3 years


In a Free State

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Families from countries in conflict who have sought political refuge in India inform us of a curious fortune—despite everything we are lucky to be Indians. We don’t have to flee our own country

They are not Indians, not migrants, not tourists. They use public transport and visit grocery shops. They have a curious body language, an animated sense of not belonging. Like a caged animal. They have a name. They are political refugees from turbulent places, people who have taken flights, journeys on foot, and endless car rides to flee persecution. To India. How must it feel to flee from your own country and seek freedom in a foreign land?

Josef, an Iraqi Christian and a lanky father of four, fled from Mosul to Delhi two years ago with his wife and two children. “We spent all our lives in miserable wars,” he says. They survived the long Iran-Iraq war, Iraq’s attack on Kuwait and Saddam’s regime. Josef even worked as a soldier in the Iraqi army for 15 years. “In India, when we say we are Iraqis, people talk about Saddam Hussein. They call him a gentleman. We have mixed opinions though. He provided us safety and peace, but there was also unemployment and poverty.” Despite the wars, Josef and his family did not feel isolated and targeted till 2007. Part of a small Christian minority in Mosul, Josef worked in a laundry, ironing Americans’ clothes. In 2007, he started receiving death threats and was once attacked by Islamist extrem­ists. His teenage son, accustomed to bomb blasts and corpses on the streets, witnessed a Christian being kidnapped from a bus on his way to college.

Josef was eventually forced to flee, leaving his two married children behind. Now he worries about them. A friend from Iraq brought him a photograph of their one-year-old grandson. “A happy memory,” is how the proud grandfather describes the photograph.

Moving to India was nothing like they imagined. They have acquired refugee status from UNHCR in Delhi but they’ve not been granted Indian citizenship. The Indian government has not signed the UN Refugee Convention and so political refugees are not automatically granted Indian citizenship. There are special provisions in India for ethnic groups like Tibetans, Afghan Hindus and Afghan Sikhs which enable them to get citizenship, but Iraqis fall into a chasm. “So no passport, no residence permit, no citizenship, no work permit,” says Josef. The family makes paper bags at the YMCA refugee centre in Lajpat Nagar, earning about Rs 380 a day. Josef’s home is an 8x10 ft room which he shares with his wife, a 23-year-old son and a 22-year-old daughter. Sometimes monkeys invade their room and try to open the fridge. That baffles the refugees. “In Iraq, animals are only in the zoo,” says Khaled, a refugee from Baghdad who sips Iraqi tea in Josef’s home. “Here, the zoo is everywhere.” Cows on the streets are a huge culture shock for refugees. They are unnerved by owls too, and the huge number of crows, both bad omens in Iraq. “One day, I will see a lion walk on the streets of Delhi,” Khaled says only half in jest. “And I will open the window and shake hands with a monkey,” says Josef’s son, laughing.

Fluent only in Arabic, the family is also taking English lessons at the refugee centre. Josef can sing Shammi Kapoor songs though, complete with the Mohammed Rafi lilts. Hindi films are popular in Iraq, even more than Hollywood. “I remember seeing my mother and sister cry while watching them,” says Josef. “In most films the child goes missing and many years later the father finds the son. This plot makes most Arab women cry.”

Living in India has given the family a chance to taste mangoes, chickoos (which they call ‘kijoos’ in their confusion), and a divine fruit that they say resembles black olive (jamun).

Most refugees find Indian cuisine hard to accept. It is too spicy, too overwhelming. Twenty-four-year-old Mohammed Aslami, an Afghan Muslim refugee, encounters an ‘ajeeb zayeka’ [strange taste] in all foods in Delhi. The meat is aged, and the fruits have nothing original. “In Afghanistan, the pomegranates are so juicy, we squeeze them with bare hands to drink the juice,” he says. His sisters, on the other hand, enjoy experimenting with Indian foods. “I enjoy pani puri,” says his 20-year-old sister Muzhgan Aslami. Dressed in a yellow churidar-kurta, wearing bangles and little jhumkas, Muzhgan could pass for a pretty Kashmiri. Her vibrant conversations in accented Hindi, constant smile and zest for life conceal the horrors of her life in Afghanistan.

The Aslami family, lived in camps in North West Frontier Province for 13 years before turning to India. After Karzai came to power, Mohammed decided to return to Kabul, where the family had roots, from Pakistan. He earned $300 a month working as a security guard for Americans. But in Afghanistan a good job poses a threat. Mohammed soon began receiving death threats. “When we went to the police station, the officer told us that in all of Afghanistan no one has a problem, so why do you?” Mohammed doesn’t know whether relatives or extremists were behind the threats. But he does know that his four sisters were not safe in Kabul. The two years that they spent there, the girls were forced to discontinue their education and stay at home.

When they arrived in India, the family had only six small carpets, vessels, dry fruits and clothes. “The women began to fall sick due to loneliness,” says Mohammed. “Our parents feel guilty for bringing us up in dangerous times, wandering from place to place. Had we stuck to any one place, at least our education would’ve been complete,” says Muzhgan, the eldest of the girls. Which is why her parents have allowed her to pursue her education, work independently and dress the way she desires in India. In Delhi, Muzhgan can explore the markets. She has adopted kajal [kohl]. She loves the churidar. Like her brother, Muzhgan works as an interpreter for Afghans who visit India as medical tourists or as potential asylum seekers. Many clients reprimand her. “‘How come you dress like this’, they scold me. ‘Have you forgotten your nationality?’”

“I carry my nationality in my heart, not clothes,” she says.

The Central Market in Lajpat Nagar is Muzghan’s favourite place to shop. She navigates through its hidden treasures and bargains with a new-found freedom. This is also where her family experienced the allure of malls for the first time, the technology of escalators, abundance of food courts and the festivity of crowds. When they had just arrived in Delhi, the family would often come to the mall to try out the diverse Indian cuisine in the food court. Now Muzhgan and her brothers show Afghan clients around Delhi, ending the tour in malls. Mohammed spends his spare time surfing Afghan websites, downloading Afghan music and reading local news. He carries the additional burden of his own marriage, which requires him to save Rs 10 lakh to pay the girl’s relatives.

Salai Thang Pwe, a 25-year-old Burmese man living in Delhi can’t even think about marriage. For the former child soldier in Chin Liberation Army (CLA), restoring democracy in Burma is the only thing on his mind. He joined the CLA at 16 and trained in physical and armed warfare. A medical problem forced Salai to abandon the guerrilla warfare and move to Delhi for safety. Since the UN Refugee Convention doesn’t accept members of armed rebellion as refugees, Salai is not technical­ly a refugee. In the five years that he has spent in Delhi, he has always been mistaken for a North Easterner. And suffers similar discrimination. “When it rains, people don’t allow us to stand under their shelters.” It is difficult for the Burmese population in Delhi (an estimated 5,000 according to Burma Center Delhi) to integrate with Indian culture. “The looks, language, culture, food, religious practices everything’s different,” says Plato Vanrungmang, another Burmese refugee. “Our food, especially fish, has a strong smell that landlords object to.”  

Salai Thang has only one answer to all the problems in Burma—democ­racy. But he is not very impressed with Indian democracy. India, he says, is only a democracy by rule. People are not equal. In the kind of democracy he dreams for his homeland, all humans will be equal, there will be tolerance and only if you work will you not go hungry. He has a dry humour and infectious laugh. One that stops you from asking if he’s killed someone as a child soldier, lest it disturb his countenance.

At the heart of his silence and loneliness is one hope that keeps him going: re-joining his fellow soldiers in the border forests. “In the forest, unlike Delhi, each season is very distinct,” he says. Refugees, naturally, are very conscious of the new weather they have to endure. In fact, it is the weather that always reminds them that they are not home, that they are far away from home.  

The July heat of Delhi makes Josef wipe his nape. He finds his handkerchief black with dirt. This to him is the starkest difference between Iraqi and Delhi heat—the pollution. Living in Delhi, Muzhgan has forgotten what snow in Kabul feels like. In fact, she doesn’t even know if she can face an intense Afghan winter again.  

Those seasons of their childhood, like horrors and losses, have become enduring memories. They would like to forget some of those memo­ries. But memories do not go away. They are perpetual shadows that find the space, even in the most crowded lanes of Delhi, to closely tail the orphans.