Children of a lesser God

Camping outside the UNHCR office in Delhi - BY NANDITA HAKSAR

Mahdi Basheer Hasan al Badri is barely 30 years old and the product of three wars as well as a victim of two deadly conflicts, one involving the dreaded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). These circumstances forced him to leave his country, Iraq, and take refuge in India where he is caught in the rising tide of Hindu communalism, attacked by goons and finding it difficult to rent a place because he is Muslim.

Mahdi has no legal right to work so he cannot earn an honest living; he has been given no financial assistance by any agency and has lived for days without anything to eat. He is now living in a tiny tent along with his elder brother, Mohammad, outside the gates of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which remain shut to him even though he is a recognized refugee under the mandate of the organization. The two brothers came to India from Iraq thinking the UNHCR would help them but now all they have is a card stating they are refugees recognized under the mandate of the UNHCR. All they want is to be resettled in a third country.

According to the UNHCR, “Refugees are identified as in need of settlement when they have particular need or vulnerabilities in their country of asylum and cannot return to the country of their origin”… and when they need legal protection and there is a “lack of foreseeable alternative durable solution”. Refugees are not statistics. They are people, each one with his or her particular story rooted in war, conflict and personal tragedy.

This is the story of Mahdi and his elder brother, Mohammad. Mahdi was born on April 17, 1991 in Falluja in Iraq. The name of the city is synonymous with war and conflict. He was born barely four months after the first Gulf War began. A war called the video war. But for Iraqis it was a war that began with aerial and naval bombardment by an array of nations who joined the coalition, forming the largest military alliance since World War II. The objective of the US-led war was to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait. It was no coincidence it was the same year that the Soviet Union collapsed formally, ending the Cold War. Iraq had been an ally of the Soviet Union.

Mahdi says he remembers having an “amazing childhood, in the midst of a loving family, going to school, having meals with family and relatives, attending birthday parties of friends and playing football and video games before Play Station”. But his childhood was cut short with the coming of the Iraq War in 2003 and the invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition which overthrew the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. That war formally ended in 2011 with an estimated 151,000 to 1,033,000 Iraqis dying in the first three to five years of conflict.

The United States became reinvolved in 2014 at the head of a new coalition; the insurgency and many dimensions of the armed conflict continue. The invasion occurred as part of the George W. Bush administration’s War on Terror following the September 11 attacks despite there being no connection of the latter to Iraq.

Mohammad and Mahdi did not see the war as much as they experienced it and heard it behind the closed doors of their home. The electricity was cut off and so were their phone lines. They sat still inside their home in the dark and heard the bombs, the rocket launchers, the crunch of boots of the US soldiers and the blasts of bombs by the Iraqi resistance. Mohammad says his mother was worried sick about her parents who lived in Baghdad so one day she and their father and two baby brothers went in a taxi to Baghdad. They said they would return the next day. It was in 2005.

Mohammad remembers the day, though not the date, as memorable. He was in charge of the house and his little brother, Mahdi. “I was the man of the house!” So, Mohammad decided to make the most of his freedom and played football all day and invited his friends to spend the night at his home. They cooked themselves a hearty meal, made juice and black tea. It was already dark and the boys were enjoying themselves when suddenly their parents returned.

They did not embarrass Mohammad by scolding him. But the friends decided to return to their homes. Mohammad went with his friends a short distance and walked bouncing back. When he pushed open the door of his home, he found his parents standing just behind it, looking deathly pale. His father handed him a piece of paper, asking, “Mohammad, did any of your friends do this as a joke?”

The paper had a chilling warning to the father. It stated in Arabic: “To Basheer Go Away Foreign Agent. Or we will eliminate you.” Mohammad describes his father as a gentle person who was an engineer by profession. Basheer could not believe that anyone would want to harm him. But just a few days earlier a man who delivered gas cylinders had not heeded such a warning and had been shot by the Mujahideen Army (MA); Mujahideen was the Sunni Iraqi militant organization and they were killing Shias.

Basheer decided to stay on. But then another warning was stuck to his door. That day Basheer and his wife bundled their four boys into a taxi and drove off to Baghdad. They were now, in the terminology of the UNHRC,“internally displaced persons”.

From 2005 to 2014 the family struggled to survive in Baghdad. They lived in a temporary shelter with little to eat. Mohammad and his father worked in shops as salesmen; Mahdi became a barber working in a salon. Then in 2013, the ISIS entered Baghdad. They declared that it was haram to shave and trim beards. The barber next to Mahdi’s salon was shot dead. The ISIS continues to attack Shia villages and sectarian tension is still high in Iraq.

Mahdi and Mohammad remember the fear. It enveloped their lives at all hours. But the family managed to survive, drawing comfort from one another. Then one day in 2014 Basheer disappeared from the shop in Mustansiriya market where he worked. It was the Mujahideen again. And they came for Mahdi and Mohammad. Mohammad and Mahdi went into hiding; and their mother told them not to return home because there was a car parked outside their house with men on the lookout for Basheer’s two sons.

In August 2014 Mohammad and Mahdi were given passports and flight tickets for India. It was their aunt who worked for the US Army who advised them to go to India and seek the protection of the UNHCR.

The two left without even being able to embrace their mother. Mahdi put his head on Mohammad’s shoulder and cried all the way till the plane landed in Hyderabad. It took the two brothers several days to discover that there was no UNHCR office in Hyderabad. They then took a flight to Delhi.

It was the Afghan refugees who helped the Iraqis find their way to the UNHCR office. The two brothers looked at the office in awe — it was a part of the UN, surely they would now get some help. They were recognized as refugees. The two brothers joined the English language classes organized by the UNHCR and passed the course. But they were given no financial assistance.

Mohammad worked as a waiter in Lajpat Nagar. Mahdi would come quietly to the back of the restaurant and Mohammad would manage to smuggle a bowl of rice for his little brother. But a time came when they ran out of money completely.

Mohammad found work translating for Iraqi patients in hospitals but an Indian threatened him, saying he was taking his job. Mahdi found work in a barber’s salon but someone reported him to the police. When he confidently showed the police his UNHCR card the police said the card did not accord the right to work. The police even took away his implements.

On Diwali in 2018, Mahdi went out and joined a group of people in Safdarjung Enclave who had firecrackers. He was enjoying the Diwali celebrations when some people came and beat him and told him he had no right to join Diwali celebrations. Mohammad was shocked to see Mahdi’s face bruised and his clothes torn.

Mohammad said they were not able to rent homes because they had Muslim names. They had no financial assistance from the UNHCR, they had no home and they could not earn a living because it was illegal. Since 2017 India had stopped giving residential permits to refugees and so they had no legal protection at all.

By this time the UNHCR had also shut their gates to the refugees. No one spoke to them. They got no assistance. In their desperation Mohammad and Mahdi decided to sit in protest in front of the UNHCR gates.

It was outside the UNHCR office in VasantVihar that I found the Iraqi brothers. They had one tiny tent which a local had given them. Refugees are not mere statistics enclosed in glossy UNHCR reports. Each refugee has a story to tell; each is dealing with trauma and they are victims of wars and conflicts which are not of their making.

Like other refugees, Mohammad and Mahdi too dream. It is a simple dream: to live in a decent home, earn an honest living, have a family and, above all, feel safe. The Iraqi brothers have no legal or physical protection at all. Apart from the fact that India does not have a refugee law, it has a law that gives preference to non-Muslim immigrants. Mohammad and Mahdi have no chance of acquiring Indian citizenship and they cannot go back to Iraq where the only job they will get is in one of the many militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces, or in Arabic as al-Hashd al-Shaabi. They do not want to earn a living by killing fellow Iraqis.

The UNHCR has a mandate to find permanent solutions to the refugee problem. For the Iraqi brothers their best hope is resettlement in a third country where they could study and earn a livelihood and have their own families. They have an uncle, their father’s brother, in the US and they wonder whether they will be able to unite with some member of their family.

I am always inspired by the way refugees can keep alive a flame of hope for a better future despite being in a situation which seems so utterly hopeless. But, most of all, I find it truly amazing that they are able to preserve their humour and humanity. I invited the Iraqi brothers to my home for Diwali, and they turned up with a box of Iraqi sweets. “It is for you, Jidatee.”

I am now their Indian Jidatee, grandmother. And like all grandmothers I want to see my grandchildren safe, happy and with a future to look forward to. I want to fight for their right to live a full life.

Nandita Haksar is a noted lawyer and human rights activist

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