As the sun sets over the banks of the Yamuna, a group of men wearing white kurtas and skull caps gather near a tea-stall in Wazirabad to break their fast. They soon break into a song, and locals gather around to listen despite not knowing the language or the meaning behind the lyrics.
At tea-stalls, in homes and on the streets, these men, who are refugees from Somalia, play and sing local songs to keep alive memories of the country they left behind. Some of the songs are original compositions, says Mohammad Sharifi (31), one of the singers.
“Somalia is the land of poets. Almost every one is a singer in our country. It is in our blood. We sing about whatever we are doing. This legacy has been passed down from our ancestors, who would sing as they herded their camels. Now, we have to pass this to our children… Somalia gave us life. Wherever we will be, we will always be Somalis,” says Sharifi as he plays a song by Somali singer Aar Manta on his computer. Two-year-old Sudes, one of the youngest refugees in India, dances to the song.
Most of the refugees fled the country because of the war and came to India a few years ago. While they have no hope of returning to Somalia, their retain their identity through music. In Delhi, a small community of 80 Somalis live in Wazirabad. According to Shuchita Mehta of UNHCR, as many as 500 Somali refugees are registered with the organisation in India while 200 more are seeking asylum.
As India does not grant citizenship to refugees, Sharifi and others from his country face a constant struggle for money. Many of them have had to take up menial jobs or find work in BPOs. Some depend on money from family members who are living in other countries. Their stay in India is about surviving until another country takes them in as citizens.
“If I get citizenship… I will be a better person…. I can be a good friend and neighbour, a good citizen who contributes something meaningful to his country. If India grants us citizenship, we will take it,” says Mehmood (38), another refugee.
Mehmood has been in India since 2009, while Sharifi has been here since 2004. Many others have been stuck in this ‘transit’ zone for over a decade – a decade so long that they have learnt flawless Hindi.
“I did not have to take any Hindi classes. I picked it over the years from friends I made in the city,” says Sharifi.
Sharifi says learning the language has helped break down communication barriers and protects them from racial discrimination. “When we talk in Hindi, people warm up to us. It makes them more comfortable. In fact, children born here speak Hindi so well that their mothers do not even understand what they are saying,” he chuckles.
However, most of the refugees have lost hope of ever returning to their own country. “Things are too bad in our country. We stopped hoping a long time ago. Some of my friends who went back home were either executed or imprisoned,” says Mehmood.
Yet, they are not a community of hopeless people. Their songs are their hope. They remind themselves of their desire to live through singing. Whatever the future may hold for them and wherever they may end up, Somali refugees are keeping their war-torn country alive the Somali way — through songs.
(Shariq Khan is an intern with The Indian Express)