None would believe Mohammed Yusuf and Abdul Shakoor are rag pickers. They are among 94 Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar living near here after fleeing their homeland in 2012 amid deadly sectarian violence that had displaced tens of thousands of their community members. Neatly dressed and, clean shaven, the duo present a picture of contrast to the squalor all around their dwelling unit, a ramshackle government-run cyclone shelter at Kelambakkam on the city outskirts. The refugees belong to 19 families comprising 47 children, 25 women and 22 men.
Thankful to the government for providing them shelter, the refugees, many of whom are doing odd jobs including rag picking for livelihood, are looking for better accommodation and gainful employment.
Besides, the men folk say they could get job as truck drivers if the government granted them driving licence. The refugees live in a ground plus one shelter known as ’round building’ locally indicating its circular shape.
They have apportioned the space in the shelter for each of the family by turning clothes as “walls,” albeit in a messy fashion with things strewn around with flies swarming everywhere. Each family has a traditional earthen kitchen on the open ground where they use twigs and fire wood.
While six families live on ground floor, eight are on the first floor and five have put up shacks on open ground around the building. Electricity bill is borne by the government and water is available too.
Mild-dark complexioned and several of them wheatish, one would believe they are local Tamils but for their distinctive language ‘Rohingya’,with a liberal mix of Urdu and Hindi. Yusuf recounts the pain of leaving their homeland when violence and rioting escalated in 2012.
“My sister was arrested and is still in jail there and several were dead in clashes and we decided to flee to Bangladesh, fearing for our lives,” he told PTI.
Recalling the arduous journey to Bangladesh by boat and from there to a West Bengal border hamlet, he says their group of 94 “moved on to Kolkatta, later boarded a train to Chennai.”
All along their journey, they had to give handsome money to ‘dalals, (brokers), he says. “We arrived in Tamil Nadu in 2012 and were roaming here and there, doing odd jobs,” he says,adding their “tryst with nomadic life” ended when police caught them by the end of 2014.
“Police and local officials brought us here. The only condition that was imposed on us was we should not associate ourselves with local politics or political parties,” he says.
Before they arrived at the cyclone shelter, they had stayed put at several neighbourhoods in coastal Kancheepuram like Tiruporur. Profusely thanking the government for giving them a ‘pucca building,’ Syed Alam, a butcher in a local meat outlet says we request the government to give us better accommodation, since this place has just two toilets and cramped.”
While Syed Alam is seconded by all others, Shakoor says several men have one more request, which is a driving licence. He says if they get a driving licence they could find employment as truck drivers, “a job which has good demand.”
On the requests of Rohingyas, a senior State government official told PTI that it may take some time to respond in view of norms involved in respect of refugees.
Interestingly, several of the menfolk were fishers back in Myanmar. Yusuf and Shakoor had to take to rag picking as they had little else to do when they arrived here. They and others do several odd jobs apart from rag picking.
Pointing to fish carts known locally as “meen body vandi” parked around the building, they say they ferry construction material, rubble or whatever ‘cargo,’ comes their way.
Located right on the arterial Vandalur-Kelambakkam Road, close to the Information Technology corridor on the OMR (Old Mahabalipuram Road), the shelter is bang opposite the local Government Primary Health Centre where the refugees go in case they were ill.
“If needed, the hospital sends the patients in ambulances to district hospital for better care, there is worry on the healthcare front,” Yusuf and others say.
On what vocation they had pursued while back in Myanmar, Yusuf says he used to do ‘trading of wares,’ while several were labourers, small traders, and others were fishermen.
Praising the local Tamils as a very helpful and caring lot, he says ‘we are also able to do Namaaz here properly unlike back home” and points to a makeshift hut abutting the shelter which is ‘our mosque.’ The local masjid and Muslims are lending a helping hand to them.
Hafiz Usman, a 23-year old youth is the ‘Maulvi,’ who teaches the Koran,besides Arabic and Urdu to the children. “He stays put in the shelter and also takes care of our children whenever needed. We pay him a honorarium plus grocery,” Shakoor says.
On communicating in the local language Usman says, “we are picking up words like Akka (sister), Anna (brother) and trying to learn Tamil.” Yusuf and others pitch in saying ‘our children who go to balwadi and local school are quite conversant in Tamil.” Womenfolk, too shy to talk and busy with daily chores thanked local officials and UNHCR for helping them get ‘Aadhar’ cards.
However, a section of them are yet to get Aadhar though they have registered seeking it. The refugees who hail from regions including Maungdan in Myanmar, have registered with the Foreigners’ Registration Office (Police Superintendent), in Kancheepuram and have a Residential Permit issued by the authorities.
M Ponnusamy, among a local ‘Anna (brother),’ who helps the refugees says they are good people who work hard to make a living. He said “some NGOs, and philanthropists are also helping them. Years ago there used to be Sri Lankan Tamils, now Rohingyas are here.”