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Seeking refuge in education

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Sri Lankan Tamil refugee students, based incamps in Tamil Nadu, seek to educating themselves, despite odds.SHUBASHREE DESIKAN talks to a few of them.

on a positive note:Moving forward with education.Photo: S. S. Kumar
on a positive note:Moving forward with education.Photo: S. S. Kumar

Caught in the grip of a violent history, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India see education as a boon that will help them tide over the situation. There are 67,000 refugees from Sri Lanka in over 100 refugee camps spread across Tamil Nadu. Nearly one–third of its members are now studying at various levels.

This year, 49 students from the camps have been called for counselling to engineering colleges, 19 have got seats through management quotas and 17 have got fee waivers (in colleges from Sairam group, SRM university, etc.) or scholarships (five students are supported by Agaram foundation).

Shofika, a Sri Lankan refugee who stays in the Pudupatti camp at Dindigul district, is happily looking forward to studying Electronics and Communication Engineering at Veerammal Engineering College, Dindigul. “I will stay at home and go to college by bus everyday,” she says. The annual expenditure will come to around Rs.45,000 and she has approached the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR) for a loan, as well as some government banks. Shofika is the second of three children and her elder brother is studying Computer Engineering at Shirdi Sai Engineering College with a scholarship given by OfERR.

Arun Raj, who has got a much sought after Mechanical Engineering seat at PSNA College of Engineering and Technology, Dindigul, has to stay in the hostel. “My relatives were supportive, and we knew the teachers’ houses, so we could go there and clear our doubts,” says Raj. From the Salaiyur Refugee Camp at Devakottai, he is staying with a family in a 10 X 10 room, but he is not complaining. One thing which could be improved is the power situation. “We have lights, but there are frequent power cuts,” he says.

R. Nagendran, Raj’s father, is getting ready to support him through his study. “The expenses will come up to around Rs. 1,10,000 per year and we will have to take a loan,” he says. His elder son is studying IT at J.J. College, Tiruchi.

But not every type of education is accessible to refugees. Raj’s mother, Danikala, says, “Arun Raj was keen on studying medicine, but there was no provision for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to study Medicine in India.”

Concessions and withdrawal

Since 1984, many refugees from Sri Lanka have been coming to stay in India, and camps were set up by the Tamil Nadu government to support them. In 1984, a government order (GO) was passed which ensured that refugee children would get schooling. Every year, this GO has to be renewed. Further, a definite number of seats were allotted for refugee students in medicine, engineering, agriculture, law, polytechnic colleges, arts and science and ITIs.

Post–1991, it was stopped and resumed in 1996. Once again, in 2003, following a famous law suit in which granting such rights to refugee students was challenged, the State discontinued allotment of seats in medical, engineering and agriculture.

A further revision of this policy occurred in 2009, when Sri Lankan refugee students were called for engineering counselling. In 2009, 10 students applied.

Medicine is still off the limits for Sri Lankan refugees. If a student is motivated to do only medicine, and it is not possible, they are then counselled to take up nursing, physiotherapy, optometry, and so on.

Unlike medicine, engineering presents a positive story. According to Pathmanathan, co–ordinator, Education Programme at OfERR, “Since 2010, the number of students from refugee camps applying for counselling every year has increased — 14, 20, 24 and this year, 49.”

Pathmanathan, who came to India as a child refugee, grew up here, and is now helping others like him get a hold on life. “The keen interest and capacity to study is not a mere coincidence — the camps are behind this,” he says. The interest in study is inculcated in the children even as they go to the day care centres when they are just three years old. He adds proudly, “978 students took the Class X exams and 88.5 per cent passed. The first mark was 490 which missed the state rank by just eight marks.”

OfERR arranges for scholarships in the order of Rs. 10,000. Every year about 1,250 such scholarships are given by the OfERR. For courses that cost more, such as engineering and B.Sc nursing, they give loans which are interest–free and to be repaid after the student completes the course.

Post–study work

But what about post–study work? According to S.C. Chandrahasan, treasurer and founder of OfERR, finding jobs depends on the return process. “It is true there hasn’t been a political solution to the problem yet. But we expect a qualitative change after the elections in the north of Sri Lanka.” He is hopeful because the people educated in India are good at speaking English and have a wide range of technical skills.

Yet the solution calls for a healing of wounds. “Both sides have to make an effort to forget the past and move forward,” he says.


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