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A Twist Of Faith

Learning in exile Rohingya children in a makeshift classroom at the refugee camp. Photos: Vijay Pandey

By Sahal Muhammed & Salmanul Farisy
August 28, 2015

Rohingya refugees in India are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to keeping their faith alive.

Abdul Shakur sits in a small room devoid of any furniture, with a thin rag on the floor masquerading as a bed in Uttam Nagar, New Delhi. The 28-year-old short-statured Rohingya Muslim refugee with a wide smile has an extraordinary story to tell. His faith, that led to his persecution in his homeland Myanmar, was put to a different kind of test in India.

Three years after reaching India, Shakur and his wife Yasmin ended up at a refugee camp in west Delhi’s Ranhaula area run under the name of Rohingya Christian Assembly. There he was given a rickshaw and his debts were paid off. He was also baptised and converted to Christianity.

However, six months later, he decided to leave the camp owing to ‘unease’ with his new religion. His rickshaw was taken back and the money also allegedly retrieved. Now he stays in the room, a month’s rent paid by friends, facing a future as uncertain as when he crossed the Naaf river to Bangladesh on a fishing boat.

Shakur and Yasmin had crossed into West Bengal from Bangladesh with the help of an agent. After reaching there, they were left to their own devices, scrambling for food or shelter. Shakur tells Tehelka about yet another unexpected blow: “I went to get food for my wife, but when I returned, I found that she was gone.” He searched for her, but in vain. Without a refugee card, he felt he lacked the wherewithal to approach the state authorities for help.

Undaunted, he decided to seek help from the UNHCR office. India does not prevent the UN agency from giving refugee cards to the Rohingya. However, the card has little use other than saving the refugees from arbitrary detention. It is not even entertained as an identity proof to get phone sim cards issued. It is also not a work permit, which means even the most educated refugee are confined to menial jobs. Shakur ended up washing dishes in a hotel.

Two years later, he got information that his wife was in a Kolkata jail. Taking his earnings and borrowing from his friends, Shakur set out to free her. Luck was on his side this time as he managed to get her released, but not without paying bribes to officials.

Shakur and his wife were now free but penniless. They spent two days and two nights in a park near the UNHCR office in Vikaspuri. At a juncture when they had no one to turn to, they met a Christian convert. It was this gentleman who led them to the Ranhaula camp.

Shakur’s is one of the three families who left the camp: 18 families still reside there. Amir Ahmad, who was at the camp temporarily, has his own story to tell. He says his friend Ismail had promised he would get a rickshaw and free rations for two months at the camp. “They told me if my wife doesn’t come with me, I would get a new wife there,” he says. Heeding his friend’s words, Amir went alone to the camp, leaving his wife behind in Mehwat, Haryana. He stayed at the camp for two months but left because he “didn’t like the religion”.

Mohammed Syed was staying in Bangladesh when his parents, who had been converted to Christianity back in Myanmar, asked him to cross over to India. He says he decided to join the camp when he was tired of being hungry all the time. “After I came here, I decided to survive on my own,” he says.

The journey for the Rohingya coming from Myanmar sometimes resembles an intricate video game, with the finishing point at the UNHCR office.

Rohingya have been systematically discriminated against by successive governments who have wielded Burmese nationalism mixed with Theravada Buddhism is an effective tool. This has led to an entire generation of Rohingya growing up without citizenship rights and as refugees in their own country.

Ironically, the Rohingyas are accused of being immigrants from Bengal, both during the British rule and after independence. In 2014, the government abolished the term Rohingya and insists on calling them ‘Bengalis’.

The first wave of refugees fled the communal riots that shook Rakhine, a province of Myanmar, in 2012. The persecution and genocide that followed was perpetrated by the security forces. Shakur removes his shirt to show the scars left by the security forces.

Life in refuge Rohingyas are struggling to piece together their lives.

Those who make it out of Myanmar travel to different directions in search of asylum. Those who choose India, their purported ancestral home, exit via Bangladesh. To get there, they must cross the Naaf river (separating Myanmar and Bangladesh), which takes around two hours to cross in fishing boats – a perilous journey that takes many lives.

Bangladesh does not give refugee status to the Rohingya. “The situation in Bangladesh was such that if anyone found out we are from Myanmar, we could be thrown into jail. I had to spend eight months there surviving on frugal meals and doing odd jobs before I could find an agent to cross to India,” says Abdul Khan. The agents charge around 7,500 taka for the service.

Most of the refugees who enter Delhi end up at a camp in a stretch of wasteland in south-east Delhi, owned by the Zakat Foundation. The families live in a small enclosures measuring around 10ft x 10ft, with walls made of tin and plastic sheets for roofs. No electricity has been provided to the camp despite families living there for over three years. The condition in these camps worsens during summer when the sun heats up the tin walls and plastic sheets, and the only source of water is a handpump at the centre of the camp.

“In principle, all refugees in India, including Rohingya, have access to government health and education services but sometimes they have difficulty in accessing these facilities,” a UNHCR official tells Tehelka. The difference between principle and practice appears stark. Last year, 12 kids were admitted to schools nearby through a UNHCR programme. This year, though, the kids have not been admitted and spend their days frolicking in the squalid surroundings of the camp. Many, unsurprisingly, develop skin diseases.

About three months ago, a snake bit three kids in the camp. Two of them died and only a 14-year-old girl survived because she was rushed to aims.

Uncertain future Abdul Shakur sits in his rented room

In comparison, living conditions at the Ranhaula Christian camp seems to be better. And religion seems like a small sacrifice to be a part of it. The people are provided free rations for the first two months and given a rickshaw to earn for themselves and there are doctors who are brought in on request.

The camp is run under the supervision of a Rohingya named Shonamiya, who converted to Christianity long ago. The prayer ceremonies are all done under his leadership. However, the source of the funds that come from outside remains unclear. The conversion certificates of Shakur and Yasmin have only the name and signature of Shonamiya with a seal of the Rohingya Christian Assembly.

Shonamiya, speaking to Tehelka, admits that Shakur has been converted in India but insists that he is the only one. “We were all converted to Christianity back in 2004,” he says. “I don’t know anything about the funds. We make our living driving cycle rickshaws.”

Ignored by the government, help has been hard to come by for the Rohingya. “In addition to the bigger support Rohingya receive from local civil society, UNHCR has provided sanitary material to them,” says UNHCR.

Despite the plight of the Rohingya receiving worldwide attention as hundreds of them were stuck on boats off the coast of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand and having had to drink their own urine to survive, help from civil society in India has been noticeably absent.

“We had approached Jamaat-e-Islami for help. They told us that they did not have enough budget and it is up to the Almighty,” says Khan. President of the Zakat Foundation, asked about the help they give refugees, only had this much to say: “We have earmarked the land on which they are residing.”

“Refugees from many other countries in India have proper income sources, education and all, but we have nothing. No education, no money, no place, not even dreams,” says Salim, who runs a small shop in the Kadar camp.

There are signs that India is starting to look at the Rohingya as a security threat rather than a humanitarian crisis. In June, a meeting was called of officials of seven states where they are settled to monitor their activities. “There is a fear that the members of the community could be vulnerable to radicalisation. We have to be cautious before things go out of hand,” an official told pti. He also called attention to the “alarming development” of Rohingya marrying Indian girls.

Life has been an unrelenting challenge for Shakur and others who had to leave their homeland and the camp that provided them sustenance because of their faith. The irony of his fate is not what is bothering Shakur now. “My nine-month-old daughter is suffering from pneumonia,” he says while fishing out prescriptions from a plastic bag that contains among other things, his conversion certificate. “It has cost me 7,500 so far to treat her. I don’t have any more money,” he says.

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