National

Love, Loss, Loneliness...And Refugees

To not fall in love or express it becomes a way of life for those who were forced to flee their homes. Shaped by conflict, fear of persecution and hardships, love escapes those whom global politics labels as 'Refugees'. The following testimonies give a peek into their lives, beyond what statistics can ever tell

Mother's Love: Nasimi in her mother Mahboba Nasimi's arms
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Cutting across dark alleys and dilapidated roads, Minara Begum’s house in the Madanpur Khadar area of New Delhi is a small room, made of scrap, tin sheets, and a tarpaulin roof, separated by faded curtains to make space for bathing. There are no toilets in any of the 60 homes in this sparse settlement spread across 500 yards near Kalindi Kunj police station. Minara lives with her two kids—eight and seven years old. A fire in 2018 in the Rohingya settlement destroyed the grocery shop that helped them earn their livelihood. “My husband was under a lot of tension and stress after we lost the shop. He died of a heart attack in 2019,” she says. 

An eighteen-year-old Minara arrived in India in 2012 with her husband, 35 then, with hopes of a better life. The rest of her family to date lives in refugee camps in Bangladesh. After she lost her husband, Minara looked after their four children, with two studying outside. She never got the opportunity to meet her family or parents after crossing the border. “I have no relatives or family here. I often wonder what the future of my children in India is now. In Myanmar, women had no rights, no freedom. We came to India in search of peace and happiness, but here we are living under inhuman conditions. When it rains here, the water flows inside our rooms. Insects infest this locality. I am often worried about my safety,” she says.

Minara says that with the passing of her husband, her only camaraderie in a foreign land, she has constantly struggled with loneliness and her mental health. But earning and feeding her family has kept her going. “I am a widow. It is the circumstances that force us to leave behind our homes and nation. People need to understand that. We are humans too, we also have lives, we want to see our children move forward in their lives,” she says. 

Her children are all enrolled in schools. When asked if they have any friends at school, one of them says: “We don’t go to the government schools. We are not allowed to. We are studying through open schooling. We take tuitions where we have friends.”

Minara's story of loss and loneliness is not one in isolation. People, who uproot their entire lives in search of safety and security, leaving behind everything in their home country, experience a loss of childhood, youth, aspirations, dreams and most often, memories and happiness.

Ali Johar, 28, first came to India in 2012 as a teenager. Ali entered India without his family who were living in Bangladesh at the time. The family left their home in Myanmar’s Buthidaung Township in 2005 as fear of persecution and violence against Rohingya Muslims infested the country. Ali, who was a class six student at that time, shared that he was always on top of his class. But displacement changed his life forever.

In Bangladesh, a 10-year-old Ali worked as a child labourer in tea stalls and restaurants to earn a livelihood for his family. In his lifetime, he has made only a few friends. “There is an invisible racial discrimination against Rohingyas in Bangladesh. I was always aware of my status and identity even as a child. I have one best friend from Bangladesh who was even teased and bullied for befriending a Rohingya. But perhaps, it was his own class status that enabled our friendship.”

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Memories: Young Ali Johar with his grandmother and younger sister at his home in Buthidaung township, Myanmar. Ali's grandmother's memories

Ali, who currently has a romantic partner, also living as a refugee in Bangladesh since 2019, says that he has never been able to meet her due to document-related issues. The two have carried their courtship through social media and the internet. “As a teenager, even when I had feelings for someone in school, I was always scared and mindful of my status and thus never expressed them. I was also aware that this part of life demands time, which I didn't have as I was studying and earning for my family.”

Once he became a refugee, Ali says he never had a normal childhood. In his early years in Bangladesh, Ali also worked as an e-rickshaw driver and construction labourer. “I would carry kilos of weight to the sixth floor. I wouldn't even realise I was crying until someone would ask me what was wrong.” Ali remembers his first payment for working at a tea stall was 10 Taka. “My childhood was peaceful, but it became a distant memory after we moved to Bangladesh,” he says adding that he remains thankful to India where he feels his life changed for the better, but his soul shall forever remain in Myanmar and memories in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.

The partition of India created millions of refugees on both sides of the border. While history books narrate the ordeals of partition, testimonies of love get lost and become secrets in people's hearts.

Chandra Kanta Rao, 84, says that it was perhaps a broken heart that her mother suffered with, leading her to be constantly ill after they left behind everything they had in present-day Pakistan’s Multan and moved to her natal family in “Dilli” in August 1947. Rao and her family are among the countless figures who became refugees in their own homelands with the partition of India.

It took the family eight days to reach Delhi from Multan’s Jahaniya Mandi, their former home. Rao never had the opportunity to back to her birthland, Zila Multan she left at the age of seven. But even today she says that when we meet someone coming from Multan she feels overwhelmed by emotions. “The day feels blessed when we are fortunate enough to meet someone from Multan. There was a lot of love in Pakistan prior to the partition, but when we came here, everyone got busy earning a livelihood and restarting their lives.”

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Married by the age of 16, Rao narrates the story of her teenage year, living with her maternal family, to her 26-year-old grandson Prakhar Rao. “We had a kid in our neighborhood who once asked me for a rough copy. ‘Chandu ek copy dena, rough dena achi wali nahi’. But it was the first time he was asking for a copy so I gave him the best notebook in my possession. A few days later, my teacher summoned me for something the boy had written in my notebook.” 

“What did he write?” the grandson asks.

With childlike mischief, Chandu sang, “Bachpan ki mohabbat ko dil se na juda karna, jab yaad meri aaye, milne ki duaa karna”

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The teacher excused Rao, but shortly after that, her mother came to the school asking for a transfer certificate to get her married. When asked if she ever confronted the boy or why he wrote the Baiju Bawra song lyrics, she says: “Wo dil se chahta tha humein and I didn't want to make a bigger issue by engaging with him.”

When asked if she ever felt at home in India, Rao says that it was shortly after coming to Kanpur after her wedding that she felt love and belongingness. “Your grandfather’s friends were very loving and accepting. We could make a community and family here. It was my husband’s love that helped create a sense of home,” she says.

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In 1991, the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya was established to host unaccompanied minors who had fled Sudan and Ethiopia to escape death and persecution in the backdrop of war. Sudan's civil war uprooted over 20,000 young boys aged between seven and 17 from Sudanese villages, who walked over a thousand miles, with half of them dying reached the refugee camp in Kenya. The survivors of this trial came to be known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.

A six-year-old boy refused to attend his classes at Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee camp when Pascal Zigashame spotted him. His father was dropping him at the school on his way to work, but the young boy stood adamant, unwilling to go inside. 

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“After speaking with the father, I took the boy aside and talked to him. He told me he had not eaten anything in the morning and so doesn't want to stay. I went out and got him some Mandazi (a fried bread that originated on the Swahili Coast). He was very happy and has been a regular at school since,” says Zigashame, 34, who himself first came to the camp in 2012 when he left his home country in DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo).

Through his organisation, they have started social and emotional learning projects for refugee children, especially young children. Zigashame says that before taking any approach to work with refugees, especially youth and children, it is important to identify their specific struggles and issues. They spotted aggressiveness and social disconnect amongst many of the young refugee children and wanted to build a deeper understanding of how it was happening. The refugee learners’ communities are affected deeply by the experience of first migration. “You also find that many of these learners have lost their parents, they are either raised by one parent or neither of the parents,” he says. That one parent in most cases, Zigashame elucidates, will be a woman, which consequently affects the resources in that household whereby poverty plays a role in shaping the learners’ behaviour.

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While the involvement and role of parents is often emphasised for pre-teen and teenagers in their formative years, there is no guidebook that explains the correct way of parenting for refugee families. “The parents are not as committed to guiding their kids as they don't have the time. They don't have the resources to look at what their children are doing or the leisure to chat with them. Thus parental support is an issue for many refugee teenagers who require this attention,” says Zigashame.

He underwent various trainings at the refugee camp before he enrolled in a virtual educational programme in social work at Regis University. Three years later, he joined South New Hampshire University and studied healthcare management. When at Regis, Zigashame felt that he can do something for his community to fill the gap for “their own refugee children to ensure that they at least have a strong foundation” and started a minor initiative “You Rise” with his colleague in 2016. They trained youth in skill and leadership building and taught coding to the students already enrolled in schools to keep them motivated on how to use technology. Through their partner “Amala”, they offered scholarships to three teenagers who later went to Europe and joined WWC schools.

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Before getting married in 2016 to a South Sudanese woman who works alongside Zigashame with refugees, the Director at Action pour le Progres (CBO) for a long time, tried assimilating with the community and culture in Kenya. As an individual affected by forced displacement, he joined Oxford's Refugee-led Research Hub and Refugees Studies Centre as a student and studies Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. “It was eventually a sense of community, friendship, and love that helped me keep doing my work despite the mental and emotional stress that comes working with and as a refugee,” he says. 

Rabia Nasimi, 29, fled Afghanistan with her parents and siblings in 1999 out of fear of persecution at the hands of the Taliban. They arrived in the UK in the back of a refrigerated container, an excruciating and dangerous method sought by refugees to enter a foreign country. Nasimi was five when she left her home in Afghanistan and does not recall much of her childhood days. She shares that arriving in a foreign country at a very young age made it comparatively better to assimilate into an alien culture for her than her parents and other refugees.

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Rabia Nasimi with her older sister in Afghanistan Rabia Nasimi

“I first visited Afghanistan after moving to London in 2007 with my family, but we were always seen as outsiders there. I was never allowed to go outside alone, but there were things that would often make me angry,” she says. The reality of visiting her homeland was different from its imagination. As a young teenage girl, she was seen as a good match for the sons of her relatives. “While I could read and understand the language, I didn't feel very far from the place when I’d see sign boards or the shops, but sometimes even if I'd be smiling at people and being nice, it was misinterpreted,” says Nasimi. The intrinsic cultural gap created a sense of alienation between a young Nasimi, brought up in the UK, and her homeland.

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Nasimi, a civil servant in the UK, now works for refugees from Afghanistan along with her family.  The stories of war, partition and refuge are not simple. The gaze of policymakers plays a crucial role in the lives of the refugee community all around the world. When asked how the attitudes of policymakers and countries across the world have changed towards refugees, Nasimi says that national boundaries have become more difficult for refugees to cross. “The UK government at the moment is looking for tighter measures on immigration, refugees and asylum seekers, which is worrying because people don't leave their home unless the fear is big enough to be able to go through such dangerous routes, to seek safety,” she says.  

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Mohd Alfauz, a Ph.D scholar at the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Jamia Millia Ismalia views the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as a means of marginalising Muslims already living in India or seeking refuge in the country. The proposed CAA includes only three Muslim majoritarian nations—Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan and talks about accepting illegal migrants of persecuted minorities of these countries. “Why are they not considering minorities from the Senhalese and Buddhist nations? Why has the government not considered giving citizenship to Zoroastrians and Ahmedians in Pakistan? Muslim women and Shias in these countries are also minorities amongst minorities there, but our government does not take them into account when it seeks to give citizenship to persecuted minorities," says Alfauz. 

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He further says that this government has deliberately ousted these particular groups because it envisages developing a Hindu nation. “Muslim women in Pakistan face discrimination on a day-to-day basis. In the 70s, Pakistan came out with the Hudhud ordinance which punishes Muslim women if she commits adultery based on Shariat laws. By the 90s, the number of women prisoners in the country rose by 6,000-7,000. Shouldn’t our government be concerned about their persecution as well?” he asks. 

This government has created a narrative demonizing refugee on the basis of populism politics, Alfauz says. “The emotional hijacking of people based on economic and job security by communalizing the internal population can be seen in Make In India and Trump's MAGA (Make America Great Again),” he says.

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Trans Activist Rituparna Neog from Assam elaborates on the challenges the CAA-NRC poses to the trans community. “Most trans people are forced to leave their homes behind, without their legal documents. Moreover, as the Transgender Bill necessitates surgery to acknowledge a trans person as a male or a female if the CAA is implemented, the trans community stands at a greater risk of marginalization and exploitation. If they are sent to camps in the absence of original documents and have not undergone surgery, a trans woman would be forced to live amongst men and vice versa.”
 

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