Nassem Jamal Mohammed is a quiet, well-mannered man living in a squalid neighbourhood of New Delhi who, unlike his neighbours, has a more international tale of misery.
The dark-haired, olive skinned 24-year-old is a Palestinian refugee who had the misfortune to be born in Baghdad, the city his parents chose as a sanctuary before war once again caught up with them.
“I ran away with my cousin 14 months ago to escape the bombings, grenade attacks and constant threats from the Shia groups now running out of control in Baghdad,” Nassem said in halting English. “It is chaos. I was scared for my life.”
Nassem was among about 1,000 Palestinian refugees living in Baghdad’s Baladiyat neighbourhood on the edge of Sadr City, now a radical Shiite stronghold.
He decided to flee when a Shiite “death squad” threatened him last March.
“They told me that as I was Sunni Palestinian who supported Saddam Hussein, that I should get out of Baghdad or they would kill me,” Nassem recalled, sitting on a worn mattress on the floor.
“I asked a man to arrange fake travel papers and crossed into Syria, got to Abu Dhabi and flew to India.”
The UN refugee agency said ahead of World Refugee Day on Wednesday that there had been a significant rise in the global refugee population to nearly 10 million by the end of last year. Violence in Iraq is the main driver behind this rise.
India may not be the first choice for asylum—but Ahmed, Nassem’s 26-year-old cousin, said there was little choice.
“Syria and Jordan were taking in Iraqi refugees but not us,” said Ahmed. “India has always been supportive of the Palestinian people.”
But life in one of Delhi’s poorest neighbourhoods is proving to be tough, with housing cramped, the water dirty and electricity sporadic. And the living conditions are not their only problem.
“In Baghdad, I used to go to college before the war started in 2003. Now all I do is sit in my flat or watch television. I have no friends, I don’t know the language here. I don’t see any future for myself,” Ahmed said.
It is a feeling shared by many of the other 100 or so Iraqi-Palestinians who have been trickling into India since last May.
Hassan Khamat, a 48-year-old who fled to Delhi two months ago, said his life was just chapter after chapter of fear and misery.
“Our parents were uprooted from Palestine in 1948 and settled in Baghdad thinking we would have a better future there,” he said.
“But the 2003 war changed all that. This war was not like the ones before,” he recalled, referring to Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran that ended in 1988, and the first Gulf War in 1991 over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
“The American invasion has destroyed Iraq. When Saddam Hussein was ruling Iraq, there was no Shia-Sunni divide. There were just Iraqis,” he said.
“Now the differences are out in the open—there are Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Americans.”
“We have lost everything a second time. We have no country, no nationality, no life, no future,” he added.
Khamat and others like him are listed with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Delhi and receive some financial help.
But “the Rs3,000 ($73) a month is too little,” said 47-year-old Basima Ageel, who lives in a tiny flat with her 14-year-old daughter Haneen.
“We have to pay for this rented flat and feed ourselves too. Haneen needs an education,” says Ageel.
She fled Baghdad after a car bomb shattered part of her home there last February.
“Life in Baghdad was good. We had peace, electricity, running water, our own house. But the war changed everything,” she said.
“We don’t have very many friends here. But I am happy with the security for me and my daughter.”