A Sri Lankan Tamil Refugee Builds New Worlds By Papri Sri Raman
Chennai (Tamil Nadu): V. Thenmozhi, in her late thirties, would have liked to have a life of her own – set up a home, build a career, become a mother perhaps. Yet, all her plans have been on hold for some time. “It is true that every one wants to settle down, but for the moment my life revolves around the refugees from my country,” she told us in 2009.
Thenmozhi wasn’t exaggerating when she said that her life was dedicated to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. This activist and counsellor has spent nearly two decades working with those who fled in thousands across the Palk Strait to the Indian mainland, after the Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic conflict broke out in the island nation in the early Eighties.
In 1990, Thenmozhi, then only a teenager, had to leave her village of Velanai in Jaffna district of Sri Lanka, with her parents and a four-year-old sibling. Their destination was Madras, the capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, now renamed Chennai, where her elder brother and sister were already studying. Hers was a family of modest means and so they decided to reach Tamil Nadu on boat.
That maiden voyage over the choppy seas forced the young girl to reflect on her identity as an individual. “That dangerous trip made me wonder about who I was; about what the words ‘my country’ and ‘my people’ actually mean,” she recalled. She had grown up hearing these words but had not really thought about what they actually signified. It was only the experience of being a refugee that made her realise the true meaning of those words. Said Thenmozhi, “I kept thinking about my village, my land and the friends I had left behind. I thought about all my people who were fleeing from their own country, day after day.”
The Madras of those days was crowded with Tamil refugees. The Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), set up in 1983, lent her family a helping hand in settling down. “I was brought to the OfERR office. Everyone who worked for rehabilitation here was a refugee and instantly I felt I was among my people,” she said.
Thenmozhi, who had just finished her Class X, went on to join a city college, but the unsettled conditions made it impossible to concentrate on studies. Her father fell ill at that point – the experience of abandoning his homeland had been hard on him. There was also very little money in the family. All these factors made Thenmozhi decide to give up college and work for OfERR instead.
For the young Thenmozhi, the decision to work with OfERR was not just about taking up any ‘job’. How was an 18-year-old to counsel an 80-year-old refugee? How was a young girl to advise a mother who has lost all her children while attempting to flee her village in a leaking boat? What Thenmozhi realised immediately was that she needed to be better equipped to understand people’s tragedies and clear their apprehensions.
So she went through a leadership training that every counsellor and community worker at OfERR had to go through. Elaborating on this training, OfERR chief, S.C. Chandrahasan, explained, “Here they are taught how to be different from all the other refugees, how to think positive, how to look at ways to move on in life. A refugee’s life is always in danger of stagnating.”
By 1994, Thenmozhi had become a full-fledged counsellor. As part of her work, she had to go from camp to camp – there were 117 camps in Tamil Nadu – talking to angry destitute men, disconsolate women and confused children, who did not understand what had happened to them. “I had to first make friends with every group I met and then gain their confidence. This does not happen with just one meeting. So I had to go back again and again. Slowly, each one came out with his or her story. Their stories were all of loss and devastation,” she elaborated.
As she put it, over the next five years the young woman learnt to be the tree that gave the refugees from Sri Lanka some shade, so that they could regain their strength and confidence to begin their lives anew. She also learnt typing and record-keeping, besides getting acquainted with issues like women’s empowerment, gender equality and family violence.
By 2006, Thenmozhi had also acquried a diploma in Social Service Management from Chennai’s Loyola College. Not only did she gain new knowledge as she went along, she also shared it with others in the camps. She talked to them about how to initiate income-generating activities, like setting up small shops, tailoring clothes, making baskets and selling vegetables and fish.
Through these meetings and conversations, many heart-rending experiences came to be etched on her mind. She remembered, for instance, a very shy mother of three, who she met her at the Toppukkollai camp in Pudukottai district in 1993-94. The woman had become a recluse – she had refused to speak to anyone in the camp for months and wouldn’t even come out of her hut. It was to reach out to such women that OfERR then decided to set up the Mother’s Sangam, an organisation of mothers that functioned within the refugee camps throughout the 1990s. Eventually, that reclusive woman who spoke to no one started going out of her home and later counselling others.
For Thenmozhi, the most satisfying part of her work lay in empowering women. Chandrahasan understood why this was the case. As he put it, “For generations, women in this region have suffered a lot of injustice. The time has come to right the wrongs done to them. We, therefore, focus on women as builders of a new and aspiring generation. Our women refugees, their daughters and granddaughters – now there are three generations of Lankan Tamil women in Tamil Nadu – are our assets, our best human capital.”
As is elsewhere in the region, even among Lankan Tamils it was the husband who traditionally went out to work. Becoming refugees meant that old patterns of life were altered completely. Explained Thenmozhi, “Women in the camps had to be a part of the income-generating process. But this was not an easy task. We had to teach them to assert themselves step by step: ‘First send your children to school. Start working. Learn to do small businesses. Join Self Help Groups. Set up small shops. Start vending something.’ That’s what we told them.”
Her decades-long struggle has had its share of small satisfactions. She has witnessed love bloom and relationships develop in these camps. Once, a young refugee woman in the Thiruvathavur camp fell in love with a man, a painter, from outside the camp. They were soon married. One day, while working, the husband fell from a high platform on a work-site and broke his back. He was disabled and lost his job. “We taught that woman to make garlands out of flowers. She began selling garlands in the camp itself (Tamil women generally wear jasmine flowers in their hair every day). Soon, she taught her husband the work and he started making garlands while she sold them and they made a good living out of this activity,” the veteran counsellor recalled with pride and affection writ large on her face.
Thenmozhi’s stories span across 117 camps. It is a lifetime of work. She has also made sure that younger women have been trained to become inheritors of this struggle for empowerment. “So much blood has been shed because of this conflict, so much tragedy and repression has occurred. But we still have a collective dream of going home one day. If I have accomplished anything, it is to help create the feeling in our community that we have the strength to rise up from the ashes and take charge of our lives once again.”