“..Restore to me the colour of face,
And the warmth of my body,
The light of heart and eye,
The salt of bread and rhythm,
The taste of earth, the motherland.
Bring me a toy and brick from
So that our children will remember
Darwish’s poems on exiles often reflect an expatriate’s yearning to return, meet his people and be buried in the soil of his motherland. They find resonance in the feelings of lakhs of people stranded in India who have come from different countries and are living here as refugees. Their children have no passport, and ‘back home’ is merely a dream, a place they have only read or heard about in stories narrated by their parents.
India has recently seen a surge of refugees from Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine province have been mercilessly targeted by Buddhist fundamentalists. Hindus from Pakistan have also started feeling the heat of Islamic fundamentalism in their country. Besides, there are Palestinians, Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis who had to flee when there was a crisis back home. They do not have much in common except their refugee status.
The worst among the sufferers are the children who fled the country of their birth at a tender age or were born in a foreign land. If citizenship is a primary marker of identity in modern nation-states, these kids start life with a handicap. Yet they want to be recognised as equal citizens and pursue their dreams despite the uncertainty surrounding their status.
We met some refugees from four countries and their children, for whom dignity is a big dream unless they return to their homeland or are granted Indian citizenship.
Hussain, a UNHCR refugee in India, is an ardent fan of Aung San Suu Kyi. Unlike many other Rohingyas, Hussain is convinced that his democratic leader will stand up for their cause and bring an end to the atrocities unleashed on them.
It is surprising to find a teenager so well-versed in politics. “It’s not that she is not willing to speak, she cannot because of compulsions,” he says. “There are elections in Myanmar and she cannot afford to side with the Muslims. I am sure once she is elected, she will work for us and ensure our return. I am waiting for that day.”
Hussain, who, along with his parents, fled to India in 2012 amidst large-scale violence against the Rohingyas, is hoping against hope. He is determined to go back and work for his community. For now, he spends his day teaching other kids in the camp about their history so that they do not become a forgotten people. He has also enrolled himself in a local school with the help of the UNHCR.
Kids from Pakistan staying at Frontier Colony, Faridabad, play in the wooden frame of a tent meant for goats. The gathering gloom of this camp just before sunset is a reminder of the uncertainty and darkness surrounding their lives.
Jaspreet’s life has been no less complex than the layers of green leaves she is trying to wrench from the corn cobs in her hands. At the age of seven, her fate hangs between two neighbouring countries, India and Pakistan, just like the swing on which her younger sister rests. Born in Pakistan and an Indian-in-waiting, she insists every day that her mother take her to Karachi so that she can play with her cousins and friends. Like many other children in the camp at Frontier Colony in Faridabad, Jaspreet’s fate is set to be determined by the governments of India and Pakistan and also the future of extremist forces such as the Taliban, who have forced thousands of Hindus and Sikhs to flee their homeland. Her parents came to India in 2008 on a tourist visa and decided not to return as they were being pressurised to convert back home.
He is neither a refugee nor an Indian but a child born in a liberal Afghan family troubled by the growth of extremism in Afghanistan. In his family’s consistent attempts to escape the wrath of ever-unfolding Islamic extremism, Aziz has lost the sense of belonging to a particular country. He greets this correspondent and then is confused that we don’t understand his language. It is as if in his family’s constant struggle to find peace in a foreign land, Aziz has lost his bearings.
( All photos by Arun Shehrawat. Originally published by Tehelka )