Fariba Hakimi, 42, escaped from Afghanistan in 2018 with two of her daughters. Her other two daughters were sold to the Taliban by her husband. Hakimi, who now lives in the Bhogal market area of Delhi, is scared for her life after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in 2021—the Taliban has issued a lifelong death warrant in her name. She used to work as a gym instructor in Delhi but it shut down during the pandemic. It has been a constant struggle since then.
Her story touched my heart and she became the obvious choice for my passion project. In September 2022, I came to India to shoot a documentary on Afghan refugees. I wanted to showcase the impact of displacement and their mental state after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
Since I was based in the US, I connected with representatives of the Afghan colony in Bhogal market in Delhi in the hope of finding Hakimi’s number on the way. I connected with Anisa Parwani, a leader of the Afghan colony, who connected me to Hakimi. Both women met my cinematographer a month before the shoot to confirm that they were on board the project. However, things changed in less than a month.
When I landed in Delhi, I was shocked to learn that my subjects were completely unresponsive. I connected with another Afghan refugee leader from Bhogal, Zarqhina Baqaee, who told me that Hakimi and Parwani were busy protesting with other Afghan refugees outside the UNHCR office. I headed to the location and saw about two dozen Afghan refugee women and men protesting with slogans like, “We want justice, we want resettlement!” I was told by a refugee woman on the site that protests outside the office were quite frequent. She told me that people were exasperated because they had been in India for years and the UNHCR hadn’t processed their claims for resettlement to other countries.
After the protest ended, I hoped that my interview would happen on schedule. However, the next day, Parwani informed me that both she and Hakimi would not speak with me as they had a big meeting with the UNHCR and expected to make headways for the Afghan community. They felt talking to a member of the media could jeopardise their position. I tried reasoning with Hakimi, as she was the central character of my story, but she stepped back, citing security issues. She also said her “white card” was at risk of not being renewed if she spoke to the media.
When refugees first land in India, they have to register with the UNHCR office. They are given a document, which the refugees call the ‘blue paper’, that confirms their status is under consideration. The UNHCR then interviews them to assess their case. If they are successful, they are issued a refugee card— which is colloquially called a white card.
As I unearthed the refugee experience in India, I discovered several aspects of a story largely uncovered by international media. India’s history with refugees is long and winding, but its track record of assimilating refugees is dismal. This has created an atmosphere of distrust towards the government, apathy towards the UNHCR, and the constant fear of being sent back to a place they escaped from. Several people are still waiting to be interviewed for their white card; those who have it are insisting that they be relocated to refugee-friendly countries.
When contacted, the UNHCR said in a statement: “Irrespective of their card and status, basic assistance is provided to all refugees and asylum-seeker based on their needs and vulnerabilities. All refugees registered with UNHCR continue to receive assistance, which includes advocacy for access to rights, undertaking registration, refugee status determination, supporting provision of emergency and life-saving health care (medicines, assistive devices, etc.), legal and social counseling, psycho-social support, and food/non-food items, including cash-based intervention for the most vulnerable.”
“Refugee children have access to schools in India. UNHCR and its partners continue to advocate and facilitate access for all refugee children to education. We also provide bridge and language classes, and educational learning kits. We, however, feel that having government issued IDs like Aadhaar will enhance their access and provide better opportunities in living dignified lives,” the statement added.
After Hakimi and Parwani backed out, I had to find another subject, which was a challenge. I felt that I was hitting a dead end. At this time, I discovered that there was a handicraft centre in Bhogal that provided employment to Afghan women. I knew this was definitely a good place to meet potentially the new subject of my film. The handicraft centre was run by Farida KhairKhwa, who moved to India a decade ago as a single parent with four children. Her husband lived in Europe and had abandoned his family. She told me that refugee leaders had had several meetings with the UNHCR in the past regarding resettlement of Afghan refugees but nothing constructive had come from those conversations. She insinuated that the refugees were also being discouraged to talk to the media during this time. The UNHCR had told that her she had a less than 1 per cent chance of resettlement.
Many Afghans I met in Bhogal had thriving businesses in Afghanistan, which they had to abandon. They see India as a launch pad to a safe haven in other countries. However, once they land here, they are shocked to learn that India is not part of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and doesn’t have a refugee law, thus legally not recognising refugees and leaving them vulnerable to arrest and deportation.
The Afghans have to rely on organisations like the UNHCR, the Socio-Legal Information Center (SLIC) and a handful of NGOs and trusts to protect their rights. The SLIC provides pro bono legal services to refugees and its main office is in the Bhogal area itself. However, no pro bono work can protect the Afghans in the face of real violence initiated by the locals. KhairKhwa introduced me to Nehal Mohammadzai, an Afghan teenager, who told me her brother was beaten up by locals after an argument over his mobile repairing business. To date he has not found justice.
Through KhairKhwa, I made inroads into the handicraft centre where I met more women willing to share their stories. It was at this centre that I met KhairKhwa’s childhood friend Samira Faizi, who became the central subject of my film. Faizi has a long-standing relationship with India. Before moving here permanently in 2021, she used to visit India every year for medical treatment.
She has been diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia. It’s a rare disorder that is hard to cure and expensive to treat. Her financial situation is also precarious since moving to India. Her family left everything in Afghanistan to escape to India and they know that going back is not an option as the Taliban has taken over the country. The tension of being deported, along with the possibility of being stuck in India forever, have made Faizi’s mental and physical health nosedive in the past few months. When I last spoke to her in June 2023, she was unable to speak without experiencing excruciating pain.
The handicraft centre helped me understand how Afghan refugees were making ends meet. Faizi’s sons had joined a dry fruit business, while KhairKhwa’s son was a driver in Himachal Pradesh. Faizi, along with her friends, worked at the handicraft centre during the day, and learned Microsoft Office at a computer centre in Bhogal in the afternoon, in the hope of landing a job in a corporate setup.
While some women were optimistic about their future, the majority were angry and depressed, because there is no framework in place to integrate Afghans into the formal economy. They knew that despite their efforts, they would never be accepted here. Things got worse for these women in May 2023, when the handicraft centre closed down due to lack of funds.
The Indian government and its supporters continue to see Muslim refugees as problematic. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which accelerates citizenship for refugees from neighbouring countries of every faith except Islam, is a testament to the government’s view. I expected radio silence from the government on the situation of Afghan refugees in India but I still mailed the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) for a response. I didn’t get any. I also interviewed a lawyer who gave me some context about the legal situation of refugees, but he pulled out of the film after watching it, saying it was too political.
Afghan Muslim refugees in India have hit a dead end. No amount of storytelling, refugee cards or NGO relief can lessen their pain of losing everything and ending up with nothing.
(This appeared in the the print as 'The Endless Wait')
Ankita Mukhopadhyay is a journalist based in San Francisco. Her film ‘Samira: A Refugee Story’, funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, will be released at a film festival later this year