human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Shamim’s story #whatishome

“A place that belongs to you, which is yours”, this is what home means to Shamim. Born as a refugee, without nationality, he is part of the minority of the Biharis – also called the forgotten Pakistanis. Discover through his testimony why having a place he can call home is so dear to him.

Shamim (name changed by editors), 32 years old, Bangladesh

“My name is Shamim. I was born in 1986 in a refugee camp in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. My parents belonged to a minority called the Biharis – the forgotten Pakistanis. I was born a refugee and I do not have a nationality. In the refugee camp, the conditions were tough. Food rations were extremely limited (500 grams of rice for a month) and most importantly we were entitled to nothing. No work permit. No access to school or hospital.

Leaving Bangladesh

My mother died when I was 5 years old. At the age of 10, my father became ill. He died because of lack of health care. To get out, I sold cigarettes piece by piece until I was 20 years old. Without an ID card, you cannot find a ‘real’ job.

I did not want to live like this. As nobody wanted me – neither Bangladesh, nor Pakistan, nor India – I decided to leave.

I saved money and took a small boat from Chittagong (South-East of Bangladesh). I did not know its destination. With between 50 and 70 people on board, we sailed for five days to Karachi (Southern Pakistan).

A car then came to pick us up. They locked us in a house for 11 hours, with no light. When they came back, they pointed at 7 people, without speaking. I was one of them.

We then crossed the mountains. I learned then that we were in another country, which is called Iran. Then Turkey. There, I was told to get on the roof of a truck. After a failed attempt, I managed. For two days, I stayed lying on the roof. I went down just before a checkpoint.

No idea where I was. Not even in which country. I hid myself until I heard someone speaking Urdu. She helped me while asking me to take a bath because I apparently smelled bad… I was in Belgium. A country I had never heard of. Of course, now everyone knows it thanks to football.

Asylum request in Belgium

This person explained to me that she was going to take me to a refugee camp. I was very disappointed because that was the reason I left Bangladesh. She took me to the CGRA (General Commissariat for Refugees and Stateless Persons) where I applied for asylum. I stayed at the Petit Château during the procedure.

Then I learned that my asylum application was rejected. I never really understood why – because I have trouble understanding the papers. Maybe it’s because they thought I was Bangladeshi? Or because I did not know how to prove my identity?

I then had to leave the Petit Château. However, I stayed in Belgium. For 8 years. Until I got caught by the police on Chaussée de Waterloo. They took me to a closed centre in Wallonia. I stayed there for a month and found a new lawyer.

No deportation possible because no country of origin

During our discussions, I explained to my lawyer that it did not bother me to go back to Bangladesh but that I just wanted an identity card. However, after a visit to the Bangladeshi Embassy, I was told that nothing should be expected of them. This meant that I could not be deported because I do not have a country.

This is where I heard the word “stateless” for the first time.

One day, people from the closed centre came to my room, explaining that I had 30 minutes to leave. Glad to hear that I was free, I asked them if they could wait for me to arrange my return to Brussels. They refused, put my stuff in a bag and asked me to leave.

Without money, nor means to contact my acquaintances, I was stuck. The centre is in a place with nothing – no bus or shops. For two days, I waited at the entrance of the centre. From time to time, I saw the employees come out and smoke their cigarettes. Finally, someone gave me 10 euros. I was really grateful; I had never needed money more than that day. I asked the person to have his contact in order to be able to repay him later, he refused.

Procedure for stateless person in progress

Arrival in Brussels. I was welcomed in one of the Jesuit Refugee Service’s accommodations in Anderlecht. My procedure for statelessness has started.

Since then, I started working for an old gentleman of Moroccan origin to survive. He has a grocery store. My job is to watch from the other side of the street that nobody steals anything. Nice, no? As I am moonlighting, the gentleman – very nice by the way – is afraid for me to be inside the shop. At least I earn a little money – 400 euros a month – and I improve my French. [Editor’s note: Shamim speaks Urdu, Bengali, English and French despite never having been to school.]

Today, I am waiting for the judge’s response regarding my request for a stateless person. I should have the answer within 6 months. In the meantime, I have to urgently find another home because my contract expires on August 21st. I mostly need something for the short term, about 5 months, because I should have my status that will allow me to work.”

Background:

In 1971, Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan. With this partition, the minority speaking the Urdu language – mainly the Biharis – finds itself in a situation of political blockage. The Bangladeshi government rejects them for linguistic and political reasons. Pakistan accepts the arrival of 270,000 Biharis but puts an end to this policy by calling Bangladesh to assume its responsibilities.

The consequences of the political stalemate between Bangladesh and Pakistan are serious. Since 1971, there have been nearly 300,000 stateless people. They live in refugee camps in Bangladesh without access to education, work or health. In 2008, the Bangladesh Court of Justice recognized for the first time the legal existence of the Biharis. But the implementation of this judicial decision is limited.

This story has originally been published by Caritas International Belgium