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Mix of hope, despair for Sikhs from Afghanistan

By: Mohammad Ibrar/ TOI
It all started when customers loyal for many years stopped buying from Raghubir Singh’s ration shop in Ghazni in Afghanistan. The Afghans avoided the shop for fear of reprisals from the extremist groups that frowned on doing business with the country’s Sikh community.
“Life was under constant threat because these groups harassed us for protection money. When living in this fashion no longer looked feasible, we decided to leave Afghanistan for good,” says Raghubir.
But leaving your home bag and baggage is not an easy decision to make, and Raghubir agonized until the “oppression became too common”. The 30-year-old shuttered his shop and reached India earlier this month, part of a 400-strong contingent of emigres.
The distressed refugees have found some hope at a facilitation center in Tilak Nagar run by an international organization called United Sikhs. The emotionally worn-out Afghan Indians, men and women, come daily with requests for employment and for free medical treatment. Masks on, they wait for counselling and support from the organisation on which they have pinned all hopes of a new life in India.
From the moment he landed in Delhi, Raghubir was crushed by his son, Mansimran, suffering from pneumonia. At United Sikhs, he used his limited Hindi to communicate with the counsellors and was relieved when the two-year-old boy was admitted to a private hospital by the organization.
Raghubir, who had visited India once before four years ago, is happier when he tells TOI, “We are hardworking people. We know we are in a precarious situation at the moment, but we are ready to toil earnestly if given a job.” Raghubir hopes to find employment soon because he has a family of 11 to feed.
Parvinder Singh Nanda, director, United Sikhs, is contented at being able to provide solutions for the refugees, from finding them jobs and providing medical care to procuring their government documents or getting their visas extended. “We are also the bridge between them and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I worked with the UN for 30 years and have many contacts, which is helpful in this situation,” says Nanda.
After reaching Delhi on July 11, Gurjeet Singh, 30, has been a regular visitor at the centre. “When my father was killed in a gurudwara bomb blast in Kabul, our family decided that was it,” narrates Gurjeet. “Leaving was difficult, but we had to do it for the safety of our women and children.”
Gurjeet’s 7-year-old son has a piece of shrapnel lodged in his eyes. “Despite being an ayurvedic medical practitioner for 25 years, there was nothing I could do for my son,” rues Gurjeet, who now hopes to find a job similar to what he did back in Kabul — selling ayurvedic medicine. Many Afghan Sikhs who came to Delhi earlier now live in gurdwaras and receive rations, stipends for basic household items and rent assistance. Ujaagar Singh came to India in 2018. A father of five, he left his Kabul home after terrorists attacked the city’s gurdwara. “The extremists forced us to wear yellow and our women, the burkha,” he recalls. “Things improved some years ago only to deteriorate.”
But coming to India hasn’t solved Ujaagar’s problems. “Even after two years, we have neither our Aadhaar cards nor Pan cards. Every six months, we have to get our visa extended, with a local guarantor for our stay,” he says. This biannual time always fills him with dread. But the 32-year-old’s has other woes. Ujaagar, who prides himself for knowing better Hindi than most Afghan Sikhs, was working as a translator at a private hospital in Lajpat Nagar when he lost his job due to the Covid lockdown. “Many Afghans come to the hospital, so they were looking for someone who could translate from Pastho and Dari. Things had begun to look good in India until the lockdown rendered me jobless,” he says with a sad shrug. Amid anxieties about their future, a daily worry is the food, unused as the refugees are to Delhi’s spicy cuisine. “We were lucky to discover a tandoor near our new home from where we get Afghani bread,” says Sudeep Singh brightly. Having left a bitter past behind, he is looking forward to better times ahead with local support.

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