A picture paints a thousand words: Rohingya children brush away their fears in new home Kashmir

Rohingya refugees brush away their fears in new home Kashmir
8 min read
05 August, 2022
The continual flight of Rohingya from state-sponsored persecution in Myanmar has led to untold trauma and distress. However, for Rohingya children now based in Kashmir, painting has become a new vital means to recount their stories of suffering.

In one of the largest makeshift shelters for Rohingya in the Kiryana Talab area of Jammu and Kashmir, 10-year-old Parveena Bibi often asks for her parents.

There are many children like Parveena who live an uncertain life in these temporary shelters in the region, many of them separated from their parents.

Some of these children have started drawing in recent months depicting their disrupted lives through art, painting their desires to live a normal life surrounded by their loved ones.

"According to figures by the Development and Justice Initiative (DAJI), a non-governmental organisation that works with the UNHCR, an estimated 10,000 Rohingya refugees live in India. Of that figure, more than 6,000 Rohingya refugees reside in the 39 refugee camps of Jammu"

Parveena says she likes to draw on a piece of paper whenever she misses her parents the most. It helps make her feel somewhat better.

“Acha lagta hai (It feels good to draw),” she says in a cryptic, broken Urdu language.

Similarly, 12-year-old Shafeeqa – whose mother and father have been held in a detention centre since last year – finds solace in drawing sketches of flowers and her house. It depicts happier times.

“I miss my parents and I feel less anxious when I’m drawing,” she says. “It makes me feel better.”

Painting provides a welcome source of creative refuge for Rohingya children [photo credit: Mubashir Naik]
Painting provides a welcome source of creative refuge for Rohingya children [photo credit: Mubashir Naik]

Over the years, thousands of Rohingya Muslims have faced persecution in Myanmar which has forced them to flee. Many have now settled in India. 

Whilst most Rohingya took shelter in Bangladesh, thousands of Rohingya refugees crossed over to India and settled in temporary shelters in different states including in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir region, which has been recently downgraded into a federally governed territory after the ruling BJP government unilaterally revoked the autonomous status of the region on August 5, 2019.

India has received Rohingya refugees from Myanmar since 2008, a figure which intensified in 2012 when anti-Rohingya persecution increased in neighbouring Myanmar.

According to figures by the Development and Justice Initiative (DAJI), a non-governmental organisation that works with the UNHCR, an estimated 10,000 Rohingya refugees are in India. Of that figure, more than 6,000 Rohingya refugees live in 39 refugee camps located within the Jammu region.

Living through their paintbrush, Rohingya refugees can imagine a life free from torment [photo credit: Mubashir Naik]
Living through their paintbrush, Rohingya refugees can imagine a life free from torment [photo credit: Mubashir Naik]

Thousands of Rohingya refugees live in temporary shelters in the Kiryana Talab area of the Jammu region. However, refugees have started leaving the Jammu region after authorities detained more than 200 Rohingya refugees in “holding centres” last year for living there without official documentation.

The refugees were later sent to Hiranagar Jail in the Kathua district of Jammu, where they languish.  Many children of these Rohingya refugees were separated from their parents as a result.

According to the refugees at the camp, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, there are more than half a dozen families with around 50 children in Kiryani Talab camp whose parents have been detained in Hiranagar jail for months. Some of their parents have spent more than one year in Jail.

“Those kids of jailed refugees can only look through a small window to see their parent's faces, they can barely see anything,” said a Rohingya refugee at the camp. “The kids start crying when they can't see their parents. Parents inside the jail also start weeping when they see their children crying.”

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Over the years, the Jammu region has witnessed many protests led by Jammu-based right-wing leaders and groups demanding that the Rohingya refugees living in makeshift shanties in the city be deported to their country of origin. They’ve called the Rohingya refugees a “security threat” to the region and stoked fears of “demographic changes” as a result of their presence.

The makeshift shelters also lack proper facilities where they are exposed to heat waves during summers and water leakages in winters. The refugees also face water shortages at the camps. A single tap water connection installed in the Rohingya camp in Kiryana Talab merely gives one to two hours of water supply in 24 hours.

Ravi Nair, the head of the New Delhi-based South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC) which documents human rights violations in the region says that Rohingya refugees in the Jammu region are facing increased intimidation and expulsion.

“As Jammu is generally highly militarised due to the perceived threat of terrorism, a narrative is spun around Rohingya – who are overwhelmingly Muslim – being radicalised by Kashmiri separatists and Pakistani terrorists,” says Ravi.

“The Rohingyas are detained in Hiranagar sub-jail where their condition is terrible. They have little access to food and no access to education or health facilities,” he says.

What the children’s paintings depict

We were able to access several art sketches made by the children of Rohingya refugees shared by their present caretakers and relatives in the refugee camps.

One of the drawings made by a Rohingya child (Shahid) in the camp shows a person resting on the bed, his eyes open, as he looks at another figure in the shadows. Most likely unwell, the sick person is being looked after by another figure painted in blue.

“The kid who has made this sketch has a likely message that they are deprived of parental love and care which could make them feel protected and sleep peacefully,” says a sketch artist from the region who saw some of these sketches.

The artist, wishing not to be named, says the children are trying to speak about their unarticulated pain and suffering through their drawings and sketches, as they live a disrupted life in temporary shelters in unfamiliar surroundings.

“The sketches depict that these children long to stay with their families in a well-decorated home surrounded by plants and other things like other normal families,” the artist says.

Scrumbled up dreams of the future [photo credit: Mubashir Naik]
Scrumbled up dreams of the future [photo credit: Mubashir Naik]

Another drawing made by a Rohingya child at the camp shows the complete erasure of adults from their lives. These could be the siblings they used to play with or their friends who are no longer around as they have been displaced from their homes and familiar neighbourhoods.

Some of the sketches drawn by the Rohingya children in the camp show a common theme that runs across their art expressions – hearts, animals, flowers, plants, fruits, homes, and natural surroundings that are interrupted by gun-wielding men shown in some of their sketches.

The drawings also reflect the violence they and their families have encountered during their displacement from their home country.

Child psychologists say the sketches and artistic expressions of these Rohingya children show, in the midst of an uncertain life, their desire to live a normal and peaceful life with their parents and loved ones who can provide for them and fulfil their needs.

"Rohingya children draw things they desire as a coping mechanism to deal with their distress"

“These children are going through high-stress levels and trauma. They are expressing rage and internal aggression towards people responsible for their plight but at the same time, they are feeling hopeless in life. Their paintings point to shattered dreams and also a desire for a peaceful life,” says Muzzafar Ahmad Ganaii, a clinical psychologist trained in child and adolescent psychology.

Wasim Kakroo, a licensed clinical psychologist practising in the Kashmir region, says the Rohingya children draw things they desire as a coping mechanism to deal with the distress they’re going through in refugee camps which has been further worsened by the absence of their parents and elders held in detention centres.

“Such children should be encouraged to draw as it might help them vent their anxieties and fears,” the psychologist says.

Asif Mujtaba, a New Delhi-based research scholar and founder of Miles2Smile NGO has been working closely on the relief and rehabilitation of Rohingya refugees at Kanchan Kunj in states like New Delhi and at Ferozpur Namak in Nuh, Haryana, says in India Rohingya refugees are facing a severe existential crisis.

“These people perform poorly on almost all the indicators of health, education and economy,” Mujtaba says, adding that Rohingya refugees are also often subjected to a cycle of hate and violence, sometimes by the state and sometimes by the proxy right-wing Hindutva organisations who have been campaigning against their presence in India.

“Under these circumstances, the most affected group is the children,” he says.

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Working with Rohingya kids in the field of education is far more challenging, he adds. One of the main reasons is the lack of the usual family setup as for most of these kids, he says, a part of their family or relatives are either in Bangladesh or still in Myanmar.

“Sometimes either their father or mother is dead because of the violence. The trauma of losing their family is lifelong and painful. So getting these kids out of the trauma is a herculean task,” he points out.

“Co-curricular activities like painting, dancing, and sports activities can act as an important tool in at least getting their smiles back.”

Majid Maqbool is an award-winning journalist and writer based in Indian-administered Kashmir

Follow him on Twitter: @MaqboolMajid

Mubashir Naik is a freelance journalist and writer based in Indian-administered Kashmir

Follow him on Twitter: @sule_khaak