Jehangir Eslah died in Delhi
on the 20th
June 2007, celebrated each year as World Refugee Day to commemorate millions that have been displaced by conflict and persecution. Had he been alive he would probably have helped organise the yearly function held by the UNHCR and its partner agencies, just like he did last year-organizing a traditional dance from his native Iran
. He had come to India
with his family in 2001, fleeing arrest and persecution. Friends and family describe him as a simple, humble and god-fearing man who was generous and hopeful of his future, despite the limited means and many setbacks that he faced.
Nobody spared thought for Jehangir that morning. Lofty thoughts and self-congratulations were on the agenda of all refugee protection agencies in the city. Jehangirs family mourned alone, not only shattered by Jehangir’s death but financially broken by the high hospital costs. Jehangir had been hospitalised for 10 days, in a critical condition. The family, not having the means to afford the treatment- requested, appealed, begged to the UNHCR for some financial help. Only to be rudely told off each time.
Jehangir was alone with his wife in his two-room house in Bhogal on 10th June, when he suffered a massive heart attack. His wife who could only speak Farsi rushed him the Dr. Gupta, the only Farsi speaking doctor in the neighbourhood. Dr. Gupta, seeing that Jehangir’s critical condition, himself hailed an auto-rickshaw and advised Mrs. Eslah to take him to National Heart Institute (NHI), in East of kailash, the nearest specialist hospital for heart patients for further diagnosis.
On reaching NHI the doctors’ present confirmed that Jehangir’s situation was critical and they needed a deposit of 10,000 rs before they could begin treatment. Distraught and unable to communicate with the doctors, Mrs Eslah called an Ali, an Iranian interpreter whom she knew, for help. Not having the means to pay the deposit, they decided to approach the UNHCR, confident that they would receive some sort of help from the internationally funded agency dedicated to refugee protection and welfare.
After trying several times to reach them by phone, they finally went to the UNHCR office in Jor Bagh. The officers that met them informed them that the UNHCR only paid for treatment of refugees in AIIMS, and since Jehangir was admitted in a private hospital they could do nothing to help them. It was a matter of policy. The Eslahs were forced to borrow money for the deposit from their friends, mostly refugees themselves.
When Jehangir’s condition improved a little the next day, the hospital demanded 15,000 rs for an angiography, to determine further course of treatment. They decided to approach the UNHCR again, this time with a letter from the hospital saying that Jehangir was in no condition for a transfer.
Once again the UNHCR dismissed their pleas for aid. “They were rude and dismissive and told me that if they paid for one refugee then they all the rest would also ask them for money. I was shocked by their attitude. It was as if we were asking money for treatment of a common cold.” Mrs. Eslah, seeing that the situation was hopeless fainted. She was rushed to AIIMS where she was diagnosed with trauma resulting from shock.
On Tuesday, 12th June Jehangir got a stroke and was admitted to VIMHANS by midnight. The family kept pleading, to no avail, for money and logistical help. At one point the administrative staff at VIMHANS approached the UNHCR with the offer to pay costs equivalent to a government hospital, but were rudely told that the UNHCR would not be able to provide more than 4000-5000 rs for treatment.
The UNHCR, when asked how they helped the family in the course of their crisis, said in a statement that they were in constant touch with the family and hospitals and were monitoring the situation carefully. They also insisted that all medical bills had been cleared by them and that they had “reimbursed the family fully to the extent that the treatment would have cost in AIIMS”. The Eslahs refute this claim, maintaining that not a single rupee has been paid by the UNHCR so far. They have spent around 1.5 lakh rupee for the hospital bills, most of which was sent by Jehangir’s mother and brothers, themselves refugees in Canada, who borrowed it from their acquaintances. The only money that the Eslahs have received from the refugee protection agencies so far is 7000rs, given to them on the day of Jehangirs death by a YMCA worker, one of the partner agencies of the UNHCR, saying that it was a “gift” from their agency. When contacted by Ali the next day, on behalf of the family, the YMCA clarified that this money was meant as a goodwill gesture from them and that the UNHCR would deal with the payment of hospital bills.
The Eslahs claim that no UNHCR official visited them during the time that Jehangir was hospitalized, or after his death. Twice representatives of YMCA visited the hospital, when they enquired with the doctors about Jehangir’s condition. Their visits barely lasted 15 minutes each time, with no reassurances or promise of help to the family.
The Eslahs paid two lakh rupees to be shipped to India aboard a trading vessel. “We had hopes of freedom and happiness when we arrived here. But life has been horrible here, thanks to the UNHCR”, says Mrs Eslah. In the 7 years that the Eslahs have been here, they received regular subsistence allowance only for the past three. Their applications for resettlement have been refused 6 times. Their children, a boy(16) and a girl(22) ,don’t know how to read or write. Their only hope is that they be resettled to Canada, which the UNHCR says has been fast-tracked owing to the vulnerability of the family after Jehangir’s death.
On the day of Jehangir’s death the Eslahs contacted the YMCA for help in organizing a funeral service in a church. They were again told that nothing could be done; they were busy organizing a party to mark World Refugee Day. The irony is hard to miss.
Harder to understand is the aloof, bureaucratic and insensitive attitude of the UNHCR that has left this family embittered is testimony to the organizations apathy in dealing with refugees. UNHCR needs to ask itself some tough questions, and the first should be how much are they dedicated to humanitarian work. For nothing done is ever enough to save a life, and the UNHCR could easily have done more.