Sri Lankan refugees tailor their return home

Sri Lankan refugees tailor their return home

Chennai: Strips of cloth, boxes of thread, measuring tape and scissors lie strewn across a room crammed with eight sewing machines, arranged in double file. Six Sri Lankan Tamil girls, all in their mid-20s, pump their pedals sporadically, stirring up a deafening whir every now and then.

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One of the six, a 24-year-old dressed in a fluorescent-green salwar-kameez adorned with sequins, is working on a floral dress for a toddler. (Like the other Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who spoke to Mint for this article, she spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of police harassment.) Of the six, she is the most prepared to talk about her background—about how, two decades ago, she and her mother and three siblings fled their hometown of Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka as the civil war in that country intensified.

That night, her family jumped on a fishing boat without her father, hoping to return in a few weeks. The trip to Tamil Nadu, which usually takes 120 minutes, took over eight hours, as the trawler moved with its human cargo at a snail’s pace across the Bay of Bengal, dodging various security outposts.

For her, this three-month course in tailoring is, in a way, a hurried bid to unite with her father and build a future that looked dubious even early last year. When the war ended in May 2009, after nearly 30 years of fighting, the possibility of going back to Sri Lanka suddenly grew. With it, the question arose: What could a refugee do after returning to a war-torn home?

These vocational courses, run by Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), a non-governmental organization that represents Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India, are a way of answering that question. Tailoring, in fact, is one of the top skills young Tamil refugees are rushing to acquire, as they chart their return to a country all of them have a connection with, but most have no attachment to.

“We want to return to Sri Lanka, in maybe two years, as a family, with my mother and brothers," the tailoring student says. “But I am so used to things in India that I am afraid of going back to the place I have no memory of."

Nearly 75,000 Sri Lankan refugees live in India, most of them in 115 closely monitored camps in Tamil Nadu. A small part of the displaced population is keen to return as soon as this year, says M. Sakkariyas, a refugee himself and an official at OfERR, the only organization allowed into the refugee camps, and they’re “trying to find out if the area they plan to return to is actually safe, by calling relatives, while others are hoping for an organized return sponsored by the Indian and Sri Lankan governments".

Besides the tailoring unit in Chennai, OfERR has been working with another not-for-profit—the Institute for Livelihood Education and Development—for two years, providing training in automobile and electrical repairs, and in sales and marketing, in and around refugee camps in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli, Madurai and Trichy districts.

A return to Sri Lanka is, of course, more than simply a matter of earning a living; other complications of a bureaucratic or sentimental nature also exist. Sakkariyas, for instance, finds himself constantly fielding calls from refugees who want to acquire or amend birth, marriage or education certificates ahead of their return.

Even the will to return isn’t necessarily uniform. Sakkariyas, a former Sri Lankan government official, escaped to India by sea with his wife and three daughters in 1985, sensing danger to his life. What he hoped would be a short sojourn stretched through a quarter of a century, and like thousands of others, he remained in Tamil Nadu.

Now, with one of his daughters married to an Indian and another likely to migrate with her husband to Canada, where Sri Lankan Tamils are a fast-growing group, Sakkariyas is unsure if he would ever want to relocate to Sri Lanka.

That is a sentiment another 29-year-old refugee, whose lifetime spanned the war, cannot fathom. This young woman, who is enrolled for a master’s degree in social work at one of Chennai’s top colleges, flew into India via Colombo from Sri Lanka’s Jaffna region in 2008. Soon after the war ended last year, she assumed that all refugees in India would be keen to return, a move that would strengthen their voice in Sri Lanka.

“We are a minority, but we were hoping to get our old lives back, rebuild our homes and live with our relatives who return," she says. Pointedly, as if to hold on to her identity, she always wears a sari, unlike her salwar-kameez-clad peers who grew up in Chennai. “We were expecting a crowd, but I guess I was wrong."

Roughly 800 refugees returned to Sri Lanka from India in 2009, and this year an estimated 1,000 facilitated returns are expected to take place, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was rewarded with a landslide election victory in January following the army’s triumph, has yet to spell out any assurances for the refugees’ return.

Rajapaksa juggles several ministries, including defence and finance, and close family members control others; The Economist magazine has described Rajapaksa’s recent ascent as “remorseless".

“Only a regional power like India can put some pressure on its neighbour," says Ponni Arasu, a lawyer and human rights advocate, about the rehabilitation of Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka. “But we would be very naïve if we reduced the relationship between the two countries to just the refugee issue. We have to also understand that there are a large number of economic issues in play. And in post-war reconstruction, India has several contracts to build roads and flyovers in Sri Lanka."

The fear, for some refugees, is not just of security, but also of assimilation. One 24-year-old chemistry graduate facilitates OfERR’s computer literacy programme, which was inaugurated last year to help Tamil-educated refugees come to grips with the digital world. Nearly 300 displaced Tamils have taken this course, which seeks to treat computer phobia amongst the largely Tamil-speaking refugees. The flexible 25-hour module includes training in Tamil- and English-language typing and Tamil-based word-processor, spreadsheet and Internet use, coupled with aspects of hardware assembly.

Within four years, this chemistry graduate is convinced, every refugee will return to Sri Lanka, but he says later that he wouldn’t want to move back himself. He frets about job prospects, and about whether the Sri Lankan government will recognize his degrees. There are other nagging worries. The Tamil he speaks is slightly different from that spoken in Sri Lanka. While he would use the word milagai to describe a chilli, a Sri Lankan Tamil would call it kochikai. What’s soap to him is saukaram in Jaffna.

On the other hand, the prospective seamstress, married now for a year to a Sri Lankan Tamil who arrived in India in 2008, is eager to return. The suffocation of living in cluttered refugee camps, devoid of privacy, is one reason she wants to “run away". In Jaffna, her husband tells her, there’s no water scarcity and there are wide-open spaces.

She has grown up hearing her mother lament about exactly that. Her father, who didn’t come with them to India, remains in one of the Sri Lankan military camps. All these years, she has heard from her father only through irregular letters, and even those stopped around four months ago, renewing concerns about his well-being. Her relatives assure her that he is all right. “We’ve been separate for so long," she says fatalistically, “and the hope is for us to spend at least a few years together."

This is the third in a four-part series on people from neighbouring countries living in India. To read the previous stories in the series, log on to

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