A postgraduate in English literature from Delhi University, this 29-year-old avoids getting photographed, identifying himself by name or the sect of his religion. What’s more, the sight of a city policeman is his ultimate nightmare.
Ahmed Salaam, an Iraqi, is often picked up by the local police on suspicion of being a terrorist. Back at his rented one-room accomodation in Munirka, the landlord periodically arrives in the dead of the night to rummage through his ‘suspicious’ suitcases and pile of clothes.
Salaam, like 122 other Iraqi nationals in the city who have been certified as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is battling for his survival in India but still shudders at the thought of returning to his country.
Salaam’s study visa expired last year and he does not have the money to get another. Unlike the refugees from Afghanistan and Myanmar, he is not entitled to a residential permit from the Indian authorities. He does not have a work permit either.
In other words, Salaam is a ‘nowhere’ man.
The monetary help of R2,245 that the UNHCR used to give him and many other Iraqis on a monthly basis has also been discontinued. “The UNHCR’s subsistence allowance (SA) of R2,245 was terminated last year and it has made no other arrangement. I survive on loans from Indian friends and relatives staying abroad,” Salaam told the Hindustan Times.
Salaam is a representative of the Iraqi refugees, part of an informal group — Awakened Force — that meets every month at discreet locations in the city to discuss their woes. Like others from his troubled-torn country, Salam fled Iraq after the US-led occupation in 2003, owing to “threats to life and religious persecution”.
“I reached Delhi in August 2007 from Syria after that country’s authorities asked us to leave. A Shiite militia group, Jaish al Mahdi, had forced me to leave Baghdad earlier since I refused to work as a translator for them,” Salaam said.
Like Salaam, Mohammed Ashraf, 30, had arrived in the city in July 2006, after the “Mahdi rebels forced many like him from Iraq’s Basra city to leave that country or face death”. His Indian visa expired last year. “Without the SA grant, I take loans from friends here but cannot tell them that I will never be able to return it,” he said, adding that “I cannot approach the Indian authorities to renew my visa, as I have already done my postgraduation in engineering from a city institute. They will first arrest me for not having valid documents.”
When asked about the Iraqi refugees’ complaints, UNHCR’s field media officer (India) Nayana Bose said, “All refugees and asylum seekers have access to work in India’s informal sector. The UNHCR believes in building skills of people enabling them to earn a living. The UNHCR supports various income-generating activities for refugees.” He added, “Residential permits are issued by the government to refugees from Myanmar and Afghan-istan. The UNHCR would be happy to see this extended to other refugee groups as well.”