What It's Like To Be Raised By A Refugee Mother

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War Refugee

Whenever the news mentions any international political strife, my mind races to where the nations will be when politicians run out of words, the obvious answer being: war!

For as long as humans have existed, what can’t be resolved with words, naturally overflows into battlefields. This is true as true on a playground or a street corner as it is for international conflict.

Those who go to fight never consider the aftermath of their ego-driven urges. They have blood rushing into their heads and hands. They never think of how their decisions affect the homes and lives of others.

The thought that war kills not only your enemies but even your loved ones is too insignificant to be considered.

Families on both sides lose loved ones and families of the weaker nation lose their homes and turn into refugees.

My mother was a Hindu and had to leave East Pakistan as a young teenager. Her country became independent and she turned into a refugee. This is her story.

And mine.

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India And Her Story Of Independence

The British arrived in India in 1608 and slowly took over India, one kingdom at a time. In 1857, it established its complete rule over India. They had become an integral part of the Indian diaspora, so much so, that India became a slave nation without an official war.

Minor bribes, battles, and skirmishes resulted in nearly all the rulers of kingdoms in India surrendering their crowns, land, harvests, and wealth to the crown of India.

Indians never waged a war against their oppressors, because they didn’t have the mindset or the military strength needed to oust the invading nation. 

When the British finally left India in 1947, they divided India into three parts: India in the middle, West Pakistan to the west, and East Pakistan to the east of India.

Pakistan was a nation that was created on two sides of India. East Bengal became East Pakistan in 1947.

Pakistan was made a Muslim nation and India became secular.

My Mother’s Journey As A Refugee In Post-Independent India

My mother rejected the option to convert to Islam. So, she fled her homeland after she witnessed the raping and killing of the Hindus, including her aunt, who was burned alive.

She arrived in India along with anyone and everyone who managed to escape with clothes on their back. A refugee can’t carry much with them. If they don’t get raped or killed and can cross the border, they feel blessed and feel lucky to be alive.

Her first challenge was to escape atrocities. Her next challenge was to start a new life in a foreign land.

During her journey to freedom, she was separated from her home and family. She arrived alone in Calcutta.

Although the government had a system to support refugees, she felt anxious and untrusting. She knew she needed to stay on top of her game to start afresh using only her instincts and intellect.

There was no room for emotions.

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She went to school and graduated from Calcutta University with a degree in Philosophy and Economics. She studied by day and worked evenings into late nights to fend for herself and continue her education.

In post-independent India, other than the wealthy, everyone struggled. My dad struggled when he was younger, too, but he had a family for his emotional support and a house that he called home.

Most people of my parent's generation have stories to share that their children consider just that — stories of a bygone era.

Refugees, whether they came from West or East Pakistan, were scarred for life. These scars they passed down to their children. The scars helped them grow stronger but diminished their ability to trust others.

Doubts, skepticism, and fears of missing out ravage their life. Yet, these traits are the hallmark of refugees who became successful in life.

Their wounds might have healed over time and generations but their scars wide and deep are revealed by their actions. No matter how hard they try to fit into the nation of their choice, they stand out.

It’s hard for a refugee to form deep bonds in general. They had deep bonds in their country and then were betrayed by neighbors and friends when war broke out.

For some nations, war has ended but enmity hasn't.

India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, North and South Korea, Iraq and Kuwait, China and Tibet, and now Russia and Ukraine are classic examples of adversarial neighbors turning into enemies.

Who would the refugee blame and who can they trust?

Growing up a refugee

When a girl grows up in another nation, no matter how welcome she is there, she carries the scar of being a refugee girl. No one can convince her that things are normal and she should forget her past.

Her past is the reason she has to work harder at making a new home for herself in a place where she’ll forever remain an outsider.

Her neighbors, friends, and family with whom she felt safe, have either succumbed to the rages of the war or are, like her, broken people scattered into unknown places trying to build their own worlds.

As I write this, I remember the words of a dear friend: "Take care of yourself while you write."

I am visiting my past here and it’s not pleasant.

My mother was both beautiful and intelligent. She had a mind of her own and was not afraid to express herself. She never had a problem calling things out.

Growing up, I would wonder, did she really have to say "that?" I would freeze each time she raised her voice to speak the truth. She never took a beating lying down. She fought hard and turned her transgressors away along with a few polite friends.

Being a woman, she would get challenged or coerced by well-wishers not to speak up, and her constant response was, "Did I say something wrong?" The silence was the common response because she was right.

People wanted her to fight on their behalf because she always had everyone’s back, yet she fought all her battles on her own.

When her anger and fear of being wronged were flying around, those around her felt uncomfortable. She was an angry activist.

When I meet activists from anywhere in the world, I notice one thing in common with my mother. They have been hurt deeply and their pain is what puts them out on the street fighting for a cause that they relate to.

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What keeps someone a refugee?

A refugee carries a deep hurt like a mother who lost a child. Something very precious as self-identity gets taken away.

Anyone is forced out of their homeland through no fault of their own and left to rebuild their identity, deep in their unconscious, forever retaining their refugee status.

A refugee feels like a tree that has been uprooted and tossed away as refuse. Their only chances of survival are rerooting themselves and acclimatizing to a new environment.

They have no one familiar to lean on except each other and each of them struggles to survive.

The only people you can truly connect with are those who speak your language, are also refugees in your newfound land. But then there are empaths and healers.

How do you restart after being branded a refugee?

The first thing a refugee does is run for days, weeks, and months. When they can’t run anymore, they try to put down whatever they are carrying, look for whoever came along with them, count heads if needed, and then look to settle.

To settle means to look for a roof with some walls, and if possible, to seek food, water, medicine, maybe blankets, and some money either through charity or paid work.

They learn to communicate and connect and soon convert people they meet into two categories: who’s with them and who’s not. It’s a survivor’s instinct they carry around with them forever, something that never goes away.

How does life continue after their refugee status?

A refugee becomes an immigrant or might even graduate to citizenship in their new nation. But in their heart, they forever carry the aftermath of the war that shaped them when they left behind what was home to them.

She had fled from the darkness of war into the darkness of the unknown. No words can do justice to the lifelong journey of a refugee.

My mother went to school, graduated with honors from Calcutta University.  

Yet, in her heart, she felt she had to fight for everything she earned. To her, life never handed her anything as a gift or a blessing. She fought hard to earn and fought harder to keep what was hers.

I would freeze when I heard her raise her voice, yet I have always known how right she was then — and how right she feels even now.

I have met and made friends with people from Palestine, Southern Lebanon, Syria, Tibet, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, and multi-generational Jews. And, they all have one thing in common.

They do way better in life when it comes to financial success, yet when it comes to living a wholesome life with peace and harmony, it's a struggle. They seem to live on the edge, like a night creature who’s out to hunt and must be careful not to become the prey.

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Keya Murthy, M.S., is a Clinical Hypnotherapist, Spiritual Life Coach, and Energy Medicine Practitioner at Ventura Healing Center. She’s a #1 International Bestselling Author, on Amazon, and her book I AM Alive: Lessons From A Bengali Tigress is available now.