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Delhi has a sizeable Afghan community, both long-time residents and visitors who come seeking medical help. Shivam Saini gives a snapshot of the small but thriving economy that has grown to service them

very day, Ariana Afghan Airlines, raised a corps of 50 translators, called Afghan Safi Airways, Kam Air, SpiceJet Helpline, who receive the Afghan at the airport, and Air India bring as many as help him find accommodation, show him 650 Afghans to New Delhis Indira around, and also see him off. Since I had heard Gandhi International Airport that some translators were fleecing internafrom Kabul students, traders, asylum seektional patients, I decided to bring a few trusters, tourists and, most of all, patients looking ed interpreters under one umbrella and let for treatment that is not available in their counthem work after due identity checks, says he. try. Once the winter sets in, and the Delhi Tomar has priced his services too at ~500 a weather becomes more amenable to the day the same as a freelance tarjuman. If all Afghans, this number will rise to 2,000. Such is his translators are engaged, Tomars venture the rush for seats that flying to Kabul (it fetchcan yield ~25,000 a day, ~7.5 lakh a month and es ~9 per kilometre per seat) has become more ~90 lakh a year. But his agency has begun to hit profitable for airlines than flying to London, the freelancers mostly displaced Hindus Singapore or Dubai (~4 each). As a result, there and Sikhs. I often get intimidating calls from is a community of Afghans taking shape in some translators, who feel threatened by the Delhi, around which has sprung a small but transparency Im trying to bring into the busithriving economy. ness, says Tomar. He hasnt stopped with The United Nations High Commission for Afghan Helpline; he also manages CureMax, a Refugees (UNHCR) reckons there are 9,000 month-old medical tourism company that Afghan residents in Delhi and its suburbs runs a swanky multi-specialty clinic tucked (which are home to over 10 million people) away in a basement on Delhis Siri Fort Road. 90 per cent of these are Hindus and Sikhs who Most of his patients, of course, are Afghans. began to move to India in small batches after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in larger groups after the Taliban came to power What Tomar does on a modest scale, larger in 1996. But there is an even larger floating hospitals are doing in grand style. At population that comes for a few days, weeks or Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, 30,000 internamonths. The Indian embassy in Kabul issued tional patients came for treatment in 2011, of 65,000 visas last year. which 36 per cent, or over a third, were After he lands at the airport, an Afghans Afghans. According to a fate in the city is in the hands of the of the hospital, tarjuman, literally a Dari-EnglishTHEY RESPECT spokesperson most Afghans come to the oncolHindi (Dari, a variant of Persian, is WOMEN HERE. ogy, cardiology and orthopedic spoken by almost half of Afghanistan) translator but also a NO ONE CARES departments. Other South Delhi hospitals such as Max Devki Devi guide, confidant and facilitator. WHAT YOU have also gained from the influx of Hiring a tarjuman can cost him WEAR, AT Afghan patients. These hospitals, ~500 a day. (The tips at the end of LEAST HERE thus, have dedicated desks for the assignment, before the visitor Afghans, free translation servicboards the flight back to Kabul, can IN DELHI es, and even information centres be as high as ~10,000.) MAJOOBA SURESH in Kabul. The chemists arent far In his blue checked shirt and Former Oxfam gender behind. In South Delhi markets, fitted jeans, Haroon, 40, has the air manager in Badakhshan drug stores with bright green and of a seasoned tarjuman. He came red signs in Dari have sprung up along bustling to India barely a year ago and has picked up a lanes. They buy medicine in bulk for three or smattering of Hindi and English, but thats six months, till they come back again for treatgood enough for him to be in business. In fact, ment. They have been coming in such great he operates at the top end of the market. I numbers that Ive picked up Dari from them, deal with only the VIP category mainly says a chemist in Lajpat Nagar, who also stocks patients for ~1,000 a day. And then theres Olay beauty products, which finds more cushis other job. Located off a bustling street tomers among Afghan men than women. frequented by Afghans, Haroons office in The flood of Afghan medical tourists has South Delhis Lajpat Nagar is a cubby hole with also meant a thriving rental accommodation dark-blue walls, shaded by a tree that blocks its business. Ironically, in Hindu- and Sikh-domsignage: FRRO Registration. This is just one of inated South Delhi, where most homeowners the many local counters where facilitators help are wary of renting their property to local Afghan nationals register online with FRRO, or Muslims, the Afghans face hardly any problem. the Foreign Regional Registration Office, on On a muggy Sunday morning in Hauz Rani their arrival in India for a fee of ~100-150. a village in South Delhi overlooking Max Devki Every day our office helps as many as 30 to 40 Devi Hospital a sleepy-eyed Afghan tarjuAfghans register with the FRRO, says Haroon. man in floor-sweeping pajamas sloshes his There are hundreds of tarjuman in Delhi. way through a sludge-covered narrow lane Freelancers such as Haroon have competisqueezed between several tall tumbledown tion these days. Dheerendra Singh Tomar, 38, houses. He stops outside a three-storey house a Mumbai lad who relocated to Delhi in 2006, and cranes his neck to peep through its slightwas quick to sense the opportunity. He has

Kabul Delhi Super Store and Restaurant (above) is the first stop for many Afghans who come to Delhi; Dheerendra Singh Tomar (left) runs Afghan Helpline which assists visitors from Kabul, right from the time they land at Delhi airport to when they fly back home. Here he is helping an Afghan family find its way around a hospital


ly open front door. A salwar suit-clad woman swings the door open, gives him a knowing look, and leads the way to an apartment inside. [Its available for] ~900 a day, with geyser and TV, electricity extra, she says. Its a two-room apartment, painted in tacky green, with a kitchen off the main bedroom and a bathroom. Another two-bedroom apartment in the locality is getting a makeover. Inside an en suite bedroom, wires dangle from the ceiling; below, on a floor strewn with wood chips, sits a bed on which lies a dusty fan. [Its for] ~1,200 a day; theres woodwork, a TV, AC, kitchen. It will be rent-ready in one day, informs an Indian facilitator who also runs a grocery in Hauz Rani. This shopkeeper will get a cut of at least ~300. During winter months [when the trickle of Afghans becomes a flood], a decent apartment worth ~1,500 a day costs ~3,000. Lets walk further. Ill show you more, better houses, says Amin Ibrahim, a 20-yearold Afghan from Mazar-i-Sharif, the fourthlargest city of Afghanistan. This is Ibrahims sixth visit to India; since 2009, he has flown to India for his gastroenterology treatment, has accompanied his mother for her orthopedic surgery, his elder brother for neurological treatment, and is again visiting for his brothers aesthetic surgery. On Saturday evening, a hesitant Ibrahim had agreed to be part of a house-hunting expedition the next day and was badgered into posing as spouse. His preliminary advice: Wear a kurta, not too short, not too long, hair tied up, wrap a dupatta around your head, put on a pair of jeans, avoid eye contact, and conceal your pimples. You could pass yourself off as an Afghan woman in Delhi. Just do not speak that will give the game away.

The steady stream of Afghans in the national capital has also spawned a burgeoning restaurant scene, but mildly-spiced food geared to the Afghan palate is not the only thing that brings newly-arrived Afghans to these eateries. Our restaurant is a one-stop shop. Many Afghan patients carrying luggage head here straight from the airport. We get people to help them with accommodation, hospitals and translation, says Ismail Pirzada, who runs Kabul Delhi restaurant in Lajpat Nagar. Ninety per cent of Pirzadas customers are Afghans, most of whom are patients looking for a taste of home. You can feast on a meal of Qabli Pulao (long-grained steamed rice containing mounds of lamb or chicken and garnished with julienned carrot, raisins, almonds and pistachios), manto (steamed dumplings stuffed with mutton and onions), borani banjan (eggplant) et cetera here for ~300-400. No Afghan meal is, however, complete without bread, or naan. During peak season, we sell 1,000 naans a day, reveals Sarvar, 40, over a cup of piping-hot chai sabz (green tea), as he squats on a red rug spread out on a platform inside his cave-like shop on Bhogals Central Road. From five in the morning till well past midnight, five men and a scalding clay tandoor churn out loaves of bread from fermented wheat flour naan gerda (round), naan khasa (oval), roghani (slightly greasy) which sell briskly at ~10 apiece. As evening wears on, a multitude of Afghan refugees, mostly hired as salespersons and translators, throng the many Afghan restaurants and bakeries that have come up along Central Road, a vibrant replica of a

Kabul street. Away from the hustle of the marketplace and further down the street, a red hoarding reads: Learning Academy. Inside a basement, across at least five rooms, Prawal Mani Tripathis finishing school offers Afghans lessons in English for ~500-1,000. The current batch comprises 40 Afghan students. After October 15, this number will go up to 70, says Tripathi, 30, a fast-talking Bihari who set up this academy last year. All my students, whether Indians or Afghans, are required to give presentations from time to time on Mahatma Gandhi, says Tripathi. No wonder, then, that his classes give lessons in much more than English discussions among Afghan and Indian students on polygamy, ethnic strife, the Kashmir issue and suchlike make for a unique melting pot. Once an Afghan man, accompanied by his burqaclad wife, demanded that he be allowed to sit in class while she learns English and that there would be no eye contact, says he. I rejected the first condition; accepted the second. She completed her course in three months. For some women, Delhi provides an escape from conservative Afghanistan. They respect women here and no one cares what you wear, at least here in Delhi, says Majooba Suresh, 28, whos dressed in a natty pink top and slimfit denim trousers. This is ironical since Delhi is infamous for being the most unsafe place in India for women. A former Oxfam gender manager in Afghanistans northeastern province of Badakhshan, she has come to India for dental treatment, accompanied by her husband and two children. A few short steps away from Sureshs squeaky-clean apartment in Lajpat Nagar, painted a pleasing pink, stands a glass-fronted cosmetic store with clinical white walls. Inside, Freba, 25, hair swept back in a ponytail, is neatly arranging beauty products on a glass shelf. For someone who fled her country a year ago with a younger brother and fiveyear-old daughter to escape a divorced husbands unrelenting efforts to gain custody of their only child, Freba is reasonably settled in her new life. A native of Wazir Akbar Khan, an affluent neighbourhood in northern Kabul, she is registered as an asylum seeker with UNHCR and gets by on a salary of ~12,000 per month. Ask her how shes coping and Freba comes alive. Ye ab ghar hai; azaad lagta hai (This is home now; it feels free), she beams in pidgin Hindi, looking out the glass door.

Some names have been changed on request