When children in city homes snuggle deeper into pillows and quilts, these skinny and scrawny kids, living under plastic sheets and cardboard, reach for their working gear.
They must set out at daybreak to avoid the blazing sun, and head for the expressway – the only crèche, cradle or kindergarten they have ever known.
Dragging sacks and large boxes, they swarm over the mounds of garbage the city has left overnight.
It is their promise of a mid-day meal, and sometimes their only hope of making through another day, thousands of miles away from their own land.
These are children of the Rohingyas, a Muslim community fleeing violent persecution in their native Myanmar. Over a thousand families are huddled under flimsy shelters off the expressway to Narwal, some 4 kilometers from Jammu city, since 2008.
Singly, or in groups of twos or threes, the children, some barely eight, work the trash, looking for scrap and rags and boxes – anything in one piece and fit to fetch a few rupees in the flea-market.
It is a desperate fight to ward off hunger. Their elders find it difficult to get work. Most of them waste away in the sprawling polythene-and-plywood settlements, or jhuggis, they call home in localities like Bhatindi and Karyani Talab.
Ahmar, nine, defends his self-adopted role as scavenger.
“My father has no means to feed our family of ten,” he says when asked whether he goes to school. “I have to work to make some money so that we can eat.”
Some of his grown-ups had been initially employed in brick-kilns, but lost this lifeline soon.
“I know for sure that no more than 10 men in my basti have regular employment,” says Hussain, carrying a six-month-old baby in his arms. “We get work for a week, and are then thrown out. It has become difficult to survive.”
Many of them complain that they are generally viewed with mistrust and suspicion, particularly when it comes to work.
Even their womenfolk, who have tried finding jobs as housemaids or domestic helpers, have the same feeling.
“I used to work as a maid at a Jammu home for some time,” says Dilara, 21, who lives in a jhuggi at Karyani Talab. “But they accused me of theft, and sent me packing.”
“The locals don’t trust us. Our Muslim brothers try to help us, of course, but that is not enough.”
Around noon, several children from the bastis can be seen seeking alms at gas stations and traffic signals.
“I have no option but to send my child out for begging,” says Mumtaz, a mother of five. “This is the only way I can feed them.”
Local efforts to help the community have run aground partly because of fear and violence still stalking it, and partly because of the hostility it says it faces as strangers in an alien land.
Bilal Hassan recalls the shrieks and flames when a mob of Hindutva extremists set a number of jhuggis ablaze during an attack early this year.
“They came at night, and torched our jhuggi,” says he. “The plastic melted in a jiffy. They were shouting slogans, and meant to kill us. The chants still echo in my ears.”
The cloud of fear and insecurity looming over the community has made it highly wary. Parents are extremely reluctant to send their children to local schools, and the kids themselves too hurt and humiliated at the resentments hurled by their peers.
Seven-year-old Umaimah struggles with her broken Urdu to explain why she does not want to go back to her class.
“They used to mock me,” she says of her former class-mates. “They would tell me to leave their school. So I didn’t go back there.”
A makeshift school some NGOs set up at Karyani Talab is empty and locked by noon. This despite the efforts of a group of young people who volunteered and actually spent six months as teachers at the school.
Running a small shop next to it, Amin Hassan tries to explain why.
“The school was set up in response to the plight of our children,” he says. “But education is a luxury we can ill afford. For us the question is bare survival.”
Ghulam Mohiuddin, a local resident who has been working closely with the Rohingyas, goes further:
“These kids are fending for their families. How can we expect them to attend school when hunger haunts their home? They can afford to come to class only when their parents have some dependable means of livelihood.”
But for the elders of this uprooted, dislocated community, “dependable” has come to have just one meaning: when something bad happens in the area, they can depend on being cast as villains of the piece.
“If there is a robbery somewhere, suspicion always falls on us,” says Yasmeen. “It is like living in hell. We cannot live, work or study in peace. I often think of home, and long to go back.”
Far away from their homes, the Rohingyas cling to their faith and customs as tenaciously as to their memories. In their jhuggis, the children are rounded up from invented pranks and games, and taught Arabic and their native tongue. Organized in close-knit units of families and relatives, life seems to revolve around a makeshift mosque, a shack of tin-sheets really, in the middle of the camp, where inhabitants are keen to assemble for prayers regularly. This fosters their sense of togetherness and solidarity, and serves as a platform to address their problems which are manifold.
Though each of them possess an identity card issued by the UNHCR which has recognized around 14,000 Rohingyas (as refugees) in India, New Delhi has not accepted their status, and treats them as foreigners who have entered the country illegally. And according to the figures put out by the Jammu and Kashmir government, the state has around 5, 743 Rohingyas living in Jammu and Samba.
“My people are still being killed there,” says Samera, 44, who had fled Myanmar four years ago with her four children and eight grandchildren. “I had escaped to avoid being killed, but we didn’t get anything here too.
“The owner of the land charges a fixed amount for each jhuggi, and everyone has to pay it. We have to pay for everything – water, electricity,” she says, adding that her husband finds work only for 10 or 15 days a month.
“Building a simple jhuggi costs around ten thousand rupees, more than an entire year’s earnings for most of us.”
Early marriages are common in the settlements, and many men have more than one wife. Couples usually have two to three children, but women given birth at home, with one of their elderly relatives acting as midwife.
“We can’t afford hospitals,” says Naher, 22, who would organize dinner for more than a hundred guests on Eid back home in Myanmar.
Having got married at the age of 18 in exile, and a mother of three children, she says that she had escaped with her life, and left behind her farm, orchards, and a well-provided home where she used to have a dozen helpers for domestic chores.