Life in a limbo

Reportage. Hundreds of thousands of refugees struggle with their daily lives in their new home land. Studying a part-time skills course or learning a local language can create a sense of belonging, boost integration and even help to deal with trauma.


“All I want is to be able to work and live like a normal citizen,” says Mohammed Zain Jalil.

Zain is 23 years old and studying an accountancy exam via part-time course in New Delhi, India.

“But right now, it is not possible,” he continues.

Zain was born in India. He looks like an Indian, he speaks fluent Hindi and he is dressed like an Indian. Anyone could mistake him for an Indian.

Ever since Zain was born, he has been a refugee.

But he is in fact an Afghan refugee. His parents fled the war-torn country in 1989 because his father was being persecuted at the time by the Russians.

“I have never been to Afghanistan because it’s not possible for me.  And if I leave India, I won’t be able to come back because I have no visa.”

Ever since Zain was born, he has been a refugee. Since India does not grant citizenships to refugees, the Jalil family has lived in a limbo for nearly 30 years.

Even the children who are born to refugee parents in India do not get a citizenship.

As a result of the family’s refugee status, none of them are allowed to work. They are supported by relatives from Kabul who bring them dollars regularly.

“We have no visas, no official ID, no bank accounts. It’s tough living like this without any official papers,” he admits.

His sister Sarah, who is 20 and studying in Delhi University for her bachelor degree agrees. Education in India is mostly private and almost anyone who can afford tuition fees can attend classes. In addition, Sarah received a highly coveted DAFI scholarship from the German government.

She is frustrated because she does not know what the future will hold once she finishes her studies.

“Studying for me is all about being part of something, developing yourself and trying to remain optimistic about the future despite our situation,” she says.

Asia’s own refugee dilemma

Today Europe’s refugee influx is rarely out of headlines. But Asia too, has its own refugee problem. And India is not an exception. Free from war for decades, the country can offer peaceful and safe place for refugees.

The Jalil family is just one of many who have escaped to India.

They come mainly from neighbouring Myanmar, Afghanistan, or even as far as Iraq or Syria, looking for better life, away from danger and violence. India has also helped thousands of Sri Lankans and Tibetans.

The 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that “a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Aside from refugees, India has hundreds of thousands of stateless people.

It is difficult to estimate the exact numbers of refugees currently in India since many arrive with a tourist or medical visa and simply just stay.

According to UNHCR around 40,000 Rohingya Muslims alone have come to India the past decade, out of which 16,500 are registered with the UN’s refugee agency. Official number of Afghans is 8,000 but again, it could be much higher.

Refugees often arrive to Delhi because they are most likely to get help in the capital from refugee organisations such as UNHCR and various NGOs working with refugees, who help them with certificates and access to certain support services, such as counselling.

Aside from refugees, India has hundreds of thousands of stateless people. They are often a minority group, which has faced discrimination or violence even.

Delhi also has myriad of courses available to make the refugees life easier – from Open University to courses by local NGOs.

Afghan refugee siblings Mohammed Zain Jalil and Sarah Jalil can not legally work in India but studying part-time gives them hope for the future. / Photo: Pia Heikkilä

Adapting to new life

When a person is forced to flee their home, they don’t just leave behind four walls and their belonging but culture, habits, language and even careers.

Everything in a new country can be bewildering, starting from day to day chores to trying to get permits and registrations done in the new country.  Even simple daily tasks can be daunting. They may need to learn how to fill in a form in a language they don’t speak.

This is when adult education can really help in more ways than one.

“Firstly, language skills are essential to be included in the new society,” says Fatima Arjumand, Jon Bosco support center manager in Delhi.

Adjustment will be quicker if the refugee feels they are understood.

Attending to classes can help refugees to deal with the feeling of being isolated.

“Isolation is possible for someone who doesn’t speak a word of English or Hindi here, but this is why we are welcoming anyone, to prevent them from being isolated,” she says.

“Once a refugee is able to interact, to build rapport, trust, and make friends, meet new people, they immediately feel more settled,” she adds.

Adjustment will be quicker if the refugee feels they are understood.

“It helps people gain new skills and adjust in their country of asylum,” says Elsa Mathews from UNHCR.

The rest of the community too benefits from the individual who has committed in learning.

“Socio-economic inclusion and local integration where possible further ensures refugees’ safety, stability and security in the host community. It leads to the social, economic growth of the host community,” says Mathews.

Refugees attending to local evening classes are not only beneficial in helping the person to settle in, but it is good for the locals.

“It can help other people to understand the hardship some of these people have gone through,” says Arjumand.

Dealing with traumas of war

In the afternoon at the Delhi Don Bosco training center, a classroom is filling with students of all ages fast. Most are Afghans, few Somalis and one from Congo. They are all trying to learn English.

It’s an advanced English class where students deal with complex subjects and they can explain abstract concepts. Many refugees take their own initiative and start helping others.

One such is Valy Ahadi, an Afghan refugee who escaped violence and trouble in Afghanistan to India six years ago.

Valy frequently reminds his students that by learning local customs and language, creates acceptance.

He has been teaching English at the Don Bosco center for a few years now. According to him, many refugees he meets are struggling to come to terms with things they have witnessed. Some have even lost members of families or witnessed violence since they were children.

“Attending to a group class can help the person focus on something else and start build a better future for themselves,” he says.

Valy’s classes are popular with students of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. Valy frequently reminds his students that by learning local customs and language, creates acceptance.

“They (refugees) want to be accepted by everybody in the world, not only Indians but by everyone. They have to be educated if they want to reach their goals in life.”

Coming to a daily class can often be a social aspect.

“It can bring people together, they can share their stories and make new friends,” he says. “Talking helps to deal with difficult subjects.”

Getting a work visa is not easy

Thousands of refugees in India are believed to be paperless. Their lives can be tough in a new country, where don’t get bank accounts of mobile phones because of lack of identification.

Most refugees like the Jalil siblings can not work in India legally.

There is a risk of abuse in the workplace because refugees have no job security.

“Most refugees find work in the informal sector where a majority of Indians are also working, and competition is high. UNHCR refugee documents allow them to apply for long term visas which may ease their access to employment in the private formal sector,” says Elsa Mathews from the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

In India, many adult refugees are working without permits, sometimes in tricky situations, to support themselves and their families.

“The level of skills varies across different refugee groups but there is active participation in the labour market and contribute to the economy as wage labourers, factory workers, service, hospitality industry and also run small businesses,” Mathews says.

But there is also a risk of abuse in the workplace because they have no job security.

“More they know about their rights, the better,” says Arjumand.

Facing an uncertain future

The Zain siblings are both highly academic, and awarded with scholarships. Polite, softly spoken, sensible yet highly ambitious and clearly intelligent.

Zain is doing his Acca (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) exams online, hoping his part-time course will help him to get a job overseas.

“This accreditation is much sought after and I’m hoping once I have completed the course, it will be easier to get a visa somewhere like in Canada or Europe,” he says.

The family is stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare. They have applied to leave India several times but each time their refugee application has been rejected.

Studying is what keeps us going.

“Doing this course is keeping me sane, it gives me a sense of purpose,” says Zain. “Because there is little else meaningful we can do.”

The Zains have thirst for knowledge. They are the kind of refugees that could bring a real benefit to any country, economically and culturally.

“They bring in unique knowledge and skills into the economies that they enter into. They can help in increasing production, expanding services and inculcating new skills within their host communities, increasing the latter’s competitiveness and efficiency,” says Mathews.

Too often news from Kabul means bloodshed, grim news of lives lost.

“It’s not safe for us to go back to Kabul,” says Zain and looks at Tolo TV news bleakly, which is reporting of yet another bomb blast.

By focusing on their education, they can retain dignity, sense of self and hope for the future.

“For now, this course is important to me because it helps me focus on my future,” Zain says.

His sister Sarah too feels that learning gives a sense purpose, even if she may never be allowed to work legally in India as a graduate.

“Studying is what keeps us going,” she says.