Quiet Eid for Rohingya refugees in Delhi after fire razes their homes and hopes

New Delhi: After six years of rebuilding her life brick by brick, this was to have been an Eid that echoed the celebrations of a real home for Tabassum Khanum, one of more than 200 Rohingya Muslim refugees whose lives were upended once again, when a fire blazed through their shanty homes.

The mother of three had been saving money since November to buy new clothes and gifts for Eid hoping that this festival, even in exile, would recall the festivities of home in Arakan, Myanmar from where she and her family fled six years ago.

File photo of the Rohingya refugees. AP

File photo of the Rohingya refugees. AP

But a fire in April ravaged the hope and her home in a shanty colony in southeast Delhi's Kalindi Kunj area. Forty-four hutments housing 226 Rohingya refugees — of which 100 were women and 50 were children — were gutted, along with all their belongings.

Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar's Rakhine state are the “most persecuted minority in the world”, according to the United Nations.

"I had kept aside Rs 3,500 for buying new clothes. It would have been the first time in six years that we wore new clothes on Eid," Tabassum said, adding that she had plans to celebrate Eid the "normal" way this year.

But with makeshift toilets, makeshift homes and even a makeshift mosque, which has carpets spread on the rough ground for their daily prayers and to break their fast, it will be another makeshift Eid for Tabassum and the others.

Before the fire, the Rohingya refugees, most working as daily wage labourers, ragpickers, and sweepers had constructed several brick-and-mud huts. After the fire, they are living under plastic covers. The men sleep outside and the women inside around 20 makeshift tents covered with dupattas, plastic, and mosquito nets. A flimsy 'dupatta partition' separates the tents.

"We had built our life here too and finally after many years, I had enough money to celebrate Eid the way I did in Arakan. But the fire once again reminded me of my refugee status," said Tabassum.

As the mercury spirals and hot winds blow through what now passes off as home Zehina Begum, another refugee, said the month of Ramzan in the makeshift camp has been the toughest since she fled her country in 2012. "We finally had a roof over our head after years of struggle but even that was snatched in the fire," Zehina said.

For children in the camp, some of whom have been born in exile, Eid ul-Fitr is their favourite time of the year. But this year, they have made a silent pact not to ask for Eidi, a gift usually given to children by elder relatives and family friends as part of the celebrations. Not one to give up hope, Zehina is planning a surprise for her children by making 'shai mai', the traditional Eid delicacy of vermicelli, sugar, and milk, known as 'sevian' in India.

Her neighbour Nilofur Khadem was faced with a tough choice ahead of the festival. "I had to pay my son's tuition fees. I had saved money for it but after everything was destroyed in the fire I could gather just enough to either buy Eid ul-Fitr gifts or to pay the fees and I chose the latter," she said.

Another threat looms ahead — the monsoon.

"I don't think the plastic covers and clothes that we are using as roofs will be able to shield us. The recent rains worsened our living conditions and we fear the upcoming monsoon will aggravate our crisis,” said Nilofur.

N Touseef, national secretary of the Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO), one of the groups seeking to provide aid to the refugees, said the condition of the refugees has worsened since the fire and construction of permanent houses can be completed only after the rains.

Tabassum, Zehina, and Nilofur are among the 75,000 Rohingyas a majority of whom are Muslims, who were displaced by two waves of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine in 2012. Thousands of people fled Myanmar to take refuge in neighbouring countries, including India.

In Delhi, NGOs estimate that there are nearly 900 Rohingya refugees living in camps in Shaheen Bagh, Madanpur Khadar, Okhla, and Vikaspuri. NGO representatives say the camps lack basic services such as sanitation, healthcare, and drinking water.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and its partners are engaging with Rohingya refugees to explore safer shelter solutions in 'pucca' houses for them, said an official.
"The coordination platform created by UNHCR with the support of many national stakeholders remains active and continues to discuss, monitor, and identify areas where refugees need support and find practical solutions where possible," UNHCR policy associate Ipshita Sengupta said.

Some 40,000 Rohingyas have settled in India, and 16,000 of them have received refugee documentation, the UN estimates. In August 2017, the government announced that it was planning to deport Rohingya refugees living in the country. The Home Ministry had said infiltration of Rohingyas from the Rakhine state of Myanmar into Indian territory, especially in recent years, besides being a burden on the limited resources of the country, also aggravates security challenges posed to India.


Updated Date: Jun 14, 2018 19:48 PM

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