With rows of two-room houses made of tin and asbestos with semi-concrete flooring, an under-construction common toilet and a tubewell, the new colony stands in sharp contrast to the fading homes that dot Kulari village. The new residents of these tin homes, with their broken Bengali, stand out, too.
With eight families, 29 adults and 11 children aged 75 days to six years, this colony for Rohingya refugees has come up over the last few weeks in this village under the Baruipur police station area in South 24-Parganas.
Although the central government has described the Rohingya as a “national security threat”, local residents say the new colony has come up under the West Bengal government with contributions from individuals and local welfare organisations. Local police say they have informed the state government about the colony and that the new arrivals possess refugee cards from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
In Kulari, meanwhile, one of the most visible supporters of the Rohingya is the Desh Bachao Samajik Committee, headed by a local paint supplier Hussain Gaji.
“There are 16 rooms and eight Rohingya families. My organisation constructed the colony on 15 cottahs of land, which belong to me. All of this has been built with donations from individuals and various organisations in West Bengal. More such colonies are being set up. At present, there are around 4,000 Rohingya in Bengal and many others, who do not have any documents, are in jail,” says Gaji.
Inside the colony, the refugees are reluctant to speak about their refugee cards or produce them. What they are eager to speak about, instead, is how they have been provided jobs with welfare organisations taking care of their medical needs, too.
“I have a 75-day-old baby and have to take care of two other children. It is difficult and we are grateful to these people. They are providing us rice, pulses, vegetables, eggs and occasionally meat. They also gave us warm clothes and medicine. They have said that this will continue until my husband earns enough for us. We feel safe here than anywhere else,” says Momena Akhtar, busy cooking on a earthen stove while holding her baby girl in one hand.
Momena arrived in Kulari via Bangladesh last month with her husband Mohammed Sahidul Islam, mother-in-law Amina Begum, brother-in-law Mohammed Anwar, and her three children, Saiful, 6, Tahidul, 3, and little Rumana.
“We have also made arrangements for their children to go to local madrasas and their youths to get jobs. Some have already started working as labourers. The young ones will also work as interns in various leather factories here,” says Gaji, claiming that he has spent nearly Rs 3.5 lakh on the eight Rohingya families, with help “pouring in every day”.
According to Gaji, his organisation coordinated with “people in Bangladesh”, where he had visited once, and other Rohingyas in Delhi to get these families to Kulari.
“There is no government aid, but we have spoken to various MLAs who have extended moral support. Also, I sent a list of refugees here to the SP of South 24-Parganas district, and policemen came here to enquire once. I told them we are saving people,” says Gaji.
When contacted, Arijit Sinha, SP, Baruipur police district, said, “We are aware of the colony. We checked them and found that the adults have refugee cards from UNHCR. We have also found out that they have been to Haryana and Delhi before settling here. We have written to UNHCR for further clarification and are waiting for their response. We have also informed the state government.”
Gazi says the welfare organisations will now seek an appointment with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. “She is sympathetic to the cause of the Rohingya and has said that they will not be driven out. A number of Muslim and human rights organisations in Bengal have joined hands. Soon, we will start a campaign for granting citizenship to Rohingya refugees,” he says.
Inside the colony, meanwhile, residents recall the pain of their journey from Myanmar to Bengal, and separation from family and friends.
“I have no news of my father and brother. We lost touch when we set out for Bangladesh on different boats. Can you please find them? Here, we are trying for a fresh start. I am working as a daily wage labourer. If we go back to Myanmar, we fear we will be killed,” says Momena’s husband Sahidul Islam.
The 27-year-old says he is a resident of Segompara in Myanmar’s Bushida area, and that his family was forced to leave due to atrocities committed on Rohingya in the area.”I worked as a daily labourer in Bangladesh before paying a tout some money to helped us enter Bengal. Then, we went to Delhi. A few months later, we were offered this home by this organisation and we came here to stay,” said Sahidul.
Another refugee, Jubaida, 55, says she got separated from almost her entire family, except one daughter. “I have lost contact with my husband Mohammed Hussan and daughters Manira and Hazara. Only Rahima, another daughters of mine, was able to come to India with me. She is now married and staying in Delhi,” says Jubaida.
It’s not just organisations like Desh Bachao Samajik Committee, Bangiya Imam Parishad, Biswa Manab Kalyan Islamic Trust, Bandi Mukti Committee and All Bengal Minority Youth Federation who lining up to help the Rohingya. Many local residents are ready to help, too.
“The children suffer from cold and fever. They are new here and many of them are falling ill. I give them medicines. This is for a noble cause,” says Maulana Masikur Rehman, imam of Uttar Sahapur Masjid-e-Alibakar, who is also the local pharmacist.
“Some children have started to come to our madrasa. I hope others will do so, too. I take special care of them,” says Hafizul Rehman, a teacher at the local madrasa.