Khadra Ali Farah speaks neither Hindi nor English. Yet, her eyes speak volumes, their expressions often ranging from despair to desperation. She is one of the many Somali refugees who arrived in India between 2003 and 2009 to escape the conflict raging back home. Today, she inhabits a tiny room in South Delhi’s Malviya Nagar along with her four children, two nieces, and another Somali girl with a child.
They’re lucky to have one another. There are moments when the small space resounds with laughter and cheery camaraderie. As head of the family, Khadra stays busy. There are kids to attend to, news to swap, and visitors to look after. Yet, each day ends in melancholy, with more questions than she has answers for—of her future in India, her family back home, and the fate of her people. “There is a huge famine in Somalia,” she says, her words translated by Ahmed, a neighbour and fellow refugee, “People are starving, dying and fleeing by the thousand. Things are going from bad to worse.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are around 750 registered Somali refugees in India. The number may be small, but they face challenges that are outsized. Since India’s legal framework does not cover refugees with either uniformity or clarity, the granting of residential and work permits is ad hoc, differing from group to group. So, while Somali refugees have been allowed in, they don’t have permission to work. This has resulted in much frustration among Somali youth, many of whom have studied and got advanced degrees in India.
Hakima Mohammad Ali is a 21-year-old refugee armed with a BSc in microbiology who can’t get a job. “People tell me, ‘There are thousands of people in this country with similar qualifications waiting for a job, why will you be given one?’ I have gone to several hospitals; they will train you but not let you work,” she says.
It was in 2007 that Hakima fled Somalia. Life there had been traumatic. “I come from a regular middle-class family in Mogadishu with eight of us brothers and sisters and two cousins,” she says, “My father was forced to join the fighting, and went missing soon after. Girls were raped in front of our very eyes. We would see dead people everywhere—a head here, a hand there. It would not be unusual for us to come home with blood splattered on our clothes. My mother wanted to protect me from all this, so she made plans to send me away.”
The quickest visa available was one for India, as the travel agent told them, and that’s how Hakima landed in Hyderabad. The rest of her family fled to the Kenya- Somalia border or thereabouts. “I don’t know where they are,” she says, “But in my heart, I know they are safe.” This is the first time Hakima has been separated from her mother, and coping with it was not easy. “For the first few years, I was scared to sleep alone,” she says, her eyes turning moist. She recovers quickly, her nerves steeled by circumstance perhaps, to narrate the rest of her story.
Soon after landing in Hyderabad, she went to the UNHCR office. “They helped me get my secondary school certificate from back home, and I began studying again.” Once the lady with whom she was staying in Hyderabad left for Canada, Hakima made her way to Delhi. Today, she gets Rs 2,000 as financial assistance. It’s a pittance, given the cost of living in the city, but she is trying hard to get by. She has medical expenses too, the result of an injury sustained when the family home in Mogadishu was shelled one night. “It left me with a long painful gash across my chest. Even now it throbs at times and I have to rush to the doctor. But medical help is so expensive these days.”
If violence did not take a toll terrible enough, Somalia is reeling under one of its worst ever famines now. Speak to 28-year-old Ahmed Hashi, who has been in India since 2004, and his anxiety is palpable. He fears for those of his family he left behind. He gets to speak to them occasionally, but it’s hardly any comfort. “At times I can talk to them for barely two to three minutes. Call rates have also gone up from Rs 10 to Rs 45 per minute,” he says, “Also, sometimes insurgents [there] order people to switch off their phones. At such times, I can’t sleep or focus on anything.”
In 2009, Ahmed lost a brother and sister in the conflict; another brother has now gone missing. With a BCom Honours and diploma in computer applications, he had hoped to do something with his life. It’s a forlorn hope.
“Burmese refugees get work permits, but we don’t,” he says, “I want to earn money so that I can be of some financial assistance to my family back home. I am getting older. People my age back home are married and have kids. But I can’t even think of such things.
Then, there’s the discrimination they face. Though Somalis have not been assaulted in Delhi, it’s the little gestures, rudeness and brush-offs that hurt. “I try so hard to be brave, but times don’t let you be brave,” says Hakima, “Dealing with people in shops is difficult. They don’t treat you like a human being. People who are standing behind me in queues are catered to first, I am always the last one standing.”
Khadra, who also reached Delhi via Hyderabad, having fled Somalia in 2008, has had worse experiences. In Hyderabad, her niece was sexually harassed by three-four Indian boys. “She is still in a state of shock,” Khadra says, “Sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night in hysterics, stamping on the smaller children.”
Khadra often wonders about her husband, who is still missing. “The last time a big fight happened, some factions of an Islamist militia wanted my husband to join them. But he didn’t want to. A lot of violence erupted, and we all just ran helter-
skelter.” In panic, she took her children and nieces and went to a travel agent. Since she didn’t have any money, she handed over the deeds to some land she owned, and got a visa to India.
Moving to Delhi has not brought much relief to Khadra. With so many kids to take care of, she finds herself forgoing even the few income-generation chances that come her way. Don Bosco, for example, runs a few ‘activities’ that help refugees get some cash. “At most, I can earn up to Rs 4,000. But what should I do with such a meagre amount—pay rent, buy food, get medicines?” she asks.
To make matters worse, Khadra’s youngest daughter suffers from asthma. “I have often carried my kids in the middle of the night to the government hospital in Malviya Nagar. But language is such a huge problem. The kids shout in pain, the doctors are missing, and I just don’t know what to do,” says Khadra.
But the healing touch she really needs is of another sort: a kind word, perhaps, and some sympathy, if not the sound of her own language in the street bustle. Though Somali refugees in Malviya Nagar live close-knit lives, an ever ready mutual support system, they are keenly aware of their lack of belonging. “I know that things in India are much better for us and that the situation in Somalia is worsening. But sometimes I feel that I would rather die in my own country than here,” says Khadra.