"What home means to you?” N counters when I ask if she remembers home. As she moves her waist-long plait to the front and fixes the white-pink floral headscarf, a smile spreads across her face. “Tell me,” she insists. “What home feels like?”
N is 10. She has more questions than answers. Will she ever again see her birthplace, Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, which she left with her family five years ago? Is her three-storey school there still standing? Will the Taliban kill her friends? Her memories of home are largely of school and friends, though she understands why they had to leave; her family, like many other refugees, may resettle in the US, Canada or Australia.
As of 2023, the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR’s) registration and refugee status determination figures showed 290,048 recorded refugees and asylum seekers in India from countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Tibet and Myanmar. Delhi’s bustling Bhogal market presents a microcosm of this milieu, with a large number of refugee families making this neighbourhood their home for the time being.
“Home” is a subjective term. What might represent comfort and permanence to many of us, might seem temporary and a mere waiting zone for others. You might have built a whole new life away from your birthplace but the feeling of home comes from memories of the moments spent there, before it was engulfed by a war or a crisis. For others, home, as a concept, doesn’t really exist.
That’s what I learnt in the past three weeks while working on a short project as part of Lounge’s Children’s Day special issue. Last month, I set out to find out what the idea of home is for young adults from refugee communities. While travelling across Delhi and meeting over 15 children and young adults who trace their roots to countries like Afghanistan, Sudan, Palestine, Myanmar and Yemen, I gathered different answers.
I am meeting N and her friends at the New Masterminds Academy, a one-room coaching centre in Bhogal where children, teens and women from refugee communities come to learn English, Hindi, mathematics, embroidery, painting and sewing. N has been a student for the past year. The topic on the day we meet is the forthcoming Children’s Day.
The teacher, also a refugee from Afghanistan, is reminding the 15 students, aged 10-12, about the essay they have to submit to mark 14 November. The topic? “What I want to be when I grow up.”
After class, I ask N about her essay topic: “I will be an astronaut...when I grow up. No lines (no borders) there, so no fight. I will live there.”
M, for one, doesn’t care about home. The nine-year-old from the Myanmarese Rohingya community just wants to live in a place where she isn’t automatically considered a terrorist because of her faith. “Whenever I score good marks, my classmates tell me to go back to Myanmar. I was not even born there; I was born after my parents came here,” says M, who studies in an English-medium school with support from the UNHCR.
M has no desire to go to Myanmar. Nor does her father, 32, who used to be a farmer and now works as an independent translator. “I came here 11 years ago. Rohingyas like us don’t have a future. You can’t go back, you can’t live in the place you are in. Where do you go? I don’t think I can give my children the life they deserve.”
M interjects. “I am going to study very hard and become a cardiologist,” she says. “My mother is unwell, my father is unwell. There isn’t enough money to look after them. Once I grow up, I will become a doctor and save the life of all refugees here. What will we do going back to Myanmar? We will not find peace there.”
For its peace of mind, a Syrian family living on the outskirts of Delhi has stopped switching on the television and reading newspapers in an attempt to shut out images of the Israel-Gaza conflict that force them to relive what they went through. “I lost my grandfather, grandmother, cousins, uncles, aunts, our house, our everything. I don’t want to remember my homeland as a war-torn place,” says H, 15, who dropped out of school a year ago. He couldn’t concentrate and wasn’t interested in studying.
H was about seven when he came to India with his parents. He still vividly remembers his childhood in Damascus, especially getting up early in the morning, stepping out for a walk with his grandfather and chasing away birds on the way. Or playing with sticks with friends and cousins. Whenever he misses home, he takes out his grandfather’s handkerchief and smells it. “Can you believe it, I have never washed it?” he laughs, tears in his eyes. “It smells of him, it smells of home. It’s the only time I allow myself to dream of a better life.”
Dreams are a “luxury” P, 16, can’t afford. Since arriving here from Sudan a decade ago, he has been living in Khirki Extension with a father who’s physically disabled; his mother had killed herself a year before they reached India. P tries to get informal work to make ends meet. No refugee in India can work legally till they obtain a work visa, a tedious process that can take months. Many often end up working in the informal sector as labourers if uneducated, or as translators and guides at tourist sites if they know more than two languages.
“I just want to live a life of dignity. People make fun of me because of the way I look, my skin, my hair, my colour. There are days when I don’t even want to step out of the house because people call me bandar (monkey),” says P. At the moment, he’s focused on his schooling so he can better his English and eventually become an entrepreneur. “I don’t know which sector yet, but I want to have a business where I can support other refugees and make money. I don’t care about home. I just want to live a happy, content life.”
That’s the attitude Shershah, 46, the Afghan teacher at New Masterminds Academy, has been observing among his young students. “The children who come to our classes are much more entrepreneurial. They want to become content creators, businesspeople, architects, doctors. They want to learn, study abroad, travel the world, and, at the same time, help people,” he says. “They are not as chained to the past like we are, the older generation. For us, home will always be that place we left behind.”
N’s father is worried his daughter will forget her roots in the fast-paced cosmopolitan life of Delhi. That’s why every day before sleeping, he narrates stories of their house, now taken over by the Taliban, and lost family members to his five children. “If we forget our roots, we will perish; as it is, we have forever lost our homes. You ask her about life in Afghanistan, she will tell you everything,” N’s father requests me.
I ask N about her favourite childhood memory. She replies, “Running with my friends outside school.” Oh, “one more thing,” she adds, this time in a softer voice. “Eating toffee. That’s all I remember.”