Dishanty is an 8 year old student in grade four. She is dressed in a beautiful red outfit and smiles as she offers me a rose. She is part of the welcoming party that greets a group of us who have come to the refugee camp where she lives in south India. I am told that she recently won first prize in her age group in her school’s Indian classical dance competition. We gather in the camp’s one room day care and Dishanty proudly welcomes us with a traditional welcome dance. Dishanty is a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee born in India and currently living in one of the 101 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, India.
I am currently in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu attending a meeting of the Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR) —a Sri Lankan refugee organization set up in 1984 by the refugees themselves. An important aspect of OfERR’s work is preparing the Sri Lankan refugees for their eventual return home to Sri Lanka from the Indian refugee camps where they have lived for almost three decades having fled a violent civil war, which thankfully has just ended.
I met Dishanty when I and others who are here for the meeting visited some of the refugee camps to see some of OfERR’s work. OfERR provides the refugees various services such as educational support, basic health care, counselling, documentation (birth, marriage and death registration) and livelihood training.
Dishanty makes the beautiful yet complex classical dance look simple and easy. Every movement of her body —from her eyes to her feet —is flawless. She has clearly put a lot of hard work in learning, practicing and mastering the dance. Like Dishanty, OfERR too has put in years of committed hard work, to keep the hope for return alive and use the many years of refugee life in India to develop a democratic, peaceful, educated, hardworking, healthy, enterprising refugee community that will return home to contribute in the re-building of its war torn homeland.
In the camps we visited we witnessed the positive changes OfERR has brought about in the life of the refugees.
- Thousands of refugee youth have graduated from Indian colleges and universities, and almost all of them come from families who never had the opportunity to finish high school let alone go beyond that.
- Thousands of adults””primarily women””have received training as health workers and are providing basic health care in the camps. The refugees enjoy improved health with cases of malnutrition, depression, suicides reduced.
- The majority of the refugees have birth and marriage certificates necessary for accessing various services in India and more importantly in Sri Lanka when they eventually return home.
- The refugees are organized in youth groups, women’s groups and self help groups where they’ve developed increased self confidence and are taking control of their future.
With much pride, the camp leaders, the youth and even the children took us for a walk in the camps showing us the day cares and kindergartens they run in the camps, their bakeries, their catering businesses, the goods they produce and sale to generate income, their winning entries (first prize) for the state level competition on climate change awareness, the work they’ve done to improve camp sanitation, the skits they developed to educate the refugee community on women’s rights, addressing violence against women and children, peaceful conflict resolution, and so on.
Like Dishanty’s dance, the positive changes achieved in the life of the refugees required years of hard work. Nothing came easy. Each change required commitment, hard work, collaboration and coordination amongst the community. It required patience, astute diplomacy and skilful advocacy to with the Indian government to bring about regulations ensuring that the refugees received government support– basic shelter, free education, subsidized rice, and a small “˜dole’ or allowance.
The refugees are not alone in their journey””PWRDF and other national and international organizations continue to walk with them in partnership, offering moral and financial support.
Thank you for your support in helping OfERR improve the lives of refugees and the impoverished Indian host communities living near the camps and keeping the flame of hope burning brightly.