[Email:firstname.lastname@example.org. Currently works as a Social Sector Consultant in a Big 4 firm. The following article is from the time when she used to work as a Child Protection Officer for the unaccompanied and separated children for an implementing partner of UNHCR in their Refugee Assistance Program]
Tabassum (name changed) suddenly woke up in her bed. Her aunt was lying next to her with a baby, Tabassum’s 1 month old niece, wrapped under her arms. Her uncle was snoring loudly from the other side of the bed. Tabassum had seen the same dream again. Tears started rolling down her cheeks as she felt the same sadness emanating from inside. At this moment, she did what she would always do after such a dream. She would get up, step outside her camp and run towards the largest tree. She would look at the rising sun and imagine it to be the face of her mother. She would then close her eyes and remember her vividly.
Tabassum is a 7 year old refugee girl who belongs to the Rohingya community and is currently residing in a refugee camp situated on the outskirts of New Delhi. When we are about to exit New Delhi and move towards Noida (which falls in Uttar Pradesh), we come across a place called Madanpur Khadar adjoining the famous gullies of Jamia Millia Islamia. A large stretch of land here has been donated by the Zakat Foundation of India to set up refugee camps for the Rohingyas. The Rohingyas are stateless persons and in India they come to seek refuge in order to preserve their community from being destroyed. This is a very vulnerable community as most of them have no resources and are not even educated to obtain small jobs. The males of the community engage in rag picking and selling. Few of them also work as labourers. The condition of the camp site can be compared to a slum community of rag-pickers where heaps of rotten waste are piled up and disaggregated into plastic, metal and food waste. There are no bathrooms and not even a public toilet; therefore, most of the inhabitants openly defecate. Women and children face high risks of sanitation and hygiene leading to their deteriorating health and serious medical conditions. The families don’t even have resources to finance treatment and mostly ignore diseases and epidemics. The children attend non-formal education classes imparted by the Zakat Foundation but most of them skip classes to engage into daily wage labour. The Rohingya community are borderline survivors in India.
Tabassum had arrived in India in 2013 with her uncle and aunt. Her father had passed away when she was an infant due to an incurable disease. Her mother had brought her up till the age of 5. She remembers her village – Sauprang, in Myanmar, as a valley surrounded by mountains and bounded by water. It was a fishing village as most families would catch and sell fish in the markets to earn a livelihood. Tabassum had a happy childhood where she would play in the mango orchards nearby with her cousins. It was in May 2013 that Tabassum’s life changed. She left her village with her mother and Uncle’s family in a boat and crossed a long river to a new place to stay. She did not know why she had to leave then but later found out from her uncle that the entire community in the village was being forcibly converted into another religion. Due to these conditions, the family decided to flee to Bangladesh along with their relatives. However, Tabassum and her family could not find a permanent place to stay in Bangladesh as they were illegal immigrants and had no protection. They had to run from one village to another and hide their identity. However, since their language and facial features were a little different from Bangladeshi natives, they would be recognized by the law authorities and detained.
Due to fear of persecution, Tabassum’s uncle decided to cross the border again in a boat from Bangladesh to India. He contacted the smugglers near the Bangladesh border and was told that he would have to pay Rs.5000 per person. Unfortunately, he had sufficient money for only three persons and no means to earn more. Tabassum’s mother decided to stay back and sent her daughter along with her uncle and aunt to India. They reached Indiain September 2013.
Once in India, they started living in a village on the outskirts of the city of Kolkata. It was a man named Sheikh Jamal (name changed) who informed them about UNHCR. Sheikh Jamal was also a Rohingya who had arrived from New Delhi in order to inform the new immigrants of their rights as refugees and pursue them to come and stay in New Delhi. Tabassum still remembers her first train ride to New Delhi. There was hardly enough space for her to sit on the berth and she spent most of the 18 hours in train crying as she missed her mother. Upon reaching, Tabassum was taken to a brightly lit office in a posh colony of New Delhi where she was interviewed for Refugee Status Determination. After 3 months, she received her refugee card and was recognized as a “separated minor refugee” by the UNHCR.
She started living in a hut which they made themselves with bamboo, plastic and metal sheets. The hut was very small and cooking was done inside using firewood. They used to earlier sleep on the floor but later her uncle got a folding bed which was shared by Tabassum and her aunt. Her aunt received a sewing machine as donation from an NGO and started making traditional dresses for the community. Her uncle joined other men in the rag selling business and would earn enough for their subsistence. Sheikh Jamalwas the representative of the Rohingya community in New Delhi and often visited UNHCR and its implementing partners for demanding assistance for the community.
Tabassum started facing psychological issues subsequently after her arrival in New Delhi. She was under the impression that her mother will join her soon in India. But months had gone by and she had not heard a word from her. Her uncle tried contacting her mother but could not trace her. After three months of waiting, they told Tabassum that probably her mother was no more. Tabassum was in shock. She would then spend all day and night crying, she could not eat anything and also had a bout of fever. After a month, she started showing symptoms of abnormal behaviour. When Sheikh Jamal was informed about Tabassum’s condition, he took her to the Psycho-Social Counselling centre which was run by one of UNHCR’s implementing partners. Tabassum was diagnosed with Depression and PTSD.
She has been seeing dreams of her mother every night and sometimes she wakes up in cold sweat. She has stopped communicating with anybody and it seems like she cannot speak. Her aunt sends her for the non-formal classes but the teacher usually gets an expressionless response from Tabassum whenever she is approached. She has made no friends and after classes and during morning hours, Tabassum is usually seen to be sitting under the tree and crying. When Tabassum was asked by her counsellor to draw her family in an Art Therapy session, she painted a small hut surrounded by mountains, a river, a tree and a lady standing under it holding the hand of a young girl. The counsellor analysed from the painting that Tabassum had not yet accepted the changes in her life and was unable to integrate herself to the new realities. The absence of her mother, whom she was so close to, furtherweakened her mental condition.
The status of mental health of minor refugees is a cause of concern in these times of the rising refugee crisis in the world. In an article titled ‘Refugees and Mental State of Refugee Children’ published in the latest volume of the Middle Eastern Journal Of Refugee Studies, Serhat Nasiroglu and Veci Seri have shared the following findings:
Clinical studies show that rates of depressive disorder among refugees vary between 4% and 89% and of PTSD are above 50%. Among Bosnian refugee children who were victims of ethnic cleansing, very high rates of PTSD (65%) and depression (35%) were observed a year after their journey to the United States. (Weine et al.,1995). Similarly, a large proportion (34%) of young Afghan refugees was diagnosed with comorbid PTSD and depression (Mghir, Freed, Raskin, &Katon, 1995). Researchers find PTSD to be associated with the experience of war and with depression related to current living conditions and recent experience of stressful events (Sack, Clarke, & Him, 1993). Other common problems in refugee children and adolescents who have experienced war include somatic complaints, sleep problems, behavioural disorders, social withdrawal, attention problems, widespread fear, extreme dependency, restlessness, irritability, and difficulty establishing peer relationships (Tousignant et al., 1999). In addition to mental health problems, mass population movements, deficiencies in health services, sanitation and access to potable water, malnutrition, and overcrowding lead to the spread of diseases in refugee camps.
In recent years, games and artistic expression have become widely used treatmentmethods for refugee children. Among the benefits of this therapy are improvements in self-confidence, theability to express feelings, problem solving, and conflict resolution through creativeexpression. Within the last decade, creative expression activities have been foundto be useful in helping refugee children face losses and traumas, re-establish socialties that were severed by war, build identities, and find meaning in life.
Tabassum’s story represents the status of many more unaccompanied and separated minor refugees who have face war, destruction, separation and have witnessed torture and killings.Tabassum is receiving therapy from the Psycho-social counselling centre operated by the implementing partner of UNHCR to help her cope and come to terms with reality.