After saying ‘salaam’ to her mother in Bangladesh over the phone, Salima Akhter runs out of words. She wants to tell her about a picnic a few weeks ago, about watching Irrfan Khan’s Hindi Medium in a movie hall, and about Priyanka, Anamika and Nikita — the three friends she made in the last two years she spent at shelter homes in Moradabad and Lucknow.
Except, the 19-year-old doesn’t remember Rohingya, the only language her mother understands. In November 2015, while travelling from Kolkata to Delhi, Akhter got separated from her maternal aunt’s family of five when she got down at Moradabad railway station to get water. It was just a week ago, on January 5, that she was reunited with her aunts, uncles and cousins, and shifted to Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh.
“We had just reached India from Bangladesh and were on a train to Delhi… I didn’t know Hindi at all. I ran after the train a little, but missed it. Outside the station, there was a tempo, and I asked the driver to drop me at the next station. But he didn’t understand my language. He took me to the police for help, but they couldn’t understand me either… Eventually, they called someone in Kolkata and I explained it to the person in Bengali,” said Akhter, who is now fluent in Hindi.
Her first stop was a Rajkiya Mahila Sharanalaya in Moradabad, where she lived for a year and three months. The first few months were mostly spent crying, she said. “No one would talk to me and I couldn’t understand what they were saying either… they used hand gestures to communicate. I knew I had to learn Hindi,” said Akhter, who began attending language classes inside the shelter home.
She eventually made friends, and traded stories from her childhood spent in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Mornings were spent learning Hindi, the evenings sewing and knitting, and dinner was had over Hindi soap operas. “I remembered my mother’s number, so every time an official would visit, I would call her. But she didn’t know how to pass on that information to my aunt in India… She is uneducated, she only knew I was in a place called Moradabad,” said Akhter.
Inside the shanty in Shaheen Bagh, Akhter sat with her aunt Jannatara Begum (33) and cousins Liza Akhter (9) and Shaker (24).
“I didn’t know how to tell her mother that I had lost her. We didn’t know how to look for her… India is so big and intimidating, and we still struggle with Hindi,” said Begum, who has cooked mutton and fish every night since her niece returned.
In January last year, Akhter was moved to Rajkiya Bal Griha Balika in Lucknow, and the shelter’s superintendent Rita Tamta took it upon herself to reunite the girl with her family in Bangladesh. “I went to the foreigner registration office nearby, and it was there that I learnt she was not Bangladeshi, but a Rohingya. I didn’t even know what that was till the officer told me her family is from Myanmar and were living in Bangladesh. This was a rare case; we couldn’t send her back to Bangladesh and that was disappointing,” said Tamta.
Akhter didn’t get a chance to speak with her mother till December. In the meantime, the mother figured out how to share the girl’s Lucknow number with her sister in Delhi. Begum said, “When Salima and I finally spoke, we both cried… She was angry I didn’t look for her, but I told her I will come get her soon. This was mid-December, and she was home on January 5,” said Begum. Settling in at her Delhi home, Salima can’t wait to study Hindi again — a language she “never wants to forget”.