How would you decide what to leave behind, within the borders that once defined you, and what to take, as you set out on a perilous journey?
Will you take the house keys, as a souvenir of the place you once called home? Will you pack the family photographs, to remind you of happier times? What about the certificates and papers that document your life? Will you take those lovingly embroidered pillow cases? What will you leave behind?
Refugees carry a part of their homes in their bags when they cross borders. These items tell the story of lives cut short, of identities, of home. We ask some families what they took with them when they were forced to flee their homes.
In the October of 2013, 42-year-old Mahadev Advani fled Pakistan with his wife and four children to escape alleged religious persecution. Their search for shelter brought them to Hindu-majority India.
Refugees have no option but to travel light, as their journey to their new lives is an arduous one. Not many survive it either. A devout Mahadev brought with him a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, written in Sindhi. “I can only read Sindhi. I wasn’t sure if I would get one in India".
“In an unfamiliar country with nowhere to go and no one to lean on, I hold onto this for strength. The human mind is fickle and easily distracted,” he says. “This book gives me direction. It tells me what to do in life. It keeps evil at bay. But then again, what is good in the life of a refugee?”
In the large thatched tent that the Advanis live in, it is hard to spot traces of Pakistan, the land they left behind. A recently purchased sewing machine, that rests on a manji, is Indian, as are the steel utensils on the shelf. But a closer look reveals hints of the Advani family’s beloved homeland.
“I can only read Sindhi. I wasn’t sure if I would get a Bhagavad Gita written in Sindhi in India".
Mahadev’s 37-year-old wife shows off her collection of embroidered pillow and blanket covers. Pulling them out of a big trunk, Bhagli says, “When we were leaving, my sister-in-law and mother gave some to me to keep”.
“These covers remind me of my sister, my mother, my uncle and aunt. These remind me of my home. My Sindh. My country where I was born. We have found shelter, but there’s nothing we can call home.”
The work on the pillow covers is called bharat, or Sindhi embroidery. In Sindh, they are considered a status symbol. The cases have been locked up in a trunk in a corner of the Advanis’ Majnu Ka Tila shelter for years now. “I have taken these out after 5 long years. Other than reporters and photographers, no one comes to visit us. No family. No friends. What will I do by decorating this place?” Bhagli has found a better use for these covers. She is now saving them for her daughters’ marriage.
“These pillow covers remind me of my home. My Sindh. My country where I was born. We have found shelter, but there’s nothing we can call home".
Mahadev’s eldest daughter, Darshana, looks at her school-leaving certificate dated 15 October 2012. She was 11 when she came to India. The certificate reminds her of her school in Tando Allahyar, a town in Sindh, Pakistan. “It was only half an hour away from our house. Father would drop me to school on his scooter,” she says. "English was my favourite subject, but I struggled with Urdu and Sindhi," she says.
“The school-leaving certificate reminds me of my old school in Pakistan. It was only half an hour away from our house. Father would drop me to school on his scooter”.
Her sister, 13-year-old Jaishati Advani, had to leave behind her favourite pink frock. The ankle-length dress, with delicate embroidery, was a gift from her mother. She shows off the gold band that she has worn since she was a child. “I recently got it altered to fit my fingers.”
“Where we live, we wear a lot of gold jewellery. If you don’t, it is considered bad.”
India is home to a reported 1,20,000 Pakistani Hindu refugees. An estimated 1,000 Hindus migrate to Rajasthan from Pakistan every year. Many of these refugees, who are awaiting Indian citizenship, are forced to live without basic amenities.
“When I saw Dada and Dadi for the last time, I wondered if we would ever go back to them, or if they would ever come to us. And that made me cry,” says Darshana.
“I got this gold band that I have worn since I was a child. I recently got it altered to fit my fingers. Where we live, we wear a lot of gold jewellery. If you don’t, it is considered bad".
Amina Khathoon was 16 when she got married to 26-year-old Aman Ullah. At their wedding, she wore a navy blue baazu and htamein, a two-piece traditional Burmese costume. As a Rohingya refugee who has been displaced twice, Amina carried her wedding dress with her to Bangladesh, and now to India.
“We don’t sell or give away our wedding clothes. So many memories attached to them,” she says of the dress – a part of Myanmar that now lies folded in a trunk in her refugee shack in Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj. Besides the dress, Amina also packed her father’s identity card and prayer beads. Amina was particularly close to her father. After losing her mother, he spent his days in prayer. “My father was a simple and religious man,” she says, as she touches his prayer beads.
“We don’t sell or give away our wedding clothes. So many memories attached to them."
Myanmar is home to an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims – 7 percent of its total population. The persecuted minority community has been at the centre of a large-scale refugee crisis spawned by decades of oppression and state-sponsored violence. In 1982, their citizenship was revoked, effectively stripping them of any legal status or rights. In 2002, the Myanmar army’s widespread crackdown to check Islamist insurgents forced thousands of people to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Today, an estimated four lakh Rohingya Muslims live in Bangladesh. According to the Home Ministry, over 40,000 live in India.
Amina's family left Myanmar during the holy month of Ramzan that year. “I remember it was Ramzan, because mother and father had just finished their sehri," says 22-year-old Hussain Johar, Amina’s youngest son. "Then, at around 4 in the morning, we all left in a Bolero. Mother had packed tiffins for my sister and I, as we were too young to observe Roza. We reached Bangladesh in a boat.”
Sifting through the various documents that are arranged neatly in folders, Hussain pulls out the leaf of paper that is his birth certificate. It’s written in Burmese, which Huzzain cannot read. “I don’t know Burmese. I ask my mother to show me my name in the document, my name and my date of birth. My siblings know the language because they studied it in Burmese schools.”
“I remember it was Ramzan, because mother and father had just finished sehri. Mother had packed tiffins for my sister and I, as we were too young to observe Roza. We reached Bangladesh in a boat".
“This is not just a piece of paper for me," Hussain says, as his tone changes. "It’s proof that I am from Myanmar and I belong to that country." Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar face intimidation and discrimination. They are constantly told that they do not belong the country and that they are "Bengalis" who live in Myanmar "illegally".
“I don’t know Burmese. I ask my mother to show me my name and date of birth in the document. My siblings know the language because they studied it in Burmese schools".
Hussain’s elder brother, Ali, heads the UNHCR's Rohingya Refugee Committee in Delhi. Growing up, Ali always stood first in his class at school and won every competition he participated in. He has carefully preserved the certificates of his achievements, after all these years. He kept the folder on his person when he left Bangladesh in a bus, and when he crossed the borders on foot to avoid the security forces on both sides.
“In these school certificates, I carry all my school memories. It takes me back to my school days. They remind me of my teachers and friends".
Ali’s sister, Tasmida, received primary education in Bangladesh. She was recently in the news for becoming the first Rohingya woman to appear for her Class X exams. She shows the marksheet issued to her by the Bangladesh primary education board. It is full of A+s, except for one subject.
“This reminds me of the days in Bangladesh. I liked it better there. The weather was good. The food and the people were familiar. It was like a mini-Myanmar. The language wasn’t a problem. When I was in Bangladesh, I didn’t miss Myanmar.”
“The food and the people in Bangladesh were familiar. It was like a mini-Myanmar. The language wasn’t a problem. When I was there, I didn’t miss Myanmar".
Eighty-year-old Tenzing Wangdue can talk for hours about Tibet. "I was born there, I studied there, I was on the run when I was 22," he says, without pausing for air as he sits in his house in Majnu Ka Tila.
But did he bring anything with him from Tibet? “No.” But there’s got to be something. What about clothes? Family photographs? “In those days we didn’t take photographs,” he says, a reality that is hard to fathom for the Instagram generation. How is that possible? What about documents? “No,” he says, emphatically.
He describes his home, Tibet’s pleasant weather, and the bountiful harvest. He talks about his siblings, and how they all left the country one after the other.
“Our parents wanted all of us to leave Tibet. But, they stayed back and saw us leave one by one. Like scattered litter. I was very sad that I had to leave my parents behind.”
An hour and a half into the conversation, Wangdue gets up, walks down the corridor to his room and returns with something in his hands. “This is what I brought with me,” he says.
Why this knife? “The journey was perilous and filled with uncertainty. I wasn’t sure if I would survive and how long I would survive for. I didn’t have the luxury to carry what I owned. I could not have brought many things with me on the trail or I would have invited attention. At that moment, the only thing that mattered was that I had to stay alive. Hence this knife.”
The knife is in a sheath and it is as good as new. It is the octogenarian’s most prized possession. He doesn’t let anyone touch the knife.
In 1959, two days before he left Tibet, Wangdue purchased the knife from a local shop for Rs 200. His eyes light up with excitement as he talks about the knife, as his wrinkles fade to reveal the 22-year-old who left behind his family, his house, and all things familiar.
“I tied the sheath knife around my waist and hid it under my clothes. It was for self-defence against any attacks. For days, I was on the road. Then I was on a boat. I finally arrived in Siliguri via train.”
He travelled from Siliguri to Delhi, and from Delhi to Dharamshala. He met his wife at the Tibetan Children's Village School, where he worked. The couple moved to Delhi, where they have lived for the last 25 years. They have seven children – four boys and three girls. All seven are married and have settled down in different parts of India.
What was Tibet’s and still belongs to him is the knife that he clutches with both hands. He now guards with his life the item that once guarded his. “I never sold it. This is what I brought with me. It’s because of this that I am alive.”