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Visiting the refugee camp in india my father grew up in

In 2009 I accompanied my father when he returned to the refugee camp he lived in as a child in India. He left as a young man and returned after 50+ years.  Here’s what I saw when I watched -through the lens of my camera- my father re-discover this once permanent home of his, one he had left 50 years ago.

My father was born in 1937 in Kamar Mashani, a town 120 miles from the border of Afghanistan and present-day Pakistan. At that time, Pakistan did not exist – it was the nation state of India.  Curiously enough, when I found my father’s first Indian passport (canceled at the time he became a naturalized US citizen), it listed his birthplace of Kamar Mashani as being located in India.

In August 1947 when the British left India after 200 years and India was divided by an ethnic and religious partition, my father had just turned 10. The partition was based on religion – a country for Muslim-majorities and a country for Hindu-majorities (and other non-Muslim populations). West and East Pakistan was created as a new Muslim-majority country and India’s borders were newly demarcated as the Hindu-majority country. (Today East Pakistan is now the independent nation state of Bangladesh).

Muslim and non-Muslim families  who had been living together as neighbors for generations were suddenly given a choice: convert or leave.  As William Dalrymple wrote in the New Yorker in 2015, it was one of the greatest migrations in human history as millions of Muslims and Hindus made the treacherous journey to either Pakistan or India. Pakistan was now the country for Muslims and India for Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, etc. If you were living in the new country of Pakistan and were not Muslim, you had to leave. The same with the new borders of India.

India’s partition displaced 15 million people and killed more than a million in one of the most violent and bloodiest narratives in India’s history. This is on par with the horrible genocides we have seen in the last 70 years.  To put this number in perspective, in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, over the course of 100 days from April 6 to July 16 1994, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis and some moderate Hutus were slaughtered.

My grandfather – an agricultural tax collector  – passed away during the partition. Family legend tells about his passing as a tale of betrayal. My grandfather had a fever, the family doctor came to check on him, and gave him an injection which poisoned and killed him. The family doctor was a neighbor from a Muslim family. My family were non-Muslims who had adopted Sikh traditions.  My guess is this doctor delivered my father and was considered a member of the family. These are the kinds of stories still emerging after almost 70 years later.

Soon after my grandfather’s passing, my newly widowed grandmother, father and other siblings fled for India and her new borders. Refugees were pouring into train stations, patches of land, temples, abandoned buildings – anywhere that could provide them shelter. My father and family found themselves at the Karnal Mahila Ashram refugee camp – approximately 6 hours north of Delhi. This is the refugee camp my father grew up in. This is the one I accompanied him in visiting again after 50 years.


Karnal Mahila Ashram first opened as a refugee camp for all refugees from the partition. Then, in 1951, India closed the majority of its refugee camps but opened homes/camps for families widowed by the partition. Karnal Mahila Ashram then transitioned to a refugee home only for refugee women and children who had been widowed by the partition – my father’s family fitting into this criteria of widows and children.

When I heard this story for the first time, I looked up the ashram online. Sure enough, Google Books digitalized a text which detailed the history of Karnal Mahila Ashram. To my surprise it was still open, running and functioning as a home for widows and children.

I’m not sure how I convinced my father to go. I was starved to learn about my father’s history, to learn about who he was, to learn about the time of partition.  My father obliged and rented a driver and car to drive us north of Delhi to Karnal.  We just showed up.  To me, it felt like a very American style journey. Indian culture tends not to look backwards or embark on journeys seeking out the past. For this reason, our showing up unannounced made it awkward at first.

At first and not surprisingly, my father didn’t recognize the grounds. He was doubtful that it still existed. We asked around and entered a gate at the end of a long driveway that we were told was the ashram. It was indeed functional and had remained the home for 40+ years for women who had nowhere else to go.

A lovely and extremely engaged social worker who ran the home agreed to give us a tour. She had been working there for 10+ years and was touched that we came on a visit. She recognized my grandmother’s name (Gyan Devi) and remembered how my grandmother had taught many of the widows to sew.  Her legacy from when she lived in the home had continued.

The buildings my father grew up in had been torn down and replaced by a complex of flats. Each family now had a separate living space, similar to apartment style housing. When my father was living there, often times several families were assigned to one room.

The social worker introduced us to an elderly woman who had been there the longest, since the time the home opened. She remembered my father, remembered my grandmother and remembered how my grandmother taught her how to sew.

We met children who reminded my father of him as a child. I was moved to tears when my father, immediately after speaking with them, made a donation for their education. When we left that day, he left enough funds with the social worker to ensure their education through college.

After visiting the new grounds, the social worker took us to the old grounds where my father grew up. He was beginning to recognize the trees and surroundings. He recognized a brick wall that separated the home from the government-run school he attended. In the 50’s, Karnal Mahila Ashram had a rule that children over 14 were no longer allowed to stay in the home. When my father turned 14, he would spend all day outside on the other side of this wall. At night he would then scale the wall and sneak back into the home to sleep.

We came into an empty courtyard which maintained a dome of sorts that was erected as a monument when the home was first opened. This used to be the center of Karnal Mahila Ashram.

As we were leaving my father took some extra time to look at the brick walls. He then told me how one day when he was 15 he scaled that wall. On the other side, a long black car with tinted windows pulled up next to him. The driver asked for directions to the train station. My father was a young boy wearing only shorts (no shoes, no shirt) and stood there confidently, giving directions to the driver. Then the person seated in the back rolled down the window and gave my father 5 rupees. Remembering this, my father laughed and laughed because he still remembered the shock he felt as a child at seeing a 5 rupee note. He rarely saw that much money in those days.