REFUGEES ARE HUMAN BEINGS, NOT STATISTICS!

BOOK REVIEW

By Pankajbala R Patel

ONE day, dream two refugees from war-torn Iraq, a country will welcome them and embrace them until their own country is peaceful enough for them to return! But how easily dreams may turn into nightmares! Doesn’t India welcome them? After all hasn’t India been the mother country for refugees since time immemorial? India has been the mother land of refugees through the ages, from Tibet, Afghanistan, Tibet, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma and much earlier not to forget the Parsees and Jews fleeing from persecution in their own home countries.
Say the world is increasingly becoming a world of refugees from here, there and everywhere where there is religious bigotry, tyranny, cruelty, wars unleashed for power and profit – of course, financed by one super power or another be it USA, Russia, China (these come to mind more easily). The result is people seeking refugee or asylum status the world over in peaceful countries, including India.
So after all this time, argues human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar, why doesn’t India have a proper law defining the status of refugees and granting them asylum with compassion and support? Most refugees are people forced to run away from their home countries because of political turmoil, economic hardships, because their life is in danger — many have already lost their parents and families in silent traumatic tragedies without rhyme or reason or so it seems.
Many children and young people run away or are lifted from their war torn countries by good Samaritans, NGOs, after they have lost their parents, families to political execution in mind-boggling situations. Some countries welcome refugees, some don’t and make life difficult for those for who are already living in nightmares, hoping against hope for a silver lining somewhere to take joy in.
Writer Nandita Haksar always has a tragic story to tell about displaced people and this time, bothered about the story of refugees in India, her new book titled Forgotten Refugees, Two Iraqi Brothers in India’ (published by Speaking Tiger, softcover, Rs399) relives the story of two young Iraqis she befriended and tried to help – in the process she got profoundly moving insight into the mind of children who grow up in war-torn countries and are eventually forced to leave everything and run for their life. To another country which may or may not let them live with minimum dignity and officially in place support systems! As usual this feisty human rights lawyer, whose mind and heart bleeds for those who have had a raw deal and who has fought many battle in and out court to bring them some reprieve, has written it all down in the most perfect way to tell a real life story. This is not fiction. After doing formal presentations and arguing the case for a law for refugees in her latest book she invites the victims to recount their stories little and not so little. We see how human refuges are and with what dignity they cope with whatever life deals out to them in their new country of mercy and salvation -- in this case India. Her Introduction observes that “Refugees are people, not statistics” and to put it in perspective, “The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, estimated that 4.5 million Iraqis had been displaced in a four-year period beginning just before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq – 2.2 million crossed international orders and 2.3 million were internally displaced. In February 2007, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, declared the exodus of Iraqis the largest population shift in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the establishment of the state of Israel.” What has happened to these Iraqi refugees? How many of them are in India? They are on nobody’s priority list for humanitarian assistance, not even the UNHCR it seems. She found many of the refugees camping outside the UNHCR office in Delhi appealing for resettlement and the friendship of old which existed between India and Iraq for so long. She befriended some of the refugees, listened to some of them, and especially two Iraqi young brothers she decided she must play “grandmother” to for a worthy cause! Forgotten Refugees: Two Iraqi Brothers in India” makes for fascinating reading and cannot fail to touch our common conscience for those who suffer because of wars unleashed in their lands for one reason or another and often fuelled by only too familiar superpowers. After all remember Iran, Iraq – if Iraq was ancient Persia, Iraq was the land of Mesopotamia where the ancient empires of Babylon once flourished between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris?
The Iraqis inherit a rich heritage but became victims of modern Iraq — “subjected to intentional acts of violence and destruction by Daesh in Iraq and Syria…” As a footnote here, ISIL has its origins in the Iraq War of 2003-11. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), its direct precursor, was one of the central actors in a larger Sunni insurgency against the Iraqi government and foreign occupying forces. The group combined with several smaller militant groups and rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq, that is ISI, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Arabic acronym Da’ish or Daesh and since June 2014, the Islamic State (IS). Daesh turned an insurgency against US troops in Iraq into a Shia-Sunni civil war.

INDIA has a quite a history of goodwill and friendship with Iraq and was the first to recognize the Ba’ath Party-led government after Iraq became a republic in 1958, following a coup that overthrew the monarchy and later on came the stories of President Saddam Hussein (1937-2006 ) whose regime had a dark side too but nobody dared to breathe a word.
It is imperative we understand the Muslim world to come to terms with its people who blame Saddam Hussein as the man responsible for much of the Iraqi people’s suffering and pain…in all this the author has personal remembrance, “India and Indians played a significant role in Iraq’s modernization. In the 1970s, there were around 80,000 Indians in Iraq, many of them doctors, lecturers and engineers. Our teacher who taught mathematics in Mosul was the father of Ajaz Ashraf, now a senior journalist. Ashraf, who went on many visits to Iraq then, recalls: “Indians were respected precisely because they played a significant role in Iraq’s project to merge as a modern nation-state. …”
Mainly the book takes a look at the growing humanitarian crisis of refugees be they from Iraq or elsewhere and the imperative need for compassionate laws and system in place for them to benefit from in India. This narrative is more powerful because it is driven through the eyes of two Iraqi refugees whom she persuades to take on the names of Babil and Akkad (to protect their identity)…reluctant to talk at first, they opened up with the author’s persuasive skills and acts of kindness. Says the author, “The courts in India have protected refugees from being deported and allowed them to seek the protection of the UNHCR. But in recent years refugees are finding that their UNHCR identity cards are not being respected and do not protect them from arbitrary detentions and even police atrocities. Increasingly, the refugee is looked upon just as an illegal person with no rights. In many countries the No One is Illegal’ movement has helped protect refugees, but in India there is a very little support for refugees from civil society.” In this respect after witnessing the protests outside the UNHCR some lawyers have come together to form the Indian Friends of Refugee to help refugees who seek safe harbour until they may return to their own home countries. Reviewing whatever has been shared with her by Babil and Akkad, the two Iraqi brothers, Nandita Haksar ends on a note of positive hope, “I hope they will tell their children and grandchildren of their adventures in distant lands.” Needless to sayForgotten Refugees’ offers yet another “unputdownable” read to educate the mind about other people’s life and times as they live it under duress with amazing courage. Haksar is a painstaking, sensitive and one of our finest writers who started out life as a journalist before going on to be a Supreme Court lawyer and is much sought after as a human rights activist. She also gives us glimpses of an India which seems to be losing its traditional sense of the much touted atithi devo bhava!
Here Nandita Haksar lets her two “adopted” Iraqi “grandsons” practically, simply and vividly write the book as it is mostly in first person narrative that our two young Iraqi men come alive. To steal our hearts and minds with the sheer poignancy of what they have lived through, their thoughts, anger and fears of what kind of a future they face even as some try to help them…Mother India must brush the tears from their eyes as she has done countless times before!

Excerpted from `Forgotten Refugees, Two Iraqi Brothers in India’ by Nandita Haksar…..

THE CHILDREN OF IRAQ HAVE NAMES

BABIL
IT is true that children of Iraq have names, but many cannot reveal them because the revelation could lead to their deaths or the kidnapping of their loved ones. And so it is with us, two Iraqi brothers who dare not write under our own names even though we are so far from the home we were forced to leave.
This is the first time I am telling my story and perhaps it will help me put things in some perspective.
I was born in January 1988, seven months before the Iraq-Iran war ended in a stalemate though each side claimed victory> I do not have personal memories of that war.
But there is one story that I was told so often that I think of it as part of my own memory. It is a story of how my grandfather, my mother’s father who lived in Baghdad, managed to procure a banana for me, his grandson. It was an event so memorable that the story has been preserved in our family like a precious heirloom. The war had left our family, like so many families across the country, utterly devastated. There was never enough food to eat and to gift a child a banana became a big event and a memorable one.
I have been told the story of e banana so many ties that when I saw the Minions singing the Banana Song in Despicable Me 2, I remembered how my grandfather had managed to get a banana for me in the midst of the war.
Although I do not remember the gift of the banana, I do remember asking my mother to buy me an ice-cream and her reply that she could not afford it.
At that time I did not ask why we could not afford to buy ice-creams r bananas even though Baba, my father, was a qualified engineer and had a good job. We lived in a well-appointed housing complex with modern amenities. It was not only the wars that had affected our living standards, the sanctions imposed on Iraq had pushed us deeper into such a dire condition.
Despite living through not one but several wars, my memories of my childhood are sunny and bright. When I look back, I think it is amazing that I have so many happy memories of my family, my friends, my school and our home.
My earliest memories are from the time we lived in Al-Iskandriya, which in ancient times stood halfway between Babylon (where Alexander died) and Seleucia on the Tigris. Seleucia, the capital of the Seleucid Empire, was very near to modern Baghdad. My father worked at the Hateen Munitions Complex.
When I was around two years old, on August 2, 1990, the Iraqi Army invaded and occupied Kuwait. And my brother Akkad was born soon after in April 1991.
It was much later that I learnt the war was called the Video Game War; we called it the aleudwan althalathiniu or the aggression by thirty nations.
I was barely three years old but I do remember the sound of a bomb exploding one morning while we were having breakfast. My mother said the sound of planes used to frighten me and I could not sleep at night.
She described how Baba made me feel safe even amidst the bombing. He would hold me as I lay with my head resting on his shoulder. With his hand he would make a gesture of a plane flying and gently mimic the sound of it going over my head. Mama said my eyes were wide with terror. Then Baba would make another booming sound and say, “See, the planes have all gone and we have won the war.” And I would close my eyes, feeling safe in my father’s arms, and fall asleep.
My parents did all they could to protect me from the harsh realities of war and the shortage of food. Bu I know it was a really hard time for them. There was never enough food and my parents often went without eating so that they could give us a meal. Mama had to go to a nearby stream to collect drinking water since the water pipeline had been destroyed. But the stream water was not really fit for drinking.
One day, Akkad and I were going somewhere with friends; we were both wearing new clothes and shoes. Then Akkad stepped into mud and his sandals got soiled. I took him to the edge of the stream and was scooping out water with my hands to clean his sandals when a friend playfully shoved me into the stream. I did not know swimming but managed to catch hold of the roots of a tree and haul myself out of the water. My clothes and shoes were all wet and dirty because the stream water was unclean.
During the war the furnace in my father’s factory was hit by a rocket and it went up in flames. My father and his team of engineers got it working again. I do not know the details but he was given an award by the President. I remember watching Baba on television and feeling so happy and proud. We had the President’s certificate in our house but later we tore it up.
Possessing a certificate signed by Saddam Hussein could have got us into trouble with the Americans who came regularly to search our homes; and it would also have got us into trouble with the militias who too hated him. Our family did not support the Ba’ath Party but it was a certificate of appreciation given by the President of our country!
Soon after, we moved to another small town in western Iraq which was a short distance from Fallujah. Fallujah too dates back to Babylonian times and hosted important Jewish academies for many centuries. The city is in al Anbar province, 69 km west of Baghdad, on the Euphrates river. It was a Sunny-dominated province and we were Shias. But in those days these things did not matter.
My father worked as an engineer for the defence establishment. We lived in a beautiful house within a modern residential complex built to international standards. The complex had about 500 housing units, a mix of independent houses and apartments. It was considered an integrated neighbourhood in all respects with modern markets, schools, kindergartens, a general hospital and recreational facilities such as an outdoor swimming pool, a sports club.
Some people called the housing complex “mini Iraq” because it represented diverse segments of the Iraqi population with different nationalities, sects, religions and origins.
The wears and the economic sanctions had devastated our country and, despite living in this modern housing complex with all these amenities, we had to face great economic hardship. By the end of the Iran-Ira war, my father could afford to buy only a bag of tomatoes with his salary. My parents had to find ways to earn more money. They started making kibbeh, or kubba as we call it in Iraq.
Kibbeh is a family of dishes based on spiced and ground meat, onions and grain, popular in Middle Eastern cuisine. There are many ways of making kubba, the type my parents made was Kubba el Mosul. Kubba is usually made by pounding bulgur (cracked wheat) together with meat into a fine paste and forming it into balls with toasted pine nuts and spices. It can also be layered and cooked on a tray, deep-friend, grilled, or served raw.
My parents made the kubba at home and then they gave it to a shop in the shopping complex to sell.
I remember seeing Mama and Baba in the kitchen, making the kubba. I was hard work. My father was an expert in making the meatballs and I recall him sweating so much that I took him a towel to wipe his face. For me these are happy memories because I was with my parents, helping them.
A first we lived in a house allotted by the government. It had a garden with fruit trees, including apricot, pomegranate, date and olive. And we had a big buckthorn tree which used to have branches which would grow to the height of our roof and we could pick the sweet berries easily. At the back of the house we had a small kitchen garden with lots of vegetables such as tomatoes, celery, carrots, radish and potatoes.
Another memory is of a small bat which came into our house. We have a legend that says a bat can come and stick onto your face and you cannot pull it off until you give it gold water. So I remember us holding cushions in front of our faces and trying to chase the bat out of the house. It grew tired of flitting around and flew out!

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