Take me home
Most often, it is internal strife and persecution that cause people to flee their countries. Reflecting on World Refugee Day that was observed on June 20, AUNOHITA MOJUMDAR looks at the work of the UNHCR in finding three such persons homes.
Nazik and her family ... off to Canada
TWENTY-SIX-year-old Nazik Abdalrahman Abdallah does not know the country of her origin Sudan. She was six months old when her family fled the country, driven by poverty to seek a new livelihood in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Personal problems forced Nazik to leave the UAE in 2000, to come to India. Twenty-two years old, alone and with a baby, Nazik has found it impossible to work and support herself in the last four years, subsisting on the little money that her mother was able to send.
Last week however she began a new journey to a new country she has never seen. Canada, she hopes, will become the permanent home for her and her family son Osam and husband Abdalaziem Abdal Mutalab Khalid Mansour.
Nazik is one of the hundreds of refugees who have found a home through the efforts of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in India (www.un.org/depts/dhl/refugee/), as part of the U.N. body's worldwide mandate of resettlement, repatriation and naturalisation. In India, where there is no refugee law, Nazik, could not have her stay regularised, let alone find employment.
India is not a signatory to either the 1951 Convention on Refugees or the 1967 Protocol and has no domestic legislation on refugees even though it hosts thousands of refugees. Though it recognises certain groups of refugees and accords them certain rights (Tibetans, Sri Lankans, Afghans and Myanmarese), refugees of African origin are not among them. This puts refugees like Nazik in a particularly vulnerable situation and the UNHCR office in India sees them as a priority group for resettlement in third countries.
On June 20, WorldRefugee Day, the UNHCR, established in 1950, counts as many as 20 million refugees under its protection people who have had to flee their country because of war, persecution, conflict and disasters. Ardet Singh, a resident of Tilak Nagar, Delhi, is one of the millions who observed the day. He has reason to. With the help of the UNHCR, Singh, one of the thousands of Sikh Afghans who fled Afghanistan, is in the midst of the process of naturalisation, a course that he hopes will make him a citizen of his adopted country, India.
An Afghan from Kabul, Ardet fled Afghanistan after the fall of the Najeeb government. "Till then we lived as brothers with the Muslims. After the mujahideen came it became impossible. The bombing every day in Kabul's Karte Parvan area, the firefights and the mortar attacks were getting too close for comfort, as were the increasing demands of the different mujahideen groups on the more prosperous families of Hindus and Sikhs, he says. By then most of his Muslim friends had left as well, fleeing to Western countries. Till then Ardet had resisted their advice to do the same, believing that he couldn't leave his homeland.
In 1992, however, Ardet and his family parents, wife and four children were on the Jalalabad road, fleeing to India, a country that they had only visited to holiday. They left most of their belongings, believing that they would return as soon as the trouble was over. For days they would cry for their country, strangers in a strange land. Ardet knew little Hindi, being fluent in Dari and Pushto, Afghanistan's two principal languages. The family missed the streets of Kabul, the mountains, the streams, the picnics in Paghman, the fresh fruit, the vegetables. For months, Ardet would listen to the news from Afghanistan hoping for better tidings. "They never came. All we heard when we turned on the radio was news of the death of a friend, or perhaps someone we had known, and reports of violence. I stopped listening."
Ardet Singh ... India is now home.
Ardet believes the new government in Kabul, though well intentioned, still cannot provide protection to them or their religion. His main grievance is that the cremation ground in Kabul, used by the community earlier, has still not been returned for their use.
The new generation, which has grown up in Afghanistan, does not know the way the communities would live in harmony and mocks their religious practices, he says. "Our little children are teased because of their turbans. In India nobody would dare do that to a Sikh." He is also proud of the way his daughter can travel on her own in a bus to the Bangla Sahib and back. Something, he says, she could not have done in Kabul.
Today Ardet is indistinguishable from any other Indian, having shed his customary clothing of kurta pajama for a formal outfit. There is only one thing that he cannot assimilate. Ardet falls ill every summer. "The air there (in Afghanistan) was so good."
It is that indefinable something that is drawing another Afghan refugee, 70-year-old Taj Bara back to Kabul. Having lived through all the years of war and fighting, it was only last year that she decided to come to India, hoping to make a new home with her family, her two sons, daughters in law and grandchildren whom she hadn't seen for 14 years since they fled Afghanistan. The Pashtun family's little village of Izbi was in the line of fire and with large-scale damage everyday her elder son Shams ul Haq fled to India in 1989 followed soon after by his younger brother Ibrahim Shah Zaman and then their families. Staying in Afghanistan would have meant being killed or enlisted forcibly into the army or the resistance. So scared were they that they did not travel by road, fleeing through the mountains on foot till they reached Peshawar. After 18 years here, neither Shams ul Haq nor any other member of the family wants to return.
"My children are studying here. Our fields have been sold, our house destroyed. To what do we return?" asks Haq. His quest now is to "educate my children as far as I can with everything that I have till my last breath. We have not seen anything good in our lives. That should not happen to our children."
Taj Bara and her grandchild ... back to Afghanistan?
It was realising this perhaps that his mother came last year to live with them, after having refused to leave her village even in the midst of the worst round of shelling when everyone else ran away to hide in the hills. However a year later, and she cannot tell you exactly why, but she knows she is returning for good, one of the 370 Afghans repatriated by the UNHCR who long to return home.
Her sons, in fact, are upset. "She loves her daughter more," they say to her feeble protests. "I took her to India Gate, took her for a ride on the Metro" but she enjoyed nothing, says 47-year-old Haq with all the pique of a child. "She says it is too hot, too cold, there are too many mosquitoes, the water is not good."
His mother smiles sheepishly. Taj Bara will return to Kabul to live with her daughter, Sabal Bibi. Pampered in Delhi, there she will have to help her daughter look after the small grandchildren. With her son-in-law semi-paralysed after a bullet wound, life in Kabul will be hard, but she knows she will never leave again.
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