By Elizabeth Ponniah
Born in a small fishing village in the Jaffna Peninsula, Sangeetha (not her real name) and her family fled the conflict in the North in 1990, and lived as refugees in India for 23 years.
Despite the traumatic times she and her family had to face, Sangeetha, with determination, concentrated on her studies enabling her to achieve an MBA. She returned to her homeland in January 2013. On arrival at the Bandaranaike International Airport, an immigration officer had asked her for a bribe. Although horrified by what she had been confronted with, she had stood her ground, yet another example of her courage and resolve, and had refused to accede.
Having returned to the North, Sangeetha found employment, and now assists in the resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in the North, overseeing areas of adminisntration. She is an outstanding example of a Diaspora member, who, with a positive outlook, is working to make a proactive change, of
herself and her country of birth, Sri Lanka.
In an interview with Ceylon Today, Sangeetha shares her experiences of the past three decades.
What were the circumstances under which you fled as a refugee?
A: We had been displaced several times between 1987 and 1990 due to the war, and we have been ‘shuttling’ between our home in Jaffna and the Vanni region. I was three-years-old when we left, so I cannot remember all the details. I have to rely on my parents to recall how we spent those difficult days. The war was worsening. In the best interests of their three children, my parents fled in a small fishing boat along with thousands of other Ceylon Tamil refugees.
Describe your early experiences in India?
A: When we first arrived in India, we were held in the Rameshwaram Mandapam camp in South India, and later we were moved to Batalagundu. The families had to live in a large hall separated with only saris and sacks for privacy. Initially, the conditions at the camp were difficult due to a massive influx of refugees. We had no way of improving our living conditions. My mother sold her jewellery for much lower than the market value to help us survive during those first few months. We knew we were being cheated but we had no choice.
After some time, we moved out of the hall into small huts, which we gradually enlarged. Later, the Government of India built houses for us. We had access to running water and electricity. We were given rations including rice, sugar and kerosene, and were eligible for a stipend of Indian Rupees 350 a month. Our freedom of movement was restricted, as we had to sign a register if we had to go beyond one kilometre of the camp. Overall, I think the Indian Government had been good to us during the difficult period we underwent.
Were you able to leave the refugee camp?
A: When I was about 15 years, my mother developed a severe backache. Just then we were relocated to a camp in a hilly area where my mother could not move about. She also needed surgery to overcome her backache, and on these grounds, we were allowed to rent a house outside the camp. As such, we were in a better environment, which also enabled us to pursue our education, as we had access to better schools and other services. We also became more integrated into Indian society, as we lived in one of Tamil Nadu’s largest cities, Madurai. Our horizons broadened and I realized that I had a future beyond the refugee camp.
Why did you choose to return to Sri Lanka?
A: I returned to Sri Lanka primarily because I had always felt like a Sri Lankan despite the educational opportunities we had in India. Even when we lived in India, people would identify us as Sri Lankans; so even after we left the camp, we were never considered as Indians. I have always been close to my family and despite the good things that happened to us in India, we have always wanted to return to our homeland.
To be honest, we also came back for economic reasons. For me, the job market in Sri Lanka is much wider. As a refugee in India, I have restrictions as to where I can work. Further, in the long term, I want to get married to someone from my native country, so the decision was also pragmatic.
Is the belief that Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are treated as people who are inferior in India, true?
A: I personally had never been looked down upon because of my Sri Lankan ancestry. Nobody has ever asked which caste I belong to. Even so, the Indian Government treated us as Non-Residents of India. As a result, we were not eligible for ration cards or ID cards (basic documents in India) and this has always given my life in India a sense of impermanence. Twice I was denied a job opportunity in multi-national companies because I was a refugee, and therefore I was only allowed to work in domestic companies. This limits Sri Lankan refugees’ economic opportunities. Even in the education sector, we are not eligible for government aid to pursue higher education.
On arrival, what was your first impression of Sri Lanka?
A: I had one awful experience on arrival at the Bandaranaike International Airport. The Immigration Officer who saw that I had an emergency exit passport held me back for no apparent reason. Then, after the lobby was empty, he discretely asked me how much money I had with me. I told him I have Indian Rs 1000 for a taxi to get to Colombo. He turned his face from the CCTV camera and asked me to put Indian Rs 500 in my passport and give it to him if I wanted to enter the country.
I informed him I could not do that and that I was returning to my home country after many years. He asked me why I left the country illegally and stated that I had no right to return in that case. I told him I was three-years-old when I left and that my parents would have had to carry me into the boat, and so I was not responsible for the decision. He refused to let me go for half an hour and finally stamped my passport. His face is still etched in my mind, and the questions he asked me have hurt me deeply.
I did not think I would be subjected to such questioning and a demand for a bribe to enter my country of birth. This was my first impression of Sri Lanka.
How is your experience of Sri Lanka, since then to date?
A: I feel extremely content, having finally returned to the land of my birth, and I feel a strong sense of security as I now have my National Identity Card and am a citizen of a country. I like the more relaxed culture and appreciate the way women and girls are given more freedom, socially and economically. Most of the government officials I met in officers, hospitals and at the police have treated me well, despite my first bad experience at the airport. They have been helpful although I have had some delay in securing certain documents.
I understand this is not the case with everyone and there is still a lot of red tape. However, when I compare my experiences in Sri Lanka with some Indian Government officials, the Sri Lankan bureaucracy does not seem so bad after all.
I feel a strong sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in my job in Killinochchi, helping the administration in the resettlement of those who had been displaced, in the aftermath of the war. I received much help from my relatives and many others, so it gives me pleasure to finally be able to help other people, even in a small way. Taken as a whole, I have little to complain about my life in Sri Lanka. I do wish my parents and siblings could also come to Sri Lanka soon.
You are a successful professional with an MBA and you are now using your skills to assist in the process of resettling Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in Killinochchi. What spurred you to achieve what you have achieved in life so far?
A: There was a lot of poverty, deprivation and hopelessness in the camps we lived in, especially after the war. Most young people from the camps never went to university. What made me different were hardly my capacities or efforts. My parents encouraged me in my studies and my uncle significantly helped finance our education. I will always be grateful to my uncle especially, because without him I could not be what I am today.
What are your hopes for the future?
A: First I want to earn enough to arrange for my parents and younger siblings to be able to return to Sri Lanka and settle down comfortably. I too was poor and had been deprived due to our displacement. We came from a poorer area in Jaffna. My uncle’s financial support helped us move ahead by overcoming our past, and I want to do the same for someone else, someday.
Would your life have been different if you had stayed in Sri Lanka during the war?
A: First, we would have suffered much more due to the war. When I hear the stories of people in the Vanni who had experienced the full brunt of the war, I realized it was a good thing that we fled to India in 1990.
Moreover, barely 2% of the students in Jaffna are able to make it to university due to the limited places available. As a woman from a poor fishing village in Jaffna, I would have probably not entered university.
In India, my family has had the blessing of being able to have all three of us (my sisters and I) enter university. I don’t think we could have come this far with the education system in Sri Lanka. So perhaps our displacement to India was a hidden blessing in some ways.