Print Edition - 2014-07-19  |  On Saturday

A Refugee’s Ramadan

  • For Rohingya Muslims here, Ramadan allows for an occasion to deepen ties with Nepali Muslims. But it also reminds them of missing families they’re unable to locate
- Sabrina Toppa
A Refugee’s Ramadan

Jul 18, 2014-

At sunset, a group of men sit on the open roof of a Kapan apartment building, dishing rice and meat onto paper plates. It’s Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, and most of Nepal’s Burmese refugees are gathered here for the nightly feast marking the end of the daily fast.

According to the UNHCR, Nepal hosts approximately 90 Burmese refugees, the majority of whom left Myanmar’s Rakhine state during violent anti-Muslim rioting that started in 2012. The first Rohingya refugee arrived in Nepal 2 years ago. Today, one or two refugees arrive each week. Crossing by boat from Myanmar to Bangladesh, Rohingyas take a bus journey onwards from India to Nepal.  

Many are looking for their missing relatives, who are rumored to have fled to neighboring states. The refugees, originating from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, are forced to abandon their place due to an ongoing campaign of ethnic persecution, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

For 25-year-old Tausif Khan (whose real name has been changed), the convivial spirit of Ramadan creates a celebration of Islamic piety and brotherhood. He says the Ramadan season presents an opportunity to strengthen bonds with Nepal’s Muslim community, a minority group comprising 4% of the population.

On Fridays, Khan takes public transport to Kathmandu’s mosques, socialises with other Muslims, and expresses gratitude for living here. By creating links with Nepalis, he feels a sense of membership in the wider society.

But most Rohingyas remain isolated, thanks to geographic and economic obstacles. They are viewed as illegal migrants by the Nepali government and are barred from working. Unlike Nepal’s Bhutanese refugees, who live in camps, the Rohingya live in rented apartments as “urban refugees.”

 In the Kathmandu valley, there are approximately 500 urban refugees originating from countries like Pakistan, Myanmar, and Somalia. Despite holding UNHCR refugee status, urban refugees are not recognised by the Nepali government. Like India and Bangladesh, Nepal is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. In practice, this means Rohingyas in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal are vulnerable to summary eviction without notice.

And because Rohingyas cannot work, there is a pervasive feeling of boredom among the men.

“I’m so idle during the day,” one man explains.“Sometimes Ramadan is very difficult. I do not have my family. I cannot work. I feel like I cannot do anything and I am stuck.”

The bulk of refugees live in cheap rental accommodation scattered outside the city, often sharing small rooms in dilapidated buildings to offset costs. Because they are new arrivals, most Rohingyas lack meaningful social support systems outside their own community.

One Rohingya man–his face lethargic from the fast–looks at me and says, “I just have a simple question. Why aren’t we allowed to have a right to our own life-to work, to provide for ourselves? Everywhere we go, we are followed by suffering.”

Although the UNHCR provides subsistence allowances to help Burmese refugees make ends meet in the capital, the funds barely cover the cost of survival. A single refugee receives Rs 5,750 per month. A family of four receives approximately Rs 14,000. Each school-going child receives a Rs 10,000 educational allowance.

These allowances are supplemented by the benefaction of Nepal’s Muslim community. During Ramadan, some Nepali Muslims have stepped in to donate packages of rice and meat, and the most munificent contribute half of a refugee’s rental fees. Zakat, or the Islamic injunction for charity, is highest during Ramadan, when Muslims are asked to perform charitable acts.

Despite the assistance from Nepal’s Muslim community, Ramadan in Nepal remains a far cry from Ramadan in Myanmar. For one thing, Ramadan’s emphasis on communal meals–often shared with close kin–is a stark reminder of the missing families most refugees still cannot locate.

The majority of Rohingyas in Nepal are single males unaccompanied by their families. Although they left Myanmar to escape persecution, almost all are on a mission to locate lost loved ones–mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters who’ve simply disappeared.

Part of the difficulty Rohingya refugees face is the sheer lack of photographic documentation of relatives. When they share stories with rights groups, they rely on memory to paint in the details.

And most don’t believe their loved ones are in Nepal, otherwise they would’ve located them by now. But holding UNHCR papers, they are unable to leave Nepal, as the UNHCR cannot guarantee their safety if they return to Myanmar.

“Ramadan is a hard month for me,” another Rohingya refugee admits, “because it just brings alive memories I have of the last few Ramadans with my family.” He spent the last year jumping from Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and Nepal searching for any clues of his missing relatives.

“Nepal is a peaceful country,” he says, “But it’s not my country.”

Then there are the small food adjustments the refugees face during Ramadan in Nepal. For example, the freshwater fish Rohingya refugees usually open their fasts with has been replaced by chicken or mutton. And many of the Rohingya express nostalgia for the fresh fruits and vegetables they’ve left behind.

But for all the refugees at the Iftar, they admit that Nepal represents a far safer place to live. It is a country where, for a short while at least, they can leave behind the turmoil.

 “If the stomach is peaceful, the whole world is peaceful,” one Rohingya man says, tucking into a large plate of mutton.

Published: 19-07-2014 07:37

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