It’s a small two room apartment with a tiny hall in it, deprived of sunlight, amid the chaos of narrow lanes and cluster of buildings in the vicinity, this flat with 13 Rohingya children preparing for university and high school exams. It reverberates with hopes of a bright future.
The kids living here are all from Rakhine state in Myanmar, and belong to the Rohingya community which has been under siege in Burma since early 2012. This flat located in the shanty lanes of Delhi’s Muslim ghetto of Zakir Nagar has become a hostel of dreams for kids belonging to this community.
However, resource and space constraints to run the hostel make it a little difficult for children to even make it here. The manager of the organisation, himself a Rohingya, makes sure that those who do make it actually deserve a place in this two-room hostel.
“We want all Rohingya kids living in the country to be part of this hostel, but unfortunately we do not have the resources to do it. Running this small hostel is a mammoth task for us. So we have made a process for entry here – we look at the academic background of the students and test their aptitude, before enrolling them here.
We want to make sure that those who make it in are able to use it for their progress, and for the entire diaspora of Rohingya refugees,” said MTS Ali Johar who runs the organisation, the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative.
“However, we also ensure that those do not make it are not left behind. A group of volunteers with us reaches out to other students and provides them with relevant guidance. In the form of scholarships we make sure that they get all the material necessary to carry on with their education here in India,” Ali added.
Most of the students here are between 18 and 23 years old, and had to discontinue their studies after fleeing Burma. Ten among them have somehow managed to enroll to appear for the Class 10 board exam through the National Institute of Open Schooling.
Two have been able to enroll in higher studies at Delhi University.
Interestingly even enrolling for Class 10 through the NIOS was not a cakewalk for the kids. Initially their applications were rejected owing to their refugee identity, but after persistent pursuing of the matter with the NIOS director they were allowed to register for the 10th board exams.
Yusuf, a 22 year old who reached India via Bangladesh in 2015, is a resident of this hostel preparing for the Class 10 exam. He left his family behind in Bangladesh, where they are living as refugees, only to ensure that he could continue his studies in India.
Narrating his ordeal he told The Citizen, “I was a bright student in my country with an excellent academic record, and wanted to study law to serve my community back in Burma. We somehow managed not to flee after the 2012 violence, but since then things unfolded in a manner that made it difficult for us stay back in Rakhine for very long. We had to leave for Bangladesh. And then, realising that as a refugee I didn’t have chance to study there, I came to India and finally managed to get a place in this hostel.”
“I want to make the most of this opportunity and ensure that I do what I could not do back in my country. I know I am late but still hope to see myself as a lawyer one day, and to make my community and family proud of me,” Yusuf added.
Here another resident of the hostel picks up a guitar to sing something for us. They say it is a song in their native language to welcome guests. Soon another resident reminds him that the country they are in is not their own. So the young guitarist switches to another song, which he says is symbolic of memory, misery and longing.
This young man, who doesn’t want to identify himself fearing he might become a victim of vendetta, from people who do not want them to stay here, tells The Citizen, “I am a musician. I wanted a make a future as a musician but one fine day back in our country, all my instruments were gone, with the attacks against our community coming to our home. Somehow we saved our lives and managed to run away. Meanwhile I did not have the money to buy any of these instruments, but thankfully after years I have managed to get a guitar – and I could somehow feel that nothing has been lost. I will become what I want to one day.”
Rohingyas have for long been facing discrimination in their country which escalated into harsh violence in 2012. Since then many of these people from Burma have had to shelter elsewhere. According to estimates by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, some 14,000 of them are living in India and almost a million back in Bangladesh.
The reason behind starting such a hotel in Delhi was to rebuild the community and gain back what they lost. They are determined not to let their identity vanish and are reluctant to give up.
One of them, Ali, said, “We have lost so much in these years, if these little efforts are not made to rebuild the community we will lose all our identity in years to come. We do not want that to happen. I have been invited by many countries for higher studies, but I do not want to leave yet, unless three or four more Ali’s could carry on the work that we initiated after coming to India. One day through education and progress we Rohingyas will resurrect again and prove our enemies wrong.”
At the moment what worries the students and management here most is that their funders, who donated almost Rs 40,000 a month, have backed out citing a dearth of funds. A thread of uncertainty hovers over the hostel, and the dreams of the residents here, until they can find someone else who will support them.