A Ramadan away from home for Rohingya
It’s a grey sunset on a hot and humid evening in the smoggy outskirts of India’s capital. In a barren wasteland between New Delhi and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, the muezzin of a makeshift mosque calls Muslims to prayer. Dozens of men gather for a traditional iftar meal to break their Ramadan fast.
A charity is picking up the tab for the day’s feast. Sliced mangoes, dates and pakoras (fried snacks) are served on paper plates. As the aroma of chicken biryani wafts through the mosque, the children waiting outside grow restless. The early diners are shunted off by the local imam. There are more stomachs to be fed.
Life is a daily struggle for the 300-odd occupants of this shanty town hundreds of miles away from home. All 70 families are Rohingya — an ethnic Muslim minority in Myanmar — who have fled persecution in their homeland. It’s been four years since the refugees started settling here on the banks of the Yamuna river, in the shadow of unfinished concrete pillars that will eventually prop up a bustling metro line.
During the fasting month of Ramadan, the families here pause to reflect on the things they are thankful for — even if it’s a roof over their heads in a dustbowl with no access to electricity, potable water or toilets.
“Ramadan is the time when Allah bestows his gifts on the faithful and every good deed gets rewarded 70 times more than the rest of the year,” says Abdur Raheem, one of the few refugees who can speak Hindi.
Raheem, a businessman in Myanmar, fled his village in 2012 after a wave of anti-Muslim bloodshed.
“The police stood by while all the houses and colonies were burnt to ashes,” says Raheem. “Many of the people I knew were killed.”
A New York Times report last year said India hosts more than 10,000 Rohingya refugees.
There are at least 13 widows in the camp near Delhi, women who lost their husbands in the riots. They keep to themselves, take care of children, and retreat behind closed doors when strangers enter the camp.
Raheem, 65, is one of the leaders of this group of Rohingya refugees. He says he has given up on Indian politicians’ promises of help, and worries that the refugees could be evicted anytime.
At the other end of the camp, Mohammad Tahir and his family of six sit outside their tarpaulin shelter, the last in a row of ramshackle shanties. The weather is sultry outside, but it’s worse inside.
“We are not used to this heat,” says Tahir, his sweat-drenched vest clinging to his chest in various shades of yellow. “The weather in Myanmar was cooler and more pleasant than Delhi, and the fasts were easier to observe.”
Tahir has fond memories of celebrating Eid at his village in Myanmar. Life had been peaceful, until the day landlords forced the villagers into bonded labour. Anyone who asked for money was either beaten or killed. Tahir escaped and made his way to India, eventually reaching the camp near Delhi in 2012. His parents still live in Myanmar.
“They say they will die there, but will not leave their motherland,” says Tahir. “I have children and did not want them to die, so we walked through dense forests at night to reach India.”
Tahir’s children play next to black garbage bags in the camp’s vicinity, oblivious to their father’s remarks and the dangers of disease.
Niharika Awasthi, a student at the Jamia Millia Islamia university nearby, has been raising money for the Rohingya refugees. She is especially worried about the women in the camp, who often give birth in their huts and don’t have access to doctors.
“They remain indoors and behind veils,” says Awasthi, who was drawn to their plight during a photography project.
Many refugees in the camp say they are grateful for the money, food and clothing they have received from their Indian neighbours.
“Both Hindus and Muslims have helped. We are overwhelmed by the affection and help we got in a foreign land,” says Tahir.
The 40-something Tahir, who earns a meagre living as a labourer, says the hope of a better future for his children gives him the strength to carry on. He has put aside money to buy them new clothes for the festival of Eid.
“As adults, we can train ourselves to curb our desires, but the children can’t,” he says. “They don’t understand.”
As he prepares for the two-hour Taraweeh prayers, Tahir says his faith has become stronger. There is only one thing that he wants.
“I pray that in some years we can return to our villages. Elders say bad times are followed by good ones,” says Tahir. “There is nothing like home.”