Journey: [JOURNEY] with Sri Lankan refugees

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This journey takes you into the vibrant and resilient world of Sri Lankan refugees, including many who have settled in Australia.

This journey takes you into the vibrant and resilient world of Sri Lankan refugees, including many who have settled in Australia.

Learn more about the initiative behind these works at The Lanka Project Website. Click here to begin the journey.

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Some settle – and slowly find a way to remember bittersweet stories from the homeland.

From CuriousWorks’ Community Program.

Separation is a dance film performed and created by young, recent refugees to Australia from Sri Lanka.

It is part of Banyan, a creative initiative using storytelling to reshape the lives of a group of recently arrived Sri Lankan refugees in Sydney. Some of the participants are engaging in the arts for the first time. Dig deeper at .

The dance education in Separation was facilitated by Anandavalli from Lingalayam Dance Company and the media education was facilitated by Shakthi Sivanathan, Guido Gonzalez and Elias Nohra from CuriousWorks.

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

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Some manage to arrive safely – and begin to think about building a new life as an Australian.

Meet Bala, who has recently been accepted as a refugee to Australia.

Like in other countries where a violent guerrilla group fought the government, the situation for Sri Lankan refugees is complicated. Not least because the facts of the war they are fleeing from have not been agreed upon by the Sri Lankan government – particularly its final stages, in early 2009. 

But another complication is their relationship with the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam, or the Tamil Tigers as they were commonly known. Bala was raised in an area that was controlled by the LTTE. He would have known no other world. Many times, they would have provided him with protection. At other times, they also brought danger into his life – as this video shows.

What follows is a brief insight into Bala’s story, told from his own perspective. 

Director and Interviewer: Selvan Raja
Director of Photography and Editor: Dinesh Raveendran
Sound: Sri Sivakurunathan
Producer: Shakthi Sivanathan
Mentors: Shakthi Sivanathan and Mark Taylor
Thanks: Kerry Stirling and Good Grief

One of CuriousWorks’ 2011 community projects has been with a group of recent Sri Lankan refugees. Half the group have been learning classical Indian dance; the other half film and new media skills. The final outcome, only just completed, is a short classical Indian dance film, based on a narrative the groups devised in class. This film will be projected onto Parramatta River for  The Other Journey at this year’s Parramasala.

But before that final work, the film group also made some other videos. Their first one was this short interview with a friend of theirs, Bala. 

Watch this space to see more in-depth stories in dance and film from this new group of Sri Lankan – Australian artists! 

To whet your appetite, here are some production stills from the classical Indian dance film shoot.

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

Those who tried
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Some manage to flee safely, but do not get very far, often ending up in limbo.

The focus of this post is a visit Shakthi, Director of CuriousWorks, made in 2009 to a refugee camp for Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu, South India. The timing corresponds exactly to the final battle Bala references in his interview. The views expressed in this post are purely Shakthi’s own and not necessarily that of CuriousWorks.

I was in India for the Rasa Unmasked tour and wished to cross over to Sri Lanka for two weeks before coming home, to conduct the first stages of research for The Lanka Project. While doing this, I wanted to help however I could with the devastating situation unfolding at the time. Being a young Tamil male, born in Sri Lanka, I was consequently advised by a great deal of people not to go – that it would be too dangerous.

As I was thinking about what to do if I did not go, I was lucky enough to be introduced to the Director of an organisation called OfERR. OfERR is the Organisation for Eelam Rehabilitation Refugees. It is a secular, politically neutral NGO that services the 100,000+ Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu, placed in over 100 camps. Their activities cover everything from advocacy to engineering, architecture, agriculture, education and media. You can read about the volunteer work I ended up doing for OfERR elsewhere on this website,: but before I did this work, I visited one of those refugee camps and wanted to share some thoughts.

Anyone familiar with Australian refugee camps, or as we like to call them, detention centres, will probably be imagining barbed wire, heavy security and unhappy people – but only worse, and on a larger scale – for the Sri Lankan refugee camps in India. Here in Australia most of us feel geographically isolated from the rest of the world. Often this is stated as a gripe, like, “That flight to the US costs so bloody much, I bet people in Europe would be able to just pop over for the weekend.” But on the flip side, many Australians also feel lucky that they are geographically isolated from many of the world’s problems. There is the notion that we haven’t seen, or had to deal with, what people living in other continents have had to deal with.

Of course many of you know that this is simply not true: at CuriousWorks we’ve worked with enough communities around Australia to see that this country too has its own pockets of entrenched poverty and disadvantage. Nevertheless, there was something of this feeling of being a naive Australian that I couldn’t shake off as I travelled to the camp, 3 hours south and west of Chennai, South India. I expected to see something visually horrific upon arriving and had this dark sense of foreboding in my belly.

Camp Sign

Against these expectations an entirely different scenario greeted me. As I walked through the camp, smiling children were everywhere, gathering in pockets amongst the many alleyways that carved out a maze in the camp. I visited several small, dignified dwellings and was served a lovely lunch by refugees who worked for OfERR, living in the camps. I found out that Sri Lankan refugees were allowed to work by the Indian government and that schools were set up in each of the camps for the children to learn. OfERR had made significant, quite amazing improvements to the camps in terms of architecture, advocacy, education and more. You can learn more about their work through the video at the bottom of this post.

Camp Kids

Camp Lunch

Camp Alleyways

The day I was there the OfERR staff were bringing a new computer to the school. It was their first computer and they would be having a computer workshop in the school holidays. Before the workshop, we were introduced to the kids and I played some theatre games with them. Then the workshop started. 4 computer screens were attached to the one computer through a device that enabled its CPU to be shared. The kids gathered around the screens and, to my complete surprise, proceeded to learn about technology and global warming.

Camp Light

Camp Workshop

By the afternoon, I had a strong sense of the community that had come together in this camp. OfERR’s philosophy was that Sri Lankan refugees were people who would one day go back to help rebuild their country: and while in exile from it, they deserved to be educated and have opportunities to develop their skills so that they could do just that upon their return. This was definitely happening in this camp.

Camp Kids 2

But as the afternoon wore on and passed into a very dark night the underlying sadness of the camp crept out. If not for a few solar-powered lights put by OfERR in the camp, it would have been in total darkness, dappled only by the moonlight. These camps are built wherever there is spare property: this one was located right next to a cemetery pyre. As I talked to different people from the camp with the pyre structure looming behind us, it became clear that the camp was still a kind of prison. I met young men the same age as I, who had arrived in the camp at the same time as I had left Sri Lanka for Australia, and had still not left, 20-odd years later. Everyone was worried about the ongoing situation in Sri Lanka; the family or friends they had there and could not contact, due to the war; wondering how long it would be before they could go back.

Even though people could work and get an education in the camps, this was not of the same standard as other Indians. They could only get diplomas and were competing against applicants with PHD’s for the professional jobs. Those who had software engineering degrees were whitewashing for a living.

So, even as OfERR was doing a variety of things to improve the standard of life and give these refugees some dignity in the camps, it was hard to escape the underlying situation. I had migrated to a country that had given me the freedom to belong to it. I considered myself an Australian with Sri Lankan heritage. These people had not had that opportunity, or those freedoms. In a sense, they were not fully in India, they were clearly not in Sri Lanka. They were a people in exile. This is why the advocacy work that OfERR does is so important; rehabilitation of the refugees must be a twin, synergistic goal with the lobbying for a peaceful resolution to the historical struggles of Sri Lanka. More than ever, I hope that the recent events in Sri Lanka progress in such a manner as to give these people an opportunity to go home.

Coming back from the camp, I felt even more ashamed of Australia’s own refugee policy. It seemed not only needlessly expensive but churlish that we processed people on Nauru. Were we trying to act like it wasn’t really happening? Why does our government continue to focus on some strange ‘boat people’ peril, when 96% of refugees come into this country on a plane? It seemed unwise to resist educating and developing the skills of those who end up in our detention centres. Full on-shore processing would not be simple, but done properly, the benefits were far more than just a show of compassion to people in need. If these refugees ended up remaining in Australia, they would invest their new skills, coupled with their unique life experience, in Australian society. If they were sent back home, they would invest themselves in rebuilding their homeland, helping it become a place that didn’t produce more refugees in the future. Either way it was worth building the skills of these people even when they were in detention.

Most certainly, the Indian government, for all its complications and other negative aspects, didn’t charge people after they had left the camps for their time there – as refugees in Australia have been.

I’d like to make it clear that the current group of refugees made homeless by recent violence in Sri Lanka – some 200,000 – are not going through a similar experience to the people in these camps. The scarce news from that area is somewhat devastating. Like you, I will continue to absorb whatever frugal pieces of information float out to us from the North East and hope that enough people in enough places will unashamedly call for a genuinely peaceful compromise that rebuilds the many scars of this struggle.

—Find more photos like this on All Around You

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Some find ways to adjust to life with war.

3 beautiful video portraits documenting everyday life in Jaffna, North Sri Lanka.

These videos are made by Kannan Arunasalam, who was born in Jaffna, grew up in London, and returned to Sri Lanka in 2005, where he now lives and works. They form part of the Moving Images project by Groundviews.

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