As the sun rises over the railway tracks in the densely populated Jammu region, children play in heaps of garbage while their parents begin to tidy their tarp-covered homes. “We have houses made of leaves and plastic sheets. Our children fall sick whenever there is rainfall but we are content because we are safe,” says Rohingya refugee Mohammad Yousuf. Safety was their primary concern when 62-year-old Yousuf and tens of thousands of other Rohingyas left their native Rakhine state in Myanmar two years ago, after ethnic tensions between Rohingya Muslims and the majority Rakhine Buddhists triggered deadly violence. Yousuf is among more than 1,500 Rohingya refugees now living in temporary tents in Jammu, the winter capital of restive Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim majority state. They are safe here near the border with Pakistan, but it is a precarious situation. In Jammu, they have no citizenship, no jobs, no school and no proper health care. They lack even the most basic shelters to protect them from the heat and cold.
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Mud inundates shelters during the rainy season, as does dust during the summers. Living with their children in tents made from plastic sheets, these stateless refugees say they are striving — but failing — to forge a new beginning. Naheeda Bano, 43, says she is concerned about her children’s future. The family is "tired of wandering from once place to another for shelter", she says, as her six-year-old daughter plays at her feet in dirty clothes. “I am really worried about my children. What will happen to them? We have no money or place to build a proper house and no one is providing a proper shelter," she says. Zamrooda Begum, 65, says everyone in the community is seeking the same: "better shelter, health services and education for the children”. Life, she says, is miserably hard. “In summers it is no less than a hell to remain in plastic tents and during winters it is the biting cold that may kill us.” Without doctors, the refugees are left to treat their illnesses through faith healers. “There are some people with us who are the men of God. They recite some Qur'anic verses and we get cured,” Begum told ucanews.com. Mohammad Ashraf is a faith healer in this community. Sitting inside one of the tents, he has a prayer mat and Qur'an placed on his right side. "With the power of Allah, I can cure fever, toothache, headache and every ailment that Allah allows to get cured,” says Ashraf. The refugees sustain themselves with meager incomes. Most men work as scrap collectors in the region, leaving their homes early in the morning and coming back at night. On rented bicycles, they wander along the streets collecting garbage to sell to dealers. The work earns them about 200 Indian rupees (US$3) a day. Women work as daily wage maids in houses across the city, leaving the children to fend for themselves with no school or protection. “A voluntary agency established a school some time back but it is now almost defunct. It rarely opens as the agency has no money to spend on us,” says Parvena, 34. More than 1,500 Rohingya refugees live in squalid conditions with no access to healthcare or social services (Photo by Umar Shah)
For Parvena, offering a better life to her children would be a dream come true. “Whatever happened to us has happened. But we want our children to be educated and have good jobs. But the [Indian] government until now has not offered a helping hand," she said. Parvena clearly remembers the 2012 violence between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists back in Rakhine state. “In my neighborhood, women were gang-raped and no one raised a voice. Our houses were burned and property destroyed. We left everything and left only for the sake of our children,” she said. Rakhine state, where these Rohingyas were born and lived for generations, is alien to them now and none have a desire to return. Rakhine Buddhists fought to expel them, saying Rohingya are not indigenous to the state but descendants of Muslims migrated from present day India and Bangladesh during British colonial rule of the subcontinent. The same opinion is held by the Myanmar government, which officially refers to Rohingyas as “Bengali”, and consider them illegal immigrants. “We will not return" to Myanmar says Rafiqa Bano, echoing a view heard across the refugee settlement. “It [the Myanmar government] says we are stateless people. We don’t want our children to face what we have faced [there]." According to the State Affairs Office, 1,621 people belonging to 381 Rohingya families are living in tents in Jammu. Of these, 1,476 are registered with the UNHCR, which allows them to live in a South Asian country as refugees. The Jammu and Kashmir Sakawat Centre, an NGO, provides some education and medical services. What the NGO is able to offer depends on donations which are meager, said Mir Mohammad Ashraf, an official at the center. There is currently no money to fund regular schools and medical facilities because the government is not assisting them, he told ucanews.com. A state Home Department official, who did not wish to be named, admitted there were no budgetary allocations to take care of the refugees. "They are not eligible for state benefits because they do not belong to the state," he said.