'Only Way To Call My Mother': What Losing a Phone Means to a Rohingya Refugee

While 'no loss of life' makes headlines, the 'loss of livelihood' of refugees often gets neglected.

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"My father had passed away early on... I have a mother. She is also at a (refugee) camp. I have not been able to reach out to her. She doesn't own a mobile phone either. She has nobody else with her. It's been a long time since I have spoken to her."
Nuroda, a refuggee at the Rohingya camp in Haryana's Mewat

Losing a mobile phone means different things to different people. For some, it means a loss of photos and data, for others, like 32-year-old Nuroda, it means losing contact with her family in Myanmar's Rakhine State and Cox's Bazaar camp in Bangladesh.

Nuroda lived in a slum cluster in Haryana's Mewat till a fire, on 15 December, gutted 32 shanties, including hers. Within minutes, her children's books, her sewing machine, Rs 52,000 saved up for her daughter's wedding, it all turned to ash.

Along with this, her phone too was charred. She had held on to this phone with a hope that her mother – who might be at a refugee camp in Bangladesh – will call any day now. With no roof over her head, and no money in her purse, it will take several weeks, maybe months, before she can get hold of another phone.


'Only Way to Get in Touch with My Mother...'

Nuroda's husband went missing while they were migrating from Bangladesh to India in 2012. She now lives at the camp with her two daughters.

For the past one and a half years, Nuroda has not been able to trace her mother either, who's also a refugee in Bangladesh.

"I have not been able to talk to her. We used to talk before. She doesn't own a mobile phone either. She has nobody else with her. It's been a long time since I have spoken to her. One of our neighbours had come for some treatment here, at that time, I had taken a phone number from him. It was the number of a neighbour of my mother's at some camp. She would use the same phone. I think they were shifted somewhere in Bangladesh. Since then, I haven't been able to talk to her. It's been over a year now. They were last in Bangladesh.

Like her mother, Nuroda does not know the whereabouts of her in-laws either.

"They don't know where we are. He had three brothers and two sisters, besides our mother. We don't know where they are either. They are somewhere in Bangladesh, but we don't know whom to call."

Losing Source of Income Among Other Possessions

Other than losing her means of communication with her mother, Nuroda, a single mother herself, also lost her only source of income — her sewing machine.

"I stitched clothes for a living. The ration that we get every month is not sufficient," Nuroda said.

"I used to stitch women's clothes. If somebody bought a cloth that needed to be stitched but didn't know how to stitch it, I would do it for them," she added.

Nuroda's elder daugheter Yasmine was about to be married in a few months.

"My mother had gathered stuff for my wedding. I studied till Class 7, that too for three months, but then I quit. My mother was not able to afford my education. As I grew up, my mother had to choose between fending for the family or spending on my education. So, I quit studying. And with that money was saved, whatever she was able to gather has been lost now," Yasmine said.

Nuroda's youngest daughter, who goes to a government school near the camp, lost all her books in the fire.

A family of three, Nuroda and her daughters lost everything that was important to each of them. For Nuroda, it was her phone and her sewing machine. For her elder daughter Yasmine, it was the money and the gold her mother had worked hard to gather for her wedding. For her 11-year-old daughter, it was her all her school books.


'Loss of Livelihood'

The 32 families at the refugee camp who lost everything in the fire had similar tales to tell. A possible short circuit in the overhead wires was cited as the cause. This was the third such incident of fire this year from across Rohingya refugee camps in India, the previous two were reported from Delhi and Jammu.

While 'no loss of life' makes headlines, the 'loss of livelihood' of refugees often gets neglected. As the UNHCR, the Haryana government, and other NGOs reach out to help rebuild the camp, it remains a challenge to rebuild lives of refugees struck by tragedy in an alien country.

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