Refugee kids dream of return to an isle of peace

January 25th, 2009 - 10:50 am ICT by IANS  

Chennai, Jan 25 (IANS) “In the evening, the sun goes home… when will we go home?” asks seven-year-old D. Sarika from the Azhiyanilai refugee camp in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukottai district in a drawing she has made.For more than 19,000 children under 12, growing up in 117 refugee camps across Tamil Nadu, home is where they have never been. Home is where their parents abandoned hearts and hearths as tanks rolled into village after village and terror-stricken Tamils fled.

They dream of returning home but not, of course, to a strife-torn Sri Lanka. They dream, perhaps even more ambitiously, of returning to a peace that the north of Sri Lanka has not known for three decades.

Says Vijayakumar from the Nagavathyannai camp, in a message with his painting: “When peace came to our Tamil homeland, there was happiness, many coloured flags waved, people came out in large numbers. The Yarl Devi train started running again from Jaffna to Colombo. Our hopes were high. We who had lived as refugees returned to our native villages. But when we thought we could have peace of mind, came news of war and fear has returned. Oh! When will there be peace in our country?”

These children were all born and brought up across the Palk Straits but have grown up thinking of Sri Lanka as their ultimate destination, not seeing mainland India as the motherland.

This revelation came in a recent exhibition of paintings, where 500 camp children painted their fears and aspirations in fascinating hues, for a contest that was organised by the Chennai-headquartered Organisation for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation (OfERR), which has been working towards refugee care since 1984.

Ten-year-old Satish Kumar, in his drawing of the emerald island, shows a terrified bird fluttering. In his wishful explanation, he writes: “The river of blood that ran through the land and the volcano that burst forth in our hearts are laid to rest by world peace.”

“War - an event that affected my life,” says the title of a painting by 10-year-old Maria Selvi from Vaazhavanthankottai camp. Her picture shows fleeing people in a boat, the sea caught between land on either side. At 15, K. Koneswaran from the Lenavilakku camp is more articulate and has drawn a prison. “Up to now, I have had no life.”

Though ignored by governments, significantly a large number of the drawings submitted by the children are of the island of Sri Lanka, which hangs like a bright tear drop in many of the pictures.

S. Koushalya, 13, of the Paruvai camp says it all in her caption: “I want my country to be peaceful and prosperous like I have drawn.”

Emee Perumal is an exception. As he makes tea for his mother’s friends, the 11-year-old watches a Jackie Chan film on a tiny colour television set and admires “fighting”, not unusual at his age, his idol, the LTTE fighter. He goes to school near his camp home, loves to play cricket.

One of the “camp children”, as under-teens here are collectively called, Emee has an identification number, included in his mother’s identification card which denotes her as a refugee from Sri Lanka.

Not many children want to be fighters. Most are like John Praveen of the Pooluvapatti camp, dreaming of being a great footballer, or Dhanesh Kumar of the Eenjampalli camp whose ambition is to be a scientist.

Only one child in tens of thousands thinks of “fighting” as an end by itself and this really is what is so “unique” about Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, growing up in India, say relief officials. “The kids don’t admire militancy but every child wants to go home.”

According to OfERR, as of Dec 1, 2008, there are 7,006 boys and 7,121 girls below eight years of age in 114 of these camps. There are 4,667 more children between 9 and 11 years in such camps, most born in India, who are growing up with a sense of alienation that does not exist in any official document. But it comes out when one talks to them, sees their drawings, reads their writings.

“The Sri Lankan Tamil refugee community in India is a striking contrast to refugee communities in other parts of the world. Nowhere will you find such high investment in education of refugee children,” says OfERR chief S.C. Chandrahasan, giving Palestine as an example to the contrary.

“Education, we decided right at the outset, was the best antidote to militancy.

His organisation has helped more than 22,000 refugee children go through the schooling system in India in the last 25 years.

Recalling the early days of OfERR, Chandrahasan told IANS: “Our vision was clear.

“We decided what we want from India. We made a decision to rebuild. We wanted education for our young so that when one day our people return, they will be able to rebuild our country, Sri Lanka.”

Twenty-five years on, he is satisfied: “We have been able to steer the refugee children towards a meaningful life.”

The future of Emee, John and Dhanesh will show how far he is right.

(This is a Sri Lankan refugee story for the C-NES-UN fellowship submitted exclusively to IANS. The author can be reached on

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