By Johanna Deeksha, The New Indian Express

CHENNAI: Every now and then, a Syrian ship sinks on its way to safer shores and with it go down hundreds of refugees. Closer home, just a few weeks ago, a group of Sri Lankans were arrested after they tried to flee the Indian shores. With an uncertain future looming over them, refugees around the world are just about surviving but barely living. However, the subject of refugees is finally gaining some world-wide attention.

Tamil Nadu has opened its doors to Sri Lankan Tamils for decades now. But on the occasion of the World Refugees Day on Monday (June 20), Express decided to interact with lesser known refugees from other countries as well.

Rohingyas from Myanmar

Refugees belonging to the Rohingya community from Myanmar stand in front of a building, which they call their home, at Kelambakkam in the city on Sunday;
Refugees belonging to the Rohingya community from Myanmar stand in front of a building, which they call their home, at Kelambakkam in the city on Sunday.

One of these lesser known refugees are the Rohingya people from Myanmar. About 75 of these people are settled in a small building in Kelambakkam. The almost disguised settlers only showed their foreign faces when the ice cream seller pulled up and a line of barely dressed toddlers rushed  out to get sticks for themselves and stared wide-eyed as they saw the Express team approach them.

One of the Rohingyas, a skinny and dishevelled Mohammed Yusuf, told Express that he had made his way to the city by boat in 2012.  “A Bangladeshi agent told me and my family that he would take us to India and we would make good money, almost `20,000. He promised us a great life. Now you can see how we live,” he says, pointing out to his “home”.

In the tiny little hall, several tents are put up with the help of old clothes separating the families, and on the corner lies a pile of papers and plastics being collected to be sold for money. A similar hall is one on the first floor with similar tents  and all 75 refugees have one tiny toilet to use.

The Rohingyas are minority Muslims from Myanmar that have fled the country as the Myanmar government does not recognise them as an ethnic group  and refuse to recognise their religion. “We would not be allowed to do our namaz; they would make us do menial works and torture us and not even allow us to send our children to school,” Yusuf said. The Rohingyas do rag picking for a living, as no one is willing to give them a job as they have no ID proof. “We can’t even get a SIM card as we have no identity, but over the years, we made friends with the phone seller down the street; so he gives it to us now,” Mohammed explains.

Another refugee, Mohammed Khasim has been in Kashmir for over 15 years but just arrived in Chennai a few months ago. “I heard that the condition was better here, so I brought my family. I’m in a better state as I have a UNHCR ID card. Only 30 of the 75 Rohingyas have this card. We have to go through a question-answer session and if we by any chance give a slightly different answer in the second round to the same question (for example, details about their home country), then we won’t get the ID,” he explains.

However, the refugees told Express that while they wished they were in a better settlement, they did not wish to move out of Kelambakkam as they had made friends here and have also picked up some Tamil, and together with their heavily accented Hindi they manage, “ We already knew a little Hindi because of Bollywood films released in Myanmar,” said Khasim, giving a toothed smile.

Even though it has been several years since they’ve seen many of their parents or relatives’ faces, the refugees said they would not go back unless they were given their right to their property and right to freedom. “My parents are still back there and they say that the condition is improving slightly. When they begin to allow us to do our namaz  again, I will be the first to pack my bags and leave,” says a determined Khasim.

Lesser known Somalians

Another much lesser known refugees are the Somalians. However only  about five of them reside in the city.

Professor Bernand D’Sami, who has done various research on refugees, said that most of their Somalians fled a decade ago when the civil war broke out.  Many are spread across the country but a few made their way to Chennai as well. “I came here when the fighting got very bad in my country. During my time here I did a diploma and kept going to Delhi for my ‘refugee card’. Now I prefer to stay in Chennai because it is cheaper,” says Yusuf Hussein Muhamed, a Somalian who has lived in Chennai for four years. “Chennai is a nice city but my family is back in Somalia. I want to go back as soon as the fighting subsides,” he adds.

Vibrant Tibetan crowd

The Tibetans are one of the largest refugee communities in the country and several refugees make their way to Chennai as well, especially to study. Chennai has a vibrant young Tibetan crowd most of whom end up studying at either Loyola or Madras Christian College. Twenty-three-year-old Phuntsok Tsering, studying in Madras University, came to India 18 years ago, all by himself with the help of strangers. “We crossed the Himalayas and came here walking. I did my schooling in Himachal Pradesh, and since I turned 18, Chennai has been my home. I haven’t seen my parents’ faces or Tibet in 18 years but I wish to go back if I get a chance,” he says.

Yitham Tashi, studying in MCC, also fled from his country in 2007. “Things are improving in my village but it’s not the best time to go back and my parents want me to continue being a refugee here than to suffer there.” They might have made Chennai their home. But Tibetans are eager participants in their freedom struggle and the students told Express that they regularly organise rallies and social events to engage in the battle better.