By Papri Sri Raman, Womens Feature Service
For refugee women, the battles are fought on many fronts. Some fears are known, most unknown. From the fear of having their kids caught and forced to become child soldiers to the day-to-day struggles of livelihood, the shadows looming over them are many.
“The Tamil refugee camps are a fountainhead of stories of single mothers, women-headed families, women growing old with hopes of returning home, of brave young women who have refused to succumb to their dire circumstances,” says Ashok Gladston Xavier of the Department of Social Work at Loyola College, Chennai. Xavier has been assisting Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka for the last 20 years. “Anyone else in their place would have long ago given up,” he adds.
“We had to cross three army check posts. We stopped for a few days at relatives’ houses, pretending we were visiting them. It took us nearly a month to come to Mannar where we finally took the boat,” says Veeram, describing his family’s arduous flight to the safe haven of a small camp hut, about 200 kilometres from Chennai, where he and his family now live.
“There were 22 people in our boat, including 10 children and a pregnant woman. The boat stopped mid-sea, and would not move for 24 hours. Then, early one morning, we were dumped on the sandbars close to the Rameshwaram shore, without even drinking water. We were rescued by Indian fishing boats only in the afternoon,” recalls Yashoda, Veeram’s wife.
Yashoda and her family fled from Nalamkattaisivapuram village in Vavunia in 2006, “for the sake of our four children,” they say. The decision to become refugees was difficult. “But we had to make it” the couple says. “One of the main reasons was our growing daughters. Anita, 15 and Pranita, 13, were stopped every second day to and from school by the military. We were terrified that they would be taken by the soldiers any day,” the mother recalls, the terror of those days returning to her eyes. They, like most fleeing families, “were afraid the girls could be violated or turned into child soldiers”. In India, the family moved across three camps before the adolescent girls could get admission in a high school and hostel in Tamil Nadu.
Ammi fled from her village Illuppaikadavai in 1990, along with five sisters. “Soldiers came into our houses and occupied our homes. Whole villages were bombed. My father was arrested and kept prisoner for 40 days. We decided to leave when he was released,” she recalls. Once in India, Ammi, then 15, could not find a school close enough to the camp and had to discontinue her studies. She first found work at a YMCA dispensary and then at a camp library. Later, she was trained as a nursery school teacher. She married a refugee camp inmate in 1995. However, her husband deserted her within a few months and returned to Sri Lanka.
Ammi’s son was born in the camp and her mother, Amuda, already looking after her own growing daughters, had the additional responsibility of a grandchild as well. “It was tough but, yes, now they are all working,” says Amuda. “Yet, it will never be like living in Sri Lanka,” she remarks wistfully. “There, we had a house and land. Here, we live in rows and rows of two-room huts under constant police surveillance. There we gave the house to our daughter when she got married and built a new house for ourselves. Here we have nothing to give our daughters.”
Ammi works as a tele-marketing executive and lives in a one-room apartment in the city, so that her 13-year-old son can go to an English medium school. “The apartment and school expenses are more than Rs 5,000 (US$1=Rs 50.8) every month. For my son, I will like to stay in Tamil Nadu,” she says.
“The Tamil refugee women are very resilient. They learn to sustain themselves,” says Xavier. He gives the example of Arulmalar, now a resident of a camp near Tirunelveli. She too was deserted by her husband and has brought up three children by tailoring and doing part-time work for relief organisations. She is also a self-taught and amazing records-keeper for all meetings and proceedings that relief agencies like OfERR (Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation) undertake.
Xavier has been training refugee women to become career persons and community leaders. They learn tailoring, typing, data operating, accountancy, become health workers, social workers and Self-Help Group (SHG) managers.
The 25-year ethnic war between Tamil militants and Sri Lanka authorities has resulted in the displacement of thousands of young women. There are nearly 15,000 young girls under 17 born to Tamil refugee mothers living in the 117 camps in Tamil Nadu.
Srikumari, a refugee widow with two children, can barely make ends meet. She works at a flourmill near the camp where she lives, which is about 350 kilometres from Chennai. Every 90 kilograms of flour packed in one-kilo packets, fetches her just Rs 15. “Where will I go for new kind of work?” asks Srikumari. Allergy from the flour and the pesticide it contains forces her to stay home most days. Her old mother now takes care of her and her teenaged children.
Genelia and Janice, two sisters from a Tirunelveli camp, have done their graduation in mathematics. The question is where do such bright and hard-working young women go for work? “We don’t know how Vanni (the northern Sri Lanka district from where the family fled) is, we don’t know if we will find work, but yes, it will be good to see our home we have heard so much about,” they say.
At best, young women like Suganthi, 21, who was three when her parents crossed over to India, hope to become school teachers. Living all her life in a camp she has learnt the basics of computers and teaches in a school. “I do not know if I will be allowed to work after I get married,” she says.
There are more than 20,000 women living in the Indian camps, says Thenmozhi, who coordinates women’s affairs for OfERR. Her family fled from Velanai in 1990. She was one of the lucky ones – she had older brothers and sisters already studying in India. “We have learnt to eat ‘idli’ and ‘dosa’ (traditional South Indian rice and lentil based dishes) instead of ‘idiappam’ and ‘puttu’ (rice and lentil based steamed dishes). We have learnt to wear the salwar kameez and saris instead of sarongs and skirts. We have adapted and integrated, so that we become a part of the milieu, but ask any woman in the camp and everyone says she wants to go back home to Sri Lanka,” she says.
This young woman has devoted 15 years of her life to the welfare of refugee women, readjustment counselling, providing them clothing, assisting with their sanitation needs, starting empowerment and skill development programmes, helping set up SHGs in camps, training them to become awareness creators, motivators and leaders. “I am preparing my people for the day we will all return home to Sri Lanka,” she says proudly.
(Some names of individuals and camps have been changed/withheld to protect identity.)