It’s late evening on a weekday as my photojournalist colleague and I stare at the locked door of an apartment in a modest neighbourhood of south-west Delhi. The address messaged to my mobile and the time are proof that we are at the right place at the right time, and yet there is no sign of Feroze, the Syrian refugee we were to have met that evening. Repeated calls to his mobile phone went either unanswered or were disconnected.
Enquiries with the neighbours were, simultaneously frustrating and entertaining. “Are you here to see the Mohammedan gentleman? The Iraqi?” enquires a neighbour. “He is Muslim, yes,” we say, “but not Iraqi. He is Syrian.” The neighbour looks doubtfully at us for a minute, before insisting that he is Iraqi. “Or Afghani, may be,” he allows. Syrian clearly means little to him. “Most people here think I am either Kashmiri or Afghani,” says Irfan, a Syrian refugee in Delhi. “Those who do understand, ask us about the Islamic State (IS),” says another refugee, speaking with reluctance.
As Europe grapples with an increasing number of Syrian asylum seekers fleeing the civil war between president Bashar Al-Assad’s government and the rebels, as well as extremist groups such as the IS, and the accompanying threat of death, torture, abduction and rape at home, India is host to a small group of Syrian refugees seeking to avoid both the crowded camps at countries that share borders with Syria or the perilous sea journey, made illegally by most, into Europe. “Earlier everyone was going to Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan. But the camps there have become very congested,” says Irfan, who came to India in December 2014 on a tourist visa before applying to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for a refugee card. “India is one of very few countries where we still have a Syrian embassy. So I took a visa and came here,” he explains. “There are 39 Syrian refugees and 20 asylum seekers currently registered with the UNHCR in India. Most of them are living in south Delhi,” says Shuchita Mehta, senior communications and public information assistant, UNHCR, India.
While the government of India has given refuge to those like minorities from neighbouring countries, Tibetans and Sri Lankans, Syrian refugees, like Afghans, Iraqis, Rohingyas, Chins or Somalis need to register with the UNHCR. The UNHCR refugee card protects them both from forceful deportation or detention by the police.
Look back in anguish
Geographical space and time has done little to erase the fear of the carnage at home, or to bring back trust in humanity. Most refuse to speak either of their experience in Syria or the ongoing ordeal in an alien country, scared in equal measures of ruining their chance at a fresh start and of bringing trouble to family members still in Syria. Some, like Feroze, make an appointment, even share their address, but subsequently avoid meeting. “If they find out I am in India and have spoken to the media, they will kill my relatives who are still there,” says a refugee, making a fervent last minute request that her story be dropped after giving a nearly-hour-long interview to Hindustan Times the day before. She refuses to elaborate on who “they” are. Earlier, her husband had not only demanded to see my press card, “to ascertain that” I am “indeed from the media” but also insisted on photographing it with his cellphone. “In the last year or so people have been mostly talking about the threat from the IS in Syria. But Syrians are not just fleeing the IS. Syria is also made dangerous by the civil war that’s been raging between the government army and the rebels since 2011,” explains Rahim, a refugee. Rahim came to India as a student 10 years ago. His wife joined him here after they got married two years ago. With no hope of returning to Syria, the couple recently got themselves a UNHCR refugee card.
At a small rented apartment in Delhi, a refugee shows us pictures of a bombed school building and deadbodies lining the street near his home in Damascus. Another talks of the effect the war has had on his young son. “It’s been two years since we fled Syria, but he still draws pictures of violence and bloodshed. I don’t know how to help him” he says.
While most other refugee groups in India have the support of NGOs and organisations that work for their rights and welfare, the Syrians here are often left unattended because they are so few in number. Their own overwhelming fear and inability to trust people - quite natural after what they’ve been through - also hampers their ability to seek help. “I don’t want charity. But there should be some support system for refugees when they come to a new country, some help to find accommodation and a livelihood. When I came here, my English was bad and I had no knowledge of any Indian language. After registering at the UNHCR, I enquired for the cheapest possible rooms that I could rent and was directed to Bhogal. I finally found one for Rs 600. For Indians it was half that tariff, but I had to pay more because I am a foreigner,” says Irfan. “The UNHCR had given me the contact number of another Syrian refugee in New Delhi, but he never met me or took my call after the first time. May be because I had told him I am from Sweida,” he adds.
Sweida is home to the largest population of the Druze, a religious minority, in Syria. “Most of the Druze have remained neutral in the war. They support neither the rebels,who are mostly Sunnis, nor the government of Assad who is from the minority Muslim community of Alawites,” Irfan explains.
Divided they remain
The refugees have carried their differences to India and the here community is divided mainly into Syrians and Palestinian-Syrians. The latter group comprises those whose families settled in Syria after being displaced from Palestine in 1948. While some Palestinian-Syrians have Palestine as their country of origin in their UNHCR refugee cards, others hold Syrian-origin cards. What unites them all here is the daily ordeal of survival. “I need a job. My student visa doesn’t allow me to work. Earlier, my family was sending me money from Syria, but now they have no money. My wife was a chartered accountant in Syria but has no job here,” says Rahim.
Another refugee, a Palestinian-Syrian with a Syrian-origin UNHCR card, Firdous (29), has studied information technology. Without the scope to work in the formal sector, however, he has done it all - from bit roles in regional films to working as a gym instructor. “I have even slept on park benches when I have been unable to either pay rent or find someone to rent me rooms. In Syria we were not rich but neither were we poor,” he says, sitting in the one bedroom-hall-kitchen apartment that he now shares with two others in a modest south-Delhi neighbourhood. A huge poster of Bob Marley adorns one wall of the room where we sit. An old television is perched on a small plastic stool. The flat opens onto a passage that’s common for all the flats and overlooks a garbage dump. “I had come to India to study in 2006 and returned to Syria in 2010. So when I had to flee Syria a few months later under pressure to join the army, I came back to India, to Hyderabad where I had done my graduation. My student visa was still valid, but I couldn’t take up a job on that visa. I worked in Telugu and Hindi films, earning anything between Rs 2,000 to Rs 12,000 a day. But the work was irregular,” he remembers. In 2012, his passport expired, and so he had to come to the embassy in New Delhi. “I had fled Syria with a fake exit stamp so they had no record of me leaving. Probably that’s why they kept delaying my passport renewal. Finally, I approached the UNHCR. I needed protection as I could have been deported,” he recalls. He got his refugee card from UNHCR and also has a stay visa. But there is much that these documents have not helped him with. “I can’t even buy a SIM card for my phone with a refugee card. I paid Rs 500 to an Indian to get me the SIM card on his identity,” he says. In his book India Shastra, parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor refers to a 2011 government circular making a distinction between refugees and economic migrants. According to the circular, “Such de facto refugees will be eligible for long term stay visas issued for a year at a time but renewable five times. Private sector employment will henceforth be possible, as will access to high quality education…,” he writes, adding that technicalities are still being worked out.
So far, Firdous has been unable to find a job in the corporate sector. “I got many offers from call centres, but I was rejected by human resources because of my refugee status,” he says. He now works as a language interpreter at the UNHCR, earning `660 a day when he gets work.
If Irfan learns of Firdous’ experience, he’d probably lose all hope for the future. A trained anaesthetist with over eight years of experience, Irfan now works as the manager of a small guest house in New Delhi. His hopes are pinned on his recently-acquired UNHCR refugee card. “I approached many hospitals when I came to Delhi to even work as a language interpreter for Arabic-language patients but didn’t find a job because I didn’t have the relevant papers. With a refugee card and a stay visa I hope to find a hospital job,” says Irfan, who had to take up the guest house job after his wallet with all his money and some documents were stolen on a bus. “I work 10 hours a day and get paid Rs 14,000. I have no off days. If I don’t work on any day, it gets deducted from my salary. I am forced to stay in this area because it is cheap. But it is so dirty and congested that I can’t even breathe properly. I have been troubled by a lung disorder ever since I came here,” says Irfan whose Indian experience has proved to be a far cry from what he had expected. “I had read much about Indian culture online, but people here are not like that. They think I am rich because I am a foreigner. They don’t understand that I am a refugee. I am overcharged for everything. Sometimes shops here even refuse to sell me things,” he says. A friend and his wife, who arrived in India after Irfan, soon left for Turkey as they were unable to support themselves here.
Those with children worry about their future. “My sons don’t go to school. My refugee card provides for them to study in government schools till they are 13 but they don’t understand either English or any Indian language,” says one. With families scattered across Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Europe and the US, most of the Syrians here are hoping the UNHCR will help them resettle in the West. “I just want to get out of India. I am hoping that my brother in Canada will be able to help me,” says Irfan, as another refugee informs of his impending meeting with the UNHCR high commissioner. “We are hoping for resettlement and don’t want to speak to the media before the meeting. It might impact our case negatively,” he says as he disconnects the call.
Meanwhile, in south-west Delhi, Feroze continues to evade us even after a four-hour wait. His flat remains locked and his phone unanswered. As the neighbourhood shops down their shutters for the night, we meet one of his neighbours - the only other Syrian living in that apartment block. He is apologetic as he refuses to speak to us or let us in to his flat. “Some other day, I hope I will be able to be more hospitable. But now we are afraid. We don’t want any trouble,” he says. His fearful eyes follow us until our vehicle takes the distant bend in the road and can no longer be seen from the house.
*Names and details of refugees have been changed or withheld to protect identities.