After an Attack by Zealots, an Indian Family Seeks Asylum

The Fernandez family in the Bronx. They have lived in the shelter system for the last two and a half years.

A fractured collarbone. Spinal fractures. Head wounds.

Antony Fernandez, his wife and daughter suffered devastating injuries six years ago after an attack in their home in India.

The family had spent much of its time doing charitable acts, said Mr. Fernandez, 46, like distributing food, clothing and medicine to the poor and impoverished in their city, Thiruvananthapuram.

“We will give everything to everyone,” he said in a recent interview. “There is no discrimination.”

Devout Christians, they actively practiced their faith in a country with a majority Hindu population. And their deeds caught the attention of a group that believed the Fernandez family had been trying to convert others to their religion — a point of tension and conflict between right-wing Hindu activists and India’s minority groups.

On Nov. 3, 2012, five zealots entered the family’s home. Records from their city’s Medical College Hospital show that Mr. Fernandez had a fractured collar bone and a blade-puncture to the abdomen; he lost the tip of a finger.

His wife, Sheehan Fernandez, suffered spinal fractures and deep head wounds, the records show, and their daughter, Aiswarya, then 11, had injuries to ligaments and soft tissues, as well as a compression fracture of the spine.

After their release from the hospital, three years of destitution and terror followed.

The injuries prevented Mr. and Mrs. Fernandez from working. Their daughter did not attend school so the family could keep a low profile. They went into hiding, moving frequently and scraping together food and shelter. They leaned heavily on the Missionaries of Charity Sisters, a group established by Mother Teresa (Mrs. Fernandez, an orphan, had been raised in one of their convents).

In December 2015, the family came to New York to apply for asylum. Their first night in the United States was spent on the floor of a small room in New Rochelle, where they were boarded thanks to a contact Mr. Fernandez made in advance of their trip to the United States.

The family did not have clothing appropriate for the weather. Any sense of awe they could have felt at seeing snow for the first time was overshadowed by the frigid temperatures.

“I didn’t sleep,” recalled Aiswarya, now 17.

“The floor was so cold,” Mr. Fernandez added. He said that they used a window curtain for a blanket.

Within a few months, they met a stranger who told them about the New York City shelter system. The man even drove them to an intake center.

“After that, he disappeared,” Mr. Fernandez said. “Like an angel.”

For the last two and a half years, the family has lived in a shelter in the Bronx. They each have work permits and Social Security cards; all three are awaiting a decision on their asylum applications. And they have become parishioners at St. Dominic Church.

Catholic Charities, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, used $350 in Neediest funds to buy a laptop for the family in December 2017. It is a treasured asset for Aiswarya, who is excelling at school.

Mr. Fernandez works at an IHOP restaurant within biking distance of the shelter. He washes dishes and cleans floors.

“I don’t feel any shame,” he said. “I’m working for my family, and I’m working for Jesus. So if I have $5, two for us and three for others. Every time, I’m thinking like that.”

Mrs. Fernandez, 41, remains unable to work because of her injuries. She contends with neck pain, headaches and severe anxiety. Doctors have advised her against lifting anything heavier than 10 pounds.

The family’s trauma has not prevented them from giving back to others in need. Twice a month, Mr. and Mrs. Fernandez bring items from their personal food pantry rations — specifically extra bread — to Pennsylvania Station in Midtown and distribute it to the many homeless people who congregate there.

“We won’t eat that much,” said Mr. Fernandez. “We don’t want to waste it.”

It disturbs them to see so many people living on the streets, he added. Even with what little they have, the family believes in doing acts of charity and kindness.

“We don’t want too much money,” Mr. Fernandez said. “We want to do something for the poor.”

Mrs. Fernandez, who grew up with seven shirts, one for every day of the week, is often compelled to give her husband’s clothes away to Goodwill. He usually learns she has done so when he searches for a certain one.

Despite their hardships, the family’s faith has never wavered. “The essence of the flame is the same if it is burning a forest or used to light a lamp,” Mr. Fernandez said.

The family hopes they will soon be able to leave the shelter system and be placed in public housing. Things are imperfect, Mr. Fernandez said, but they now have some peace that eluded them in their home country.

“When we were in India, we thought that any time, we will be attacked,” Mr. Fernandez said. “Here, we can sleep without the fear.”

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