In search of an identity: Palestinian refugees struggle in India

  • Prerna Lidhoo, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 20, 2015 17:43 IST

Kamal was born in Sarita Vihar in south Delhi seven months back, but his parents are not happy as they worry about his future. They are anxious that a few years from now, he will neither find admission in a school here due to lack of documents nor the children from the neighbourhood will mingle with him thinking he’s a foreigner. This is something that their two girls have already faced.

It has been four years since Maesa Almbyed, Kamal’s mother, along with her family fled to Delhi from Syria, where they were living as refugees facing violence and persecution. She is constantly worried about the rest of her family in Syria who can at any moment become the victims of war.

“Will my son get married and give birth to other refugees? The future of my children is uncertain as we don’t have even the basic rights here. Home is where we have a normal life, where my children get what they deserve and my husband feels relaxed. I also want to live like other women and not like a refugee forever,” said Maesa.

“May be our house is destroyed in war, we don’t know. I have lost one brother to the war already. My name is difficult and so is my life here,” said Maesa’s husband Abdullah Hamudah. Abdullah, who now works at a local hotel in south Delhi for 16 hours every day to earn a living for his family, remi-nisce about his life as a professional photographer back in Syria. Like him many other Palestinian refugees from Syria are struggling to build a second life in Delhi. A total of five Palestinian families are currently calling south Delhi their home till UNHCR comes up with a plan for them.

"Having seen two years of war in Syria, we fled to India, but we don’t see any hope. I would never want my family to come here, we’re hardly living here. It has become a psychological problem as we feel that the whole world has abandoned us. Officially, I don’t exist anymore," said Muhammad Ahmad, who was a lecturer at a university in Syria and has been managing his finances by taking English tuition classes and translating dissertations for the past three years.

Many Palestinian refugees from Syria are struggling to build a second life in Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)

Muhammad was offered the job of a security guard and he feels, his education, experience and days of struggle have not been valued at all. The legal status of refugees in India is governed mainly by the Foreigners Act 1946 and the Citizenship Act 1955. These legislations do not distinguish refugees fleeing persecution from other foreigners; they apply to all non-citizens equally. Since India is neither party to the 1951 Convention on Refugees nor the 1967 Protocol, decisions related to refugees often vary for different groups and are governed by political and administrative decisions rather than any codified model of conduct. In such a scenario, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) becomes their only hope. "I have written many mails, had individual interviews and posted personal letters to the UNHCR, but it seems they are giving us anaesthesia. Each time they ask us to wait for some more time. Their silence and ignorance is unbelievable. It’s killing us. I had greater ambitions in life, but everything seems bleak now. Palestine is a distant dream for us and it is impossible to go back to Syria or live in India. UNHCR has to decide for us," said Muhammad.

“For us, all refugees are the same. We work closely with the governments of the state to ensure that refugees find safe asylum and are not deported to a place where their lives could be in danger. In seeking permanent solutions for refugee situations, UNHCR helps refugees return home voluntarily and if feasible, it suggests to the governments to grant them citizenship. In certain circumstances and exceptional cases with serious protection needs, the UNHCR helps refugees resettle in a third country,” said Shuchita Mehta, public information officer, UNHCR.

All refugees registered with the UNHCR are eligible to apply for long-term visas (LTVs) which allow them to regularize their status over time. LTVs allow refugees to access additional rights and services, including formal employment and tertiary education. All Palestinian refugees are grateful that India did its bit in hosting them, but some are disappointed by the inaction on the part of UNHCR.

Muhab Zaidan, who once came to Delhi to do further studies, now works at a hotel in Sarita Vihar. He had got a scholarship to complete his master’s degree at Jamia Millia Islamia, but he couldn’t pursue because of lack of documents and financial constraints.

“We’re not just some number on UNHCR ID cards, we’re people, too. While commuting from my place in Noor Nagar to Sarita Vihar, I pray that I don’t bump into any of my college friends or teachers as it will be very embarrassing for me. All my friends have finished their PhD and here I am, working at a hotel,” said Zaidan, for whom India is the third country after Libya and Syria.

“I can’t go back to Syria. I was a pharmacist, now I am a stateless immigrant. I prepare food for Arab families who live in Vasant Kunj. Adapting to this culture is an everyday challenge for us. Our grandparents told our parents about Palestine, our parents told us about Syria and now we will tell our children about India. Is this supposed to continue like this? Our land has been occupied for 67 long years. Each one of us is born as stateless refugees. The age of a Palestinian refugee shows the number of years of him being in exile,” said Meher Shehabi, who is 47 years old.

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