s café cater to the travelling foodies, now savoured by locals as well. Persian, Afghani, Burmese, Malay, Indonesian, French, Dutch, German and Italian — you name the cuisine, and there it is

Zara and her family are some of the one lakh refugees residing in India, with close to 25,000 living in Delhi. Among the 9,000-odd Afghan refugees in Delhi — 90 per cent belong to the Hindu or Sikh faiths — religious minorities in Afghanistan; the rest are Hazaras, Pashtuns and other communities. For reasons that amount to multiple human rights abuses, severe restrictions on basic freedoms and widespread poverty within Afghanistan, Burma and Tibet, a large chunk of people fled to neighbouring countries, seeking protection and survival.

For Suri, a Sikh from Afghanistan, the advent of the Taliban was the reason to leave his home. He had owned a shop, which was bombed, signalling his family should depart from Afghanistan. Waiting outside the UNHCR office in New Delhi, Suri says that he lives with his wife, five daughters and one son in Malviya Nagar. He has been living in India for the last five years, and still has no refugee card. “They (UNHCR) have called me for the interview today,” he says, fidgeting along with his elder daughter, who has accompanied him.

The absence of a ‘refugee regime’ in India or in any of the South Asian countries, has marred the legal process for identification of individual refugees. Since India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, the treatment of refugees falls under India’s Registration of Foreigners Act of 1939, the Foreigners Act of 1946, and the Foreigners Order of 1948. None of these Acts distinguishes between undocumented migrants and refugees. However, in the case of Afghans, while the Indian government does not officially recognize them as refugees, it has allowed the UNHCR to operate a programme for them.

 

Refugees say they cannot work in India because they have no residence permits and no status as refugees — so it has become difficult to survive. For Chin-Burmese refugees in India, in 1988, the Indian government issued orders for their protection and provided support to refugee camps established along the border.

The Tibetans seem to be in a better situation. Though India does not recognize the Tibetan government in exile, with the support of the UNHCR and other foreign donor agencies, it has been successful in establishing 44 settlements. Home to around 6,000 Tibetans, the refugee colony in the north of Delhi goes by several names, including the Tibet Camp, Samye-Ling — after a famous monastery — Chang Town and Majnu ka Tila. Truly, it is a little Tibet.

Centered around hotels, guesthouses and restaurants, located between the Yamuna and Delhi’s Outer Ring Road, it reserves a large population cramped in closely-built houses, several floors high, inside narrow bylanes. The area houses a market of retail stalls, including bookshops, curio shops selling Tibetan handicrafts and stores selling the latest fashionwear and gadgets, with metalsmiths, beauty parlours, Internet cafes and travel agencies, plus a small monastery and a
Buddhist temple.

The year 1949 marked the Chinese occupation of Tibet; since then ,it has continued to exercise dominion over the people through the presence of a large occupation force. A large, unaccounted number of Tibetans have reportedly died in Tibet since 1949 due to political persecution, imprisonment, torture and famine. The Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader, was forced to leave Tibet in 1959. On his way to seek asylum in India, the Dalai Lama repudiated the ‘Seventeen-Point Agreement’ which China had forced on Tibet in 1951, and announced the formation of the Tibetan government in exile. Around 85,000 refugees were able to follow him and seek refuge in India, Bhutan and Nepal.

“India received us warmly but without any recognition. It is a major obstacle in the struggle towards the ultimate goal of an independent Tibet. Plus, it is difficult to meet our social and economic needs while in exile,” says Phuntsok Lobsang, 70. Today, after 50 years in exile, Tibetan people are still far away from their
imagined homeland.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, about two-thirds of the Palestinian populace fled or were expelled from their territories, which came under Israeli control after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Palestinians were forced to flee to neighbouring countries and mass expulsions from their homes, villages and towns uprooted an entire population. In most cases these refugees have not been permitted to return to their homes. They have either been languishing in sub-human conditions in their host countries, facing hostility and discrimination, or they are surviving amidst volatile politics in the countries in which they have sought refuge.

Omar Khateeb maintains an air of inscrutable reserve when asked about the revolution in Iran. He and his friends used to work for human rights there, but branded as ‘anti-revolution’, they fled to India to “save their lives”. “People like Nasrin Sotoudeh, Abdolfatah Soltani, Reza Shahabi and many more of our compatriots are imprisoned by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Arash Sadeghi and others are in solitary confinement because of the hunger strike for freedom; the youth of Iran are routinely getting arrested,” says Omar in broken English. “In India, we are denied identity cards, passports, visas, education, career and health facilities. Where should we go now?”  Omar lives in Lajpat Nagar with Palestinian and Iranian families.

Zara converted to Christianity, leaving behind her Muslim identity, which provoked indiscriminate attacks on her from her own people in Afghanistan. Fearing for her life, as minorities are routinely harassed and brutalized, she, along with her four daughters, sought asylum in India

Abida Apa, 40, an old widow from Myanmar, has been living in a Rohingya refugee camp at Madanpur Khadar for the last two years. Having suffered relentless persecution, Abida says, “People fled to refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, to areas along the Thai-Burma border and India.” She chose India because she had heard that “Muslims were treated in a better way in India”. But life is tough here too. Abida lost her family in the riots in Rakhine. Now, her family and other refugee families live in makeshift tents, with two toilets for 200 people, and no education for kids. Abida’s daughter, Nasrin, works with Koshish, a popular line of traditional clothing made by refugee women, which helps in running the household.

Somalis constitute the largest African community in India, among others like Nigerians. Whilst Afghans and other refugee groups often find it relatively easy to find work in the informal sector, this is often impossible for Somalis. Employers are reluctant to give them work because they do not have residence permits and their appearance would attract the attention of the police. Somali women face particular problems in accessing transport, healthcare and education. They are less likely than their male counterparts to learn English or Hindi and are isolated from the local community.

 

Refugees have contributed to the bon chic, bon genre attitude of the city. Selling momos from his roadside stall, 26-year-old Tenzin Sonam is from the second generation of Tibetans living in a refugee settlement. Says Tenzin, “Stories from Tibet make me cry. Delhi is Tibet for me now.”

Thousands of travellers settle in the city and add to its rich contour. A look around, and one sees the impact. Thanks to the refugees, myriad pan-Asian and Mediterranean restaurants, cafes and boutiques have popped up. Faarsi, Raas, Amici, and Bagel’s café are some of the eating joints that cater to the larger group of  travelling foodies, now savoured by locals as well. Hauz Khas Village, known for its fashion stores and art galleries, is becoming the capital’s culinary ladder. Persian, Afghani, Burmese, Malay, Indonesian, French, Dutch, German and Italian — you name it, and there it is. As one strolls in the wire-narrow alleys’ painted corridors, one discovers ‘twee’ shops, mostly run by the ‘trendy ethnic crowd’ – people who want to appear ‘different’.

International refugees, living amidst the city’s 22.2 million inhabitants, cherish Delhi as their home now. The uncertainty, alienation and danger evidenced in recent attacks in Peshawar and Kenya are disturbing, and yet, they are integral to the new landscape. Abida expressed her satisfaction with the judgment on the Delhi gang rape case.

She shares the solidarity with the feminist protests in Delhi and elsewhere. Like, others too, they are lighting their own candles.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2013