New Delhi: When the foreign attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat event organised at Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz in March were vilified throughout the pandemic-effected lockdown in 2020 as ‘super spreaders’ of the novel coronavirus, referred to variously by a section of the Indian media as “warriors of COVID-19” (ABP News Hindi),“suicide bombers” and “corona jihadis” (Zee News), and “Corona Bombs” (India TV), Somali and Ethiopian refugees in Delhi suffered just as badly, afraid of being accused of being jamaatis by a volatile section of society.
Even now, although a Delhi court acquitted the 36 foreign attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat on December 15, 2020, and other courts around the country have done the same, the Somali and Ethiopian refugees, many of whom live in Delhi’s Khirki Extension, Malviya Nagar, Bhogal, Jungpura and Wazirpur areas, remain wary.
“During the month of March, it wasn’t just COVID-19 keeping us inside; we were scared of being linked with the Tablighi preachers,” said Khadra, a 42-year-old refugee from Somalia. Her daughter, 17-year-old Amira, added: “For weeks we did not step out. We made do with whatever leftovers we had at home.”
‘They were killing their own kind’
Khadra and her twin daughters, Amira and Samira, currently live in a shared apartment with two other Somali refugee families in a crowded South Delhi neighbourhood. When civil war tore their country apart, they fled to India in 2014, arriving in Delhi with the hope of living a life free of bloodshed, Amira told The Wire.
But between the racist nature of many Indians, the Delhi riots in February 2020 and the vilification of the jamaatis in March the same year, Khadra and her family have not had the kind of peace they sought.
“In our six years in Delhi, we have been called names due to our race. Now our religion has increased our vulnerability,” said Khadra. The fear of being linked with the ‘super-spreaders’ stopped her from leaving her home in March to obtain her rations from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) centres, which added food insecurity to her fear of racism and her diffidence as a Muslim refugee in India.
Mustaf Abdullahi Ahmed, a 29-year-old refugee from Somalia, was also terrified during the Tablighi Jamaat row. A member of a minority community called Banadiri Bandabow Bahar Sufi, which is often the target of rape, torture, abduction and murder in Somalia, Mustaf escaped Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city, in late 2007 after his house was captured by a majority militia clan called Habar Gidir and his father murdered. During his stay at a displacement camp near Mogadishu in early 2007, Mustaf, like many other young men, was abducted by Al Shabaab, an extremist organisation, but finally made it to India in late 2007. In 2012 in Mysore, when he resisted the racist taunts and jabs of a crowd of men, he was beaten with a cricket bat with such intensity that he needed maxillofacial surgery to reconstruct his face.
“We locked ourselves up and limited our movements even though I live in a neighbourhood where people know me,” said Mustaf. “The Delhi riots had already made us insecure. We thought: when people are killing their own kind, why would they spare foreign Muslims?”
‘We should go to Yemen’
Ethiopian refugee Hanan Ali, who arrived in India in 2014 with her family, remembers being subject to racist taunts as a student at a government-run school in Delhi, not only instigated by her classmates but also her teachers. When she was in class VI, a teacher asked her, ‘What will you achieve by studying?’, so Hanan left the school and joined the National Institute of Open Schooling instead. Already fearful of racist behaviour, the Tablighi Jamaat incident added to her fears.
“This piece of cloth [her hijab] has suddenly become problematic for us,” Hanan said. “I had never felt conscious of it, but now the stares we receive are full of unspoken taunts that not only involve our race, but also our religion.”
Hanan’s younger sisters and her mother, Amina, have serious health issues. But they delayed refilling their medical prescriptions in March 2020 when they saw the news media portraying the maulvis as COVID-19 super-spreaders. Amina had already lost her home and husband to communal hatred in Ethiopia. She did not want to lose her family to the same thing again.
Nineteen-year-old Farhiya Ibrahim’s family has been in Delhi since 2015. They escaped Somalia in 2011 to seek refuge in Yemen, where they lost their father and brother amid the crises in Aden and eventually left for India. The Ibrahims had just begun to feel at home after the years of bloodshed and trauma that forced them to move from place to place, when the riots in Delhi and the Jamaat incident set them trembling again.
“We were really afraid during the riots and when they ended we thought things would get better in some time,” said Farhiya. “But with the Tablighi Jamaat, the hatred only escalated. Imagine! My mother wanted to go back to Yemen!”
Somalia has been ravaged by civil war and is still a place of so much conflict that it topped the list of failed states in the Fragile State Index (2020).
UNHCR figures reveal that India hosted 41,000 refugees and asylum seekers from countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Somalia in 2019.