Refugees in Delhi Part 2: Syrian and Iraqi migrants living lives of quiet desperation, wish they could go home again

The lack of a law to govern and secure refugees' lives in India means that they are left to fend for themselves without any rights.

Pallavi Rebbapragada September 27, 2017 10:15:03 IST

Editor's Note: Over 40,000 Rohingya refugees are living in India. The Government of India's recent announcement to deport them back to Myanmar has worried not just the Rohingya but also refugees from other parts of the world now living in Delhi. In this four-part series, Firstpost will look into the condition of these refugees and how the Centre’s stand has sent chills down their spine, many of whom say they have no homes to go back to. 

In the mid-1980s, a girl born in Erbil, the capital of South Kurdistan, was named 'Hind' because her parents were fond of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi. Back then, the radio airwaves sprayed Shammi Kapoor songs like confetti on Iraq's war-torn air. Without the glitter or glee or her younger days, Hind now lives as a refugee on the outskirts of New Delhi, along with her husband and daughters.

"I used to live in Dora (South of Baghdad) and attended the University of Technology in Baghdad. My father used to drive me back before noon because that was when the firing would start. The United States Army lost over a thousand soldiers in my neighbourhood," she revealed. The Islamic State now controls a territory larger than the United Kingdom, with an estimated population of six million, leaving many with no option but to run for their lives.

Hind isn't the only one seeking refuge in India. Up until last year, there were 43 refugees and 28 asylum seekers from Syria and 304 refugees and 166 asylum seekers from Iraq registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "I have completed a course in VFX (animation) from a private university. Why can't I get a job after paying for my education?" she asked.

Refugees in Delhi Part 2 Syrian and Iraqi migrants living lives of quiet desperation wish they could go home again

Middle Eastern restaurants in Delhi often display a life-size photograph of Beit Jabri, an open courtyard café in Damascus that was built in 1737. Firstpost/Pallavi R

Her husband Ahmad said his life was at imminent risk in Iraq and that is why, despite holding a PhD and a multimedia degree, he is living without a job in India. "Everything is linked to the Aadhaar card now and we can't even open bank accounts. We transfer the school fees for our daughter through demand drafts and use our friends' bank accounts," he said.

Faht Mohammad, who is from Damascus, says he came to India in 2006 to study engineering in Hyderabad. The conflict erupted in 2011 and Faht's family was displaced in Lebanon and in other places in Syria. "The only reason to stay back here in India is that I'll have to join the army in Syria and my life will be at risk. After the Rohingya expulsion, I feel unsafe because what if it's our turn next? How will we go back to Syria?" he said.

"We wish, much more than you do, that we had homes to go back to in Syria," he added. Faht, who now works as a translator at a private hospital, painfully revealed the story of how he lived on the streets for a year, simply attempting to secure his next meal.

Refugees in Delhi Part 2 Syrian and Iraqi migrants living lives of quiet desperation wish they could go home again

A restaurant owner said Syrians working there complained of one major problem: Uncertainty. Firstpost/Pallavi R

Mohaab, a Syrian who claims to have been a student of Jamia Millia Islamia, has crossed the sea. He told Firstpost that his time in India was traumatic. "I had applied for the Long Term Visa (LTV), which enables refugees to work, to rent a house, to book a hotel, to buy a SIM card. I was issued EXIT instead and I stayed for my last two years like a lost animal without any rights. Though I have an MA from Jamia and other diplomas and work experience, I was forced to work at a restaurant for long hours every day in order to survive," he said.

Like Mohaab, working in Middle Eastern restaurants is helping many survive. Firstpost located two restaurants in the capital where Syrian refugees work and heard their stories. They pointed to menus that carried pictures of Warbat Bi Qeshteh (baklava), Syrian black coffee, a yoghurt-based Kurdish preparation Kuba Labanya, and the Foul Madammas, the fava bean Middle Eastern breakfast dish.

One of the restaurants stands quietly on a big road, watching Delhi's residents go about their business. It has a brightly-lit Shawarma station that attracts some. The other restaurant is tucked away inside a one-star hotel in East Delhi.

Refugees in Delhi Part 2 Syrian and Iraqi migrants living lives of quiet desperation wish they could go home again

Middle Eastern restaurants in Delhi often employ Syrian refugees as translators. Firstpost/Pallavi R

Both restaurants display a life-size photograph of Beit Jabri, an open courtyard café in Damascus that was built in 1737 and is symbolic of good times for Syrians: It serves as an instant reminder of happy crowds playing backgammon and smoking the Lebanese 'mazzah' (water pipe); nostalgia inspires misery and also heals it.

The owner of the second restaurant, who wished to remain anonymous, told us that the Syrians working there complain of one major problem – uncertainty. "They keep waiting for the Foreigner Regional Registration Offices (FRRO) to grant them Long Term Stay Visas and the frustration of having to wait indefinitely takes a toll on their mental peace. They speak of relatives in Germany, in the Netherlands, in other parts of the world. Their problems are so different from ours," he said, describing his daily solitude.

Nawaar, a refugee from the outskirts of Damascus, now lives around breezy palms in South India. When asked about the problems faced by refugees in India, he points to the lack of a law to govern and secure refugee lives. Whatever help asylum seekers are getting from the government is on humanitarian grounds because India is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention.

Refugees in Delhi Part 2 Syrian and Iraqi migrants living lives of quiet desperation wish they could go home again

Whatever help refugees are receiving from the government is on humanitarian grounds. Firstpost/Pallavi R

"In the past, there have been cases like that of an Iranian gentleman and of a Palestinian gentlemen who went to court against an official decision of deportation in their respective cases but until and unless there is a law that guarantees a refugee's right to stay here, people will remain insecure," Nawaar explained. A refugee law will not only give them a legal right to live here but can also, to a limited extent, help them with improved access to work, education and healthcare.

Through UNHCR's sustained advocacy, the refugees have some form of identification to hook their lives on. A weak hook, but a hook nonetheless. As compared to the Burmese refugees who were largely agriculturalists back home, Syrians and Iraqis tend to be more technically qualified and can communicate in English.

In the words of a refugee in Delhi who traced his roots to Basra, located on the Shatt al-Arab between Kuwait and Iran, "Being a refugee is like existing in a coma; even those who want to help us don't know when and if at all we will rise."

Refugees in Delhi Part 2 Syrian and Iraqi migrants living lives of quiet desperation wish they could go home again

"Our children need an education. By the time and if at all peace is restored in our homeland, our children would have grown old without any knowledge or talent", said Ahmad, a refugee. Firstpost/Pallavi R

(India is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees. It doesn’t have on its statute book a specific law to govern refugees. The care and treatment of refugees falls under India’s Registration of Foreigners Act of 1939, the Foreigners Act of 1946 and the Foreigners Order of 1948. The Indian Evidence Act, the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure apply to refugees who are living on Indian soil.)

Read part 1: Living in India a struggle but Myanmar is a threat to our existence, say Chin migrants

Read part 3: Driven from their land, Afghan migrants find hope in football, yoga and art

Read part 4: Somalian migrants enjoy peace but deportation, racial discrimination looms large

Introduction to series: Centre's decision to deport Rohingya has other Stateless migrants worried

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