‘Came to India With Hope’: Broken Dreams of Pak Refugees in Delhi

Residents of Signature Bridge refugee colony have zero access to civic facilities of the government.

7 min read
Hindi Female

It is a simple dream to remember...

Every night, when he falls asleep, Mohan sees it. Even with his eyes open and mind awake, he sees it. He has always wanted his sons to join the police force or the army. He wanted them to get a good education that wouldn’t be derailed by local politicking or religious bias, and grow up never feeling bad for who they were.

He had these dreams first for himself, and then the cast changed. In 2013, at the age of 30, his family packed some of their belongings, said goodbye to all they owned in Sindh and decided to come to India.

Hamare bacche police banenge, fauji baney. India ke liye baney. Hum bohot umeed lekar aaye the (Our kids will join the police, army... for India. We have come with a lot of expectations).”

The path he is walking on is slushy and flooded, thanks to many hours of steady rain. Mohan’s slippers keep getting stuck in the mud, and coming off, and on each occasion he turns, fishes it out and puts it on. On what seems like the tenth try, he gives up.

He walks into his house, a single room hut made of brick but with a thatched roof.

Sapne the, par yahaan naali bhi nahi hai (We had dreams but we don’t even have proper drainage here).

Residents of Signature Bridge refugee colony have zero access to civic facilities of the government.
A man repairs the roof of a temporary housing shelter at the Signature bridge refugee camp in New Delhi.
(Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan)

The trouble with dreams is that they mean different things to different people. This isn’t pop psychology, it is pure reality. Mohan’s dreams are for a better life. For those, whose calls got him to India, dreams center on harnessing economic and political power.

Mohan is one among many in the Majnu ka Tila Pakistani Hindu refugee colony in North Delhi. Over 135 families live in the settlement, and nuclear families are hard to find.

Almost all residents came to the country from Sindh in 2014, emboldened by the promises made by BJP candidates to provide for and protect every Hindu in the world. The world they dreamt of is yet to be found (or even founded).

It isn’t a keen observation to say that for most of them, the idea of a nation state is meaningless.

They’ve come from a country that persecuted them, denied them basic privileges, and regularly discriminated against them to one that hides them, denies them basic privileges and uses them only when necessary.
Residents of Signature Bridge refugee colony have zero access to civic facilities of the government.
Recipient families, who often have no documentation, are issued passbooks by HAI, who use them to maintain records of distribution.
(Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan)

Six years after coming to power, when the government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, hopes for formal recognition among those living in refugee colonies across India rekindled.

A clause in the Act allowed for granting Indian citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who faced religious persecution and arrived in India by 31 December 2014.

Many residents of the colonies almost immediately went to get their papers validated and citizenship formalised. But, nothing happened.

One resident (who requested their identity be withheld) said they had faced harassment during field verification by officials.

“The officials would come and ask for money, they would threaten us in different ways. It should have been simple and straightforward. Instead, they have made it another way to keep us away. It has also made many go back.”
Name Withheld, resident of refugee colony
Residents of Signature Bridge refugee colony have zero access to civic facilities of the government.
Residents make their way back to the colony with bags of supplies provided by aid workers at Signature Bridge, New Delhi.
(Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan)

Under the Signature Bridge is another refugee colony, more scattered and less organised than the one at Majnu ka Tila.

The shelters here have a significantly more temporary feel, with thatched roofs covered in tarpaulin being a common sight. BJP flags are littered across the colony and the greeting of choice is Jai Shri Ram.

Collective identity masks an individual’s voice. The visuals may suggest compliance but everyone has complaints, their ire directed towards the apathy of those who promised to save them.

Residents in the Signature bridge colony have zero access to any civic facilities provided by the government. There is one hand pump, a short walk from the colony, purposed perhaps for passersby, when the area was farmland. The residents use it as their water supply.

Most families grow a few basic vegetables in small patches near their shelters but rely on aid for grains, pulses and other basic amenities. Jobs, anyway tough to come by, have disappeared during the year long lockdown.

Residents of Signature Bridge refugee colony have zero access to civic facilities of the government.
Reshma, 30, plays with her children at the Signature bridge refugee camp in New Delhi. The mother of four children has been concerned about how the lockdowns have affected their education.
(Photo Courtesy: Vaibhav Raghunandan)

“I worked as a contract labourer at times, and a hawker at other times,” Reshma says.

A mother of four, her husband and she came to India from southern Sindh (entering into Gujarat) in 2014. For over a year now, the family has relied on aid to make do. Over the years, Humanitarian Aid International (HAI) has worked with residents in the area to provide them basic amenities, give children access to education and teach the women skills to substantiate their family’s income.

Workshops on carpentry, tailoring, upholstery have been conducted at various points of time. An aid worker proudly points towards a pair of tables and chairs built by the residents of the colony.


One of them sits outdoors, the rain battering down on it. It looks like it hasn’t been used for a while.

“We learnt these skills and built all this so that our children could use them for their classes. But now that has stopped.”

“It hasn’t, you’re right,” Reshma says.

Lockdown restrictions, the threat of COVID-19 and general concerns over health and safety has halted educational services across the country for a long while now. For many homeschooling and online classes have become the norm.

There is a chain of thought prevalent in urban centres that opines this may be the way ahead – the home as a new classroom. This chain of thought forgets about many strewn across rural India and indeed people like Reshma. Their home has always been their classroom. Unfortunately it isn’t WiFi enabled.

“I just want them to get educated and get out of here. Hopefully, this tides over and the classes will resume.”

Reshma smiles, “See, here, look at this drawing he made yesterday.” It is of India Gate in all its pomp, the Tricolour flying in the background, fighter jets spinning trails of tricolour dust in the sky. There’s green grass in the foreground. He probably used an old photo for reference.

Residents of Signature Bridge refugee colony have zero access to civic facilities of the government.
Naseeba and her husband Mussadi play with their daughter in the refugee settlement in Majnu ka Tila, New Delhi.
(Photo Courtesy: Vaibhav Raghunandan)

Naseeba, 28, is a mother of five, who lives in the backends of the Majnu ka Tila settlement. Five families share the shelter they live in. Each family has a separate room, but shares a kitchen and a single lavatory. There is a communal space with a roof they have fashioned out of some tarpaulin and discarded wooden poles.

It is the women who mostly avail of it, using it for tailoring, conversation and fresh air. A loudspeaker blares old Hindi songs out of one of the rooms.

Mohan asks that it be turned off so we can speak in peace. He says, ‘TV off kar do,’ in the way anyone would when asking generic commercial sounds be put off. He doesn’t actually mean TV. “Bijli nahi hai, TV kaise chalega,” Naseeba smiles ruefully.

Naseeba’s eldest daughter is intellectually and physically challenged, and benefited hugely from the special needs educators HAI would send to the area. In their absence, her activity time has reduced massively, subsequently worsening her physical condition.

“We try to keep her occupied, engage with her. But it doesn’t always work. We don’t have anything. Everything we get is because of aid. I pray this virus goes away so that at the very least they can come back for the sake of my child.”

For the past few months, her daughter has stopped walking completely, reliant instead on the parents for everything.

Residents of Signature Bridge refugee colony have zero access to civic facilities of the government.
Aid workers from HAI work at a distribution facility in the Signature bridge refugee settlement in North Delhi.
(Photo Courtesy: Vaibhav Raghunandan)

Over the past few years, HAI has provided families in the Majnu ka Tila settlement solar powered battery sets, enough to light bulbs and charge mobiles and on a rainy day, play a loudspeaker.

The Jal Board provides them access to water via a pipeline and a couple of bore wells.

COVID-19 lockdowns over the past year mean they have lost any income sources they had gathered over the years, and subsequently meant a reduction in food supplies and rations.

HAI and Oxfam India’s Mission Sanjeevani programme has worked to ensure rations are delivered to families regularly and help tide over this time.

While civil society aid has helped them hugely, Mohan contends it will never be enough. “I don’t mean to belittle the efforts. They do a lot for us. We survive on their generosity. But at some point of time, even you have to think, if the government doesn’t care for us, then why are we even here?”

(Vaibhav Raghunandan is a photographer, journalist and designer. He cycles in his free time, and even otherwise. The photos were shot on assignment for Oxfam India, in New Delhi.)

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Topics:  Refugee camp   Majnu Ka Tila   Anti CAA 

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