I met Abdullah while visiting the Rohingya refugee camp this April, in the aftermath of a fire that burnt down the resettlement colony. Abdullah, 27, told me he had lost about Rs. 82,000, his wife’s gold, and the legal papers belonging to several Rohingya who were interned in Indian jails, and whom he was trying to help.
One thing that survived were his fancy black slippers. They were sent to him by “my Buddhist girlfriend from Myanmar. She keeps sending me gifts though we haven’t met for five years.” Abdullah’s wife, Taslima doesn’t particularly like this, but after crossing two international borders she knows nothing can really get between her and her husband.
Born in a wealthy family involved in the export business in a village in Maungdaw, Rakhine Province, Abdullah, then 21, left his country in 2012 to come to India to escape sectarian violence. He’d been in love with Taslima since 10th standard and couldn’t leave her behind.
“Though her given name is Taslima, I call her by her Burmese name, ‘Su-su’, which means ‘the most beautiful’,” Abdullah said. His Indian friends have told him that "Su-Su" is slang for urine in Hindi, but he doesn’t care about it. “It’s between me and her.”
The couple voyaged for months in boats, buses and by foot, first to Bangladesh after crossing the sea in a dinghy at night. They crossed the border into India with the help of an agent. Here, they contacted other refugees in Delhi who helped them settle down at a Rohingya refugee camp in Kalindi Kunj. In the relatively conservative community of the camp they lived together for awhile before getting married, and having a baby.
Abdullah has been a fan of India since his childhood fascination with Bollywood. When his favourite actress Divya Bharti died in an accident in 1993, “I cried for days.”
Abdullah watched a Hindi film every day during school, which helped him learn the language. Some of his favourites were Phool Aur Kaante, Deewana, Zinda Dil, Mann and Baadshah.
Abdullah’s idea of India as a land of opportunity and religious brotherhood also derived from films. “I had heard that India is a place where that Hindus and Muslims live together in harmony and support each other in need. When I saw Border, Hindus and Muslims soldiers were fighting together against Pakistan. I really liked it. That is why I came here and didn’t go to Bangladesh.”
“I have learnt in India what love is, what love is for your neighbour,” Abdullah said, detailing how he’s managed to make a living here with the advice of others. Abdullah first worked in construction and did odd jobs. He invested the Rs. 20,000 he managed to collect, purchasing fish from Maharashtra and Gujarat and selling it in Jammu and Kashmir. “This business was so profitable that I started a clothes shop here in Delhi,” said Abdullah.
The cloth shop didn’t take off, so he began renting an auto-rickshaw and driving commercial vehicles. Eventually, he bought an auto. During this time, he met Mahinder, a businessman from the neighbourhood. Mahinder’s wife left some gold jewellery in Abdullah’s auto, and when he went back to return it, they became friends for life.
“There are some elements who spread hatred—but a large majority do not care if a person is Christian or Muslim before helping them,” said Abdullah.
Still, Abdullah doesn’t tell a lot of people about his background, lest he raise suspicion. Only a few select people know that he’s a Rohingya: Mahinder for example, and Ram Singh, a traffic policemen.
Even as he struggles to make a living, Abdullah is trying to help others back home. He sold his auto in August last year, after the hostilities in his region grew and he had to send Rs. 1 lakh to help a member of his family relocate to Bangladesh. Since then, he’s been assisting Rohingyas lodged in jails in West Bengal. “Even if the refugees have the required documents, Indian government tries to deport them back to Myanmar,” he said. “I have managed to get some people out.”
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