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India: our journey in Tamil Nadu

A mother prepares her daughter for a day at school in one of Tamil Nadu's 112 refugee camps. (Peter Balleis S.J. — Jesuit Refugee Service)
Wednesday, June 12, 2013

(New Delhi) June 12, 2013 — At the height of Sri Lanka's civil conflict in 2009, 280,000 people were living in India's refugee camps. Today, the number has decreased to 67,000. While some families have chosen to return, many others believe it is still not safe. 

Jesuit Refugee Service has worked with refugees from Sri Lanka in Tamil Nadu since 1990, although they had been fleeing to India from ethnic conflict since 1983. The work has grown from education to providing counseling services, cultural programs and treatment for alcoholism.

Fr. Singharain S.J., was rector of St Mary's Church when refugees first started coming into Tamil Nadu. Before JRS was involved, he shared his concerns about the conditions for refugees in the camp with the local government. Later, he became a parish priest at Mandupam camp. 

"When people first came into India, they were put into camps anywhere-wherever there was space. The living conditions were unhygienic and poor –people had a hard life. They were also shifted from place to place at anytime by force," said Fr. Singharain.

In the early years people in the camps came from Sri Lanka seeking refuge. Today, 60 percent of the refugees were born and brought up in camps so have no recollection of the suffering that took place when their parents were displaced and have an "identity crises as they feel that they do not belong to either India or Sri Lanka," said Fr. Louie Albert S.J., JRS India and Tamil Nadu director. They have refugee status but are discriminated by the locals and feel insecure, he added.

JRS holds training projects to empower refugees. JRS provides formal and informal education (technical education such as computers, etc.) so that they can get jobs with private companies. Education and employment give them a sense of security though they don't earn much. For the younger generation, JRS offers counseling to help students know their options. There are 66 counsellors in the camps and field offices to assist these children.

"More importance is given to girls as they are generally targeted 9for discrimination and abuse). According to Tamil culture, girls are discriminated against and get ill treated, abused or married off early. And teasing is rampant," says Lilly Pushpam, JRS Tamil Nadu programs officer. 

JRS has organized training center's especially for girls-one in Trichy and one in Tarapuram, where girls are sent to stay and study in safety. They pick up language, sewing, gardening, cooking and computer skills along with public speaking abilities.

Arrupe Study Center's were set up in most of the camps to provide a safe environment for kids in camps. Teacher training is provided by visiting professors from different Jesuit-run colleges around the country so that quality education is provided to the children.

by Vanessa Gracias 
Jesuit Refugee Service South Asia volunteer

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