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A battle for survival

Delhi is home to thousands of refugees who face innumerable obstacles in resurrecting a new life as the scars of the war are still prominent. Here is a glimpse of a Somali refugee’s life

Staring at the portrait of her daughter and husband hung on the wall of her crammed room in Wazirabad, Shukri says that she can never forget the horrors of the war. “My daughter and husband died in the civil war in Somalia,” she laments. From gunshots being fired, houses being razed to the ground and villages being shelled, to people wailing and screaming — she says that she has witnessed such perilous times that the flashbacks still continue to haunt her.

Shukri is a single mother who fled Somalia with her two sons and came to Delhi in 2015. “In order to save my sons’ lives, I had to gather the courage to leave my country,” she says adding that resettling in a new country was also not an easy task. “We did not leave our country by choice. We too used to lead a normal life like anyone else. But one day, it all just changed to an extent where a normal life became a distance dream,” Shukri says.

She shudders as she recalls how she once saw a baby around 2-3 years of age, crawling and crying near the body of his dead mother. “It seems impossible to get such horrendous sights out of my head,” she adds. The time that she spent in Somalia during the war was so terrorising that she used to have auditory hallucinations of the firing of gunshots while sleeping, even after she came to India.

Shukri says that one can’t even imagine what it is like to live with the perpetual fear of death. “I have seen death from so close — it was like you can die any moment. But at such times, you also begin to value life. It has also made me stronger,” she says as she tries to see an iota of positivity in what she went through.

Here too, she continues to fight her own battle for survival — even though its completely different from the one she had to fight in Somalia. Talking about her initial years in India, she says, “It was so hard to leave everything behind and start a new life. Who would want to leave their country and settle in a completely different land?” she adds. Narrating her ordeal, she says that despite the challenges she has to face in India, she is relieved that the fear of death no longer looms over her family. However, being in an alien country, she has to deal with several obstacles.

“We were not familiar with the language. Except the UNHCR card, we have no proof of identity. Finding work was also difficult because people seemed apprehensive of employing me. I think they see us only as illegal residents who have crossed the border and come into their land. Many don’t even know what hardships compelled us to move and how difficult it was,” she says.

India is home to many Somali refugees who had to flee their conflict-ridden country because of the outbreak of the civil war that began in 2009 as a result of the conflict between the forces of the Federal Government of Somalia and various militant factions. This violence displaced thousands in the southern part of the country. As India is cheaper, in comparison to other Arab countries, many come here crossing several transit points either by sea or land. There are an estimated 600 Somalis in India, out of which most are concentrated in Hyderabad because they find it closer to their culture.

Many of them are single mothers, who are struggling to make ends meet, amid the hurdles they face due to the lack of social integration and racial discrimination. “People don’t trust us, so it is not easy for us to rent a house. I spent most of my savings to escape violence and come here. Here, our problems have greatly reduced, but life is still full of worries — fending for ourselves being the most pressing,” she adds.

Being an African in India means that she is often subjected to discrimination based on race and colour. “We often face racial discrimination because of our distinct features, which makes it difficult for us to mix in the Indian crowd. Initially, there were people in the locality who used to fear that we will abduct their babies and eat them. Many a times, we are also confused with Nigerians,” she says.

Initially, Shukri used to work as a domestic helper. But now she works with MACQUUL, a catering unit set up by UNHCR for single Somali mothers. Cooking has given her a purpose in life and keeps her close to the memories of her native land. “In Somalia, we used to get tiny tomatoes, here the tomatoes are bigger in size,” she says as her face lights up with a smile. Her favourite dish is Somali biryani and it is something that her son, Rehmat, enjoys the most.

Her two sons study in a government school in Malviya Nagar. She says that they are her only motivation in life and she lives to make their life better. “There are so many countries in the world that have been fighting war since years now. Innocent people are losing their lives or living a life that is no less than hell,” she says. Shukri knows the meaning of loss, she knows how to build her life from scratch in a country where skin colour is a hurdle to acceptance in society.