Syrian refugee, 32 (Delhi)
Fled the war-torn country this year and works as Arabic translator in hospitals
A few kilometres away from its DDA houses and across the subzi-mandi in South Delhi’s Sarita Vihar, a narrow lane lined with ‘Forex money exchange’ shops and vendors selling ‘green olives’ leads to a four-storey guest house. The 32-year-old can be often found on its terrace. Here, for the past four years, an “underground” Syrian restaurant has been turning out dishes from back home — syrup-soaked baklavas, pita bread and fresh hummus.
The 32-year-old first came to India from Homs, a city in western Syria, in 2011, when he enrolled for a Masters in English Literature at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi.
He is back here as a refugee — one among the six million Syrians on the run from civil war and Islamic State-unleashed violence. Homs was at the centre of that violence, declared by the rebels as their capital before they were chased out.
In 2013, the 32-year-old and his family — father an engineer, mother an Arabic teacher, and his three siblings — first left for Turkey as “we didn’t feel safe”. “We felt unsettled in Turkey and so decided to move to Europe, like the others,” he says. But when the rest of his family left for Sweden, he came to India — a country where he felt more “accepted”.
In August this year, he officially got “refugee status” from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Still, he no longer trusts strangers, and so refuses to be named or even meet face-to-face.
He stays in Jamia Nagar near Sarita Vihar, like he did during his student days, and makes about Rs 15,000-20,000 a month as an Arabic translator at city hospitals, he tells over the phone. Sometimes he takes private tuitions. Sarita Vihar has scores of guest-houses with people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, etc, some seeking asylum, others looking for affordable medical treatment.
“It is tough,” he admits, and the visit to the Syrian restaurant a couple of days a month is his rare indulgence. On other days, these reminders of home keep him going:
A Syrian SIM card
“It was the first connection I ever got. It is not functional anymore but I have always had it with me. So when I was leaving home permanently, it was one of the first things I picked up. Now it is just to keep the memories alive.” Today, he has an Indian phone connection.
A few rouble coins, two Syrian pound notes
A friend of his who had gone to Russia gifted him the roubles. The coins lie safe in his wallet, along with two Syrian pound notes, of 5 and 10 denomination. “No one accepts this currency here, but it is still worth having them,” he says.
He is not exactly religious, he says, but his mother handed him the rosary to pray each day when he first left Syria to study in India. When his family decided to move for good, he brought it with him on his own. “I was being separated from my family, I thought praying would help me connect with them… I speak to them them via WhatsApp and Viber now.”
A copy of Oxford English Dictionary
The 32-year-old always had a flair for English. His father gifted him the dictionary when he enrolled for a Bachelors in English at Al-Baath University in Homs, at the age of 19. It has been his “constant companion” since then. “I used to refer to it more often earlier, now it is more like a decoration piece. Also, it brings back memories of my father.”
This one was more of a “need”. “I want a good cup of coffee every morning and, during my student days, I didn’t enjoy the coffee in India too much,” he smiles. “So while moving, I packed a big packet of Syrian coffee.”