Rohingya refugees sketch their stories through ‘grassroot comics’

The Muslim refugees in India can now document their life stories in a comic book, thanks to two Delhi-based non-profits.

Asmat Ullat, 12, putting helping to put up a poster of his comic “My Dream” [Tasnim Nazeer/Al Jazeera]
Asmat Ullat putting up a poster of his comic: 'My Dream' [Tasnim Nazeer/Al Jazeera]

New Delhi, India – Rohingya refugees in India can now document their life stories in a comic book, thanks to a collaborative effort by two non-government organisations based in the capital New Delhi.

The comic titled Rendered Stateless Not Voiceless was put together by World Comics India, a collective that promotes comics as a communication and empowerment tool for the marginalised section of society.

The idea was formed as a collaboration between the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (RHRI) and World Comics India, driven by the idea that a “comic book can be used as a medium to give a voice to the voiceless”.

The goal of this project was to help Rohingya refugees document their life stories back in Myanmar as well as their current struggle for survival in India

by Sharad Sharma, founder of World Comics India

“There are almost 70 stories narrated and sketched by participants themselves including myself. The idea is to create awareness of our life stories with first-hand stories shared by the participants,” Ali Johar, education coordinator at RHRI, told Al Jazeera.

“As most of the Rohingya refugees have no way of sharing their stories, the book gives them a platform to share them, as well as have ownership of their own stories in the book,” Johar, 25, told Al Jazeera.

Sanjida Begum pictured left putting up her poster of her comic “ We will return on our own” [Tasnim Nazeer/Al Jazeera]
Sanjida Begum pictured left putting up a poster of her comic: ‘We will return on our own’ [Tasnim Nazeer/Al Jazeera]

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 17,500 Rohingya registered as refugees in India. However, the real figure could be higher, with Indian media putting the figure at about 40,000.

Threat of deportation

India’s Hindu nationalist government, which views Muslim-majority Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” and a security threat, has pledged to deport them back to Myanmar where they faced persecution. New Delhi maintains good relations with Naypyidaw.

UN investigators said in September 2019 that Rohingya remaining in Myanmar faced “serious risk of genocide”.

Johar, a Rohingya Muslim himself, stays with his family in Kalindi Kunj with other refugees after fleeing Myanmar in August 2012, and now helps refugees at the camp sketch their life stories into comics.

“Here in India we have refugees who have no rights but one thing that people cannot deny is our education and our ability to learn,” Johar further said.

Johar says two days of training and guidance is all that is required for people to begin sketching. The two organisations are also planning to implement the initiative at India level and train young Rohingya refugees to “create grassroot comics,” he said.

Rabi Alam, 14 pictured left, Rohingya participants reading storyboards of their comics [Tasnim Nazeer/Al Jazeera]
Rabi Alam, 14, pictured left. Rohingya participants reading storyboards of their comics [Tasnim Nazeer/Al Jazeera]

The initiative was launched last month at a settlement of Rohingya refugees in Kalindi Kunj, south of India’s capital.

The Kalindi Kunj camp, which was set up by a non-government organisation in 2012, currently houses approximately 226 Rohingya refugees who have fled persecution from Myanmar.

More than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, fled Myanmar in a bid to escape a brutal military campaign launched in August 2017. The UN has documented the killings, mass rapes, brutal beatings, arson and disappearances committed by Myanmar forces during the assault.

The UN and rights organisations have accused Myanmar of “ethnically cleansing” Rohingya from northern Rakhine state. In total, 1.2 million Rohingya have been forced to seek shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh.

‘Feel empowered now’

Many Rohingya refugees live in crowded settlements with limited access to basic human needs such as safe water, shelter, electricity and hygienic facilities.

“I had no interest in drawing before attending the two-day comic session but then I was able to narrate my story of how me and my family had to flee Myanmar. I now feel empowered now that I have found a way to share my stories through comics,” Rabi Alom, 14, told Al Jazeera.

Rohingya refugees both young and old get the chance to see their comics printed out in the book and get a poster of them holding it. These posters can be seen displayed on tents in the Kalindi Kunj camp in New Delhi.

“The goal of this project was to help Rohingya refugees document their life stories back in Myanmar as well as their current struggle for survival in India,” Sharad Sharma, founder of World Comics India, told Al Jazeera.

“Although a good number of media reports have been published on their living conditions in India, there are no instances when they themselves were provided with an opportunity to express their concerns.”

Sharma further said: “Telling your life story to others no doubt is a healing process by itself, but what makes this process more interesting is when the same thing is done with the help of a medium like grassroots comics.”

The initiative has given a rare opportunity for Rohingya to express their thoughts through art.

“I love drawing now that I have learned how to create a comic, I feel I can tell any story. I am now able to share my dreams with the world,” Asmat Ullah, 12, told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera