Author: Visalaakshi Annamalai | currently working with UNHCR in India
The pandemic has kept us all socially distant from so many things that were once ‘normal’, wreaking havoc in many of our lives. But, have we ever taken a moment and wondered how life is for some of the most persecuted communities in the world? What was (or is) normal to them? This piece explores how the pandemic’s disruption of our “ordinary” lives serves to highlight the different conditions of normalcy for those living in the face of war and conflict. The Afghan Sikh community is one such community that has been persecuted for years in Afghanistan, amidst the general worsening security situation. Their numbers have been continuously on the decline, leaving just 700 people in what was once a thriving community of 250,000. This is due to migration as a result of the ongoing insurgency and religious persecution in the devoutly Islamic Country that considers them as outsiders.
A peek into many of their lives in Afghanistan leads us to imagine life within marked compounds with restricted freedom of movement, both by choice and compulsion—to avoid being targeted. As someone working with refugees and screening them for refugee status, I have come across women who have said that they never leave their premises unless it is a celebration in the Gurudwara (mostly near their houses). They do not venture out even for essential grocery shopping. These women have also never been to schools and have stayed indoors and learnt their language and culture from family and the surrounding community. Most of these women do not know the world beyond the street where they live. In addition to these challenges, they also face a bigger list of problems, including different forms of harassment in society. One other consideration is how all of this persecution plays into the lack of economic opportunities and raises subsequent questions of survival. Finding work and making a living has become difficult for them in their homeland, and remain an issue of concern in the country of refuge.
Children who have now left Afghanistan and have sought refuge elsewhere go to schools and study. However, most of them never went to schools in Afghanistan. The reasons cited were that the general security situation was terrible. Secondly, the children were being targeted and bullied for being Sikhs by children from majority communities. Some women had lost family in the many attacks against the Sikh community in Afghanistan and were forced to leave the country as they were left without support. These women, and their children, who have not seen life beyond their street and the confines of their homes, have now left their country to reach another in search of a life that they probably never thought of so long as their family was supporting them. But the world has turned upside down for them in the blink of an eye. They are left fending for themselves and their children in an unknown land as they seek refuge.
Many of these women and children do not understand what it is to have different freedoms and live freely in the way we perceive is normal in relatively safe countries. To them, life was the way they lived, and some continue to live in such circumstances. The idea of this reflection was to bring out how life in a certain part of the same world can be different from ours, making us think of the unimaginable and keep our hearts and minds open to their circumstances. For Afghan Sikhs, Afghanistan remains their home, and who wouldn’t want to hope to go back home?
When winter comes, can spring be far behind? (Shelley, 1820)