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'Wrapped in Chennai's Warmth, I Met The Rohingyas Who Call The City Their Home'

'I met the Rohingyas in Chennai's Kelambakkam, where they have been living for 11 years.'

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“I was a shop owner back at home (Burma), and here I am a mechanic. Life with a tiny income is very hard, but at least we get to live it without fear,” Mohammed Yusuf, a 35-year-old member of the Rohingya Refugee camp, said. 

I met them in Kelambakkam, where the Rohingya community of 79 members, 18 families, call Chennai their home while recalling being thrown out of their own - Myanmar.

Describing how they escaped the crackdown aimed to crush the locals, 16-year-old Noor said, "It took us about 15-16 days to reach Chennai. We first fled to Bangladesh; before we knew it, the local police shook the little faith left in us to find a home. After spending a few days in Bangladesh, we came to Chennai because one of our acquaintances told us about the living conditions here."

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'Unpredictable Rain Becomes Challenge In Chennai'

While the community says they are largely satisfied with the way of life in Chennai, the unpredictable monsoons and the lack of employment are some of the major challenges that they have to face.

More than 25 kids from the community are enrolled in government schools, and the slum has a continuous supply of electricity and water. The monsoons, however, leave them with the uncertainty of being relocated every year.

"Our homes get flooded by increased rainfall and the government has to relocate us. I have a workshop inside of my house and the relocation makes it hard for me to do my work."
Mohammed Yusuf, Rohingya Refugee

While 11 families live in one large building called the Cyclone Shelter, the others live in small makeshift houses surrounding the building. The roof of the main building and the makeshift houses start to leak as the rains develop, making it difficult to live in.

Cyclone Shelter, the building in which 11 Rohingya families live in Kelambakkam, Chennai

(Photo Credit: Gesu Bhardwaj)

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“On some days due to waterlogging, the water comes up to our knees. We don’t have beds so it becomes impossible for us to live in these houses,” a woman, on the account of anonymity, said.

 The Rohingyas in Kelambakkam migrated to India in 2011 following a military coup in Myanmar. The slum is looked after by the combined efforts of the Tamil Nadu government, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) and an NGO. “Before coming to Chennai, we did not even know of this place, but this place and the people here have been very welcoming,” Yusuf said.

Post-Covid, most of these migrants have lost their jobs and some people like Yusuf, who has a workshop for machine repair inside their homes are now attracting lesser clients. “Even though we all are fully vaccinated by the government, people seem to have some hesitation in coming to our area because of Covid,” Yusuf told me. He also added that, “The rains have made it worse. I have to shut down work for 2-3 days at a stretch and that for me means making no money at all.”

A kid from the Rohingya community living in Kelambakkam, Chennai.

(Photo Credit: Gesu Bhardwaj)

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“The relocation because of monsoons is important for us otherwise we would lose everything but it also means that we have to move with all that we have. More than anything else, our business suffers a lot due to the relocation,” a resident said.

'Hoping For A Brighter Future'

While comparing the situations in Myanmar and India, Yusuf said, “Here, women have access to education. People can study to become journalists and truth seekers, but in Myanmar, if you speak the truth, they put you in jail.”

Adding to that, Taslimya, another member of the community told me, “We could not even roam outside freely because women are suppressed in my country. There is no place that is safe for them. In fact, the poor are invisible to the authorities. I remember, at one point, rice was being sold for Rs 650 per kilogram.” 

A child sleeping inside one of the homes in the slum. The Sandalwood paste on the face is a reflection of the Burmese culture that the Rohingyas have borrowed from the Buddhists - children and young girls put it on their faces - as told by Noor, one of the residents.

(Photo Credit: Gesu Bhardwaj)

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Yusuf further spoke about what he envisaged about their future. “We want to go back. Someday when things get better, I want to go back to my Burma. It is a beautiful place, you should come there too,” he told me while going through a few currency notes and documents that he got while he fled his home.

The community in Kelambakkam, never turned back to look at their home again. While 11 years is a long time, and the memories of Myanmar have faded, they are not yet forgotten. When they think of Myanmar, they think of the forests, the smell of sandalwood inside people’s homes, the pain of fragmented families and the hope of a better tomorrow.

(The author is a student at Asian College Of Journalism, Chennai. All 'My Report' branded stories are submitted by citizen journalists to The Quint. Though The Quint inquires into the claims/allegations from all parties before publishing, the report and the views expressed above are the citizen journalist's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read and Breaking News at the Quint, browse for more from my-report

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