When six Shia militia men stormed his saloon, shot dead a customer and ordered it to close, 23-year-old Muhanad E Omran, an Iraqi of Palestinian origin from Baghdad’s Karada district, knew it was time to leave.
“There was no time to think. My parents fled to Syria. I came to India,” says Omran, who is on a protest outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in the Capital.
Deep inside Kishangarh -- an outlying area off Vasant Kunj -- a rundown locality is slowly turning into a little Baghdad, minus the signature militia raids and violence. Over 200 Iraqis live there under crushing hardship.
Omran doesn’t stay in Kishangarh, like others. He can’t afford it. His pad behind UNHCR’s rear entrance is a makeshift bedspread consisting of a flattened cardboard box and a single quilt. Hardly a comforter in this dour Delhi December. Omran wants direct access to UNHCR officials for an “enhanced allowance”. The Rs 1,400 he gets now as assistance money barely lasts. “But nobody,” he says, “is willing to hear me out.”
In the four years since the US invasion and the sectarian rampage that followed, nearly four million Iraqis have been driven out. Surprisingly, Delhi has seen the single largest pile-up of Palestinian refugees from Baghdad in the past one year. Between March 2006 and October this year, 200 have been officially accorded refugee status, a number that’s likely to swell.
“Syria has stopped accepting refugees. India, therefore, is a destination of choice now,” says Basima who fled Baghdad with her daughter after her husband was killed. On most days, she eats just two times a day, her brunch comprising two rotis and tea. It’s a repeat for dinner.
Forty-year-old truck owner Jamal Ibrahim and his family of four arrived in New Delhi from Baghdad via Damascus this January. Last December, armed men from the radical Mahdi army kidnapped his college-going son from their home in upmarket Al-Zafarnia area. Ibrahim got his son back after he promised to sell off everything and leave the country. “I chose to come to India because I heard this country was a friend of Yasser Arafat,” Ibrahim says, pointing to Bilal, the son he secured in exchange for a vow to leave Iraq and never return.
Like many Sunni Iraqis of Palestinian origin who enjoyed the protection of Saddam Hussein, the powerful Shias, Ibrahim says, would have killed him too.
He sold his palatial home worth 40,000 Iraqi dinar for just 15,000. Now he stays cooped up in a two-room set for Rs 2,000. His total allowance for the month: Rs 4,600.
As Muslims feasted on Eid this Friday, Dhianoor Mowafa, like other Iraqis here, prayed at a nearby mosque and slept. No new clothes for his daughters. No sweet smell of swarma cooking. “Only slept,” he says.