Little Food, Few Facilities, But it’s Their Only Home

December 11, 2006 at 8:25 am Leave a comment

BY SMRITI DANIEL lanka.jpg

Dec 10, SRI LANKA (TIMES) — More than 190 young victims of Sri Lanka’s conflict have found refuge in an academy tucked away in a remote area of Bangalore in India, where they’re fed by ISKCON’s Akshaya Patra program.

Smiling and laughing, the children cluster around the visitor with the camera. They have just discovered that he is from Sri Lanka and that he speaks their language fluently. Suddenly excited, each shouts out questions in Tamil. I can just follow as one asks:

Aiyo uncle, ennoda ammava paaththeengala?
(Uncle, have you seen my mother?)

Onnoda ammava enakku theriyadey pillai.
(I don’t know your mother, child)

Enga Amma enna maadiriyae thaan iruppangal. Alagaa irruppangal. Enna kootteettu poga varuwangal. Ammava Paththeengala uncle?
(My mother looks just like me. She is very pretty. She will come to take me home. Have you seen her, uncle?)

….And as simply as that, your heart breaks.

We are at the Indira Gandhi International Academy and today is a Sunday – a day of rest and play for these children. There will be no classes; no need to leave the cricket pitch empty, or to slip into uniform…and there may also be nothing to eat all day. For the 198 refugee children who live here, this residential school is literally their home away from home. Situated in a remote part of the Indian city of Bangalore, the academy attempts to feed, educate, clothe and house some of the youngest victims of the conflict in Sri Lanka. The undertaking is daunting, and it seems to only get more difficult as the days go by. For the administrators every day presents yet another challenge: Will they be able to provide all that their children need today? Will everyone have something to eat and a place to sleep? Electricity, mattresses, textbooks and new uniforms for all the children are as yet luxuries only dreamed of.

Things weren’t always quite so bad. When it opened in September 1990, the academy took on a task that few others had the inclination or the funding to undertake. Funded by a Chennai based NGO – the Bright Society – the academy initially boasted a 400 strong student body reveals Mr. Chandran, a resident teacher at the school and the elected spokesperson. The facilities, while never stellar, did the job. Many of these students were orphans, while the rest had only a single parent – and that hasn’t changed, says Mr. Chandran. But little else remains the same – these days the NGO no longer finances the academy nor, it seems, will any other organisation.

Even before the NGO gave up, the Karnataka Government stopped its funding when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, and has shown no interest in resuming its support since then, says the teacher. When the NGO also withdrew shortly after that, things just seemed to get steadily worse. Mr. Chandran who was himself a student here between 1995 and 2000, remembers this as a period marked by terrible uncertainty. Even though student numbers dropped, meals became hard to find and sometimes even if there was rice, firewood could not be found. Even playing in the grounds had to be curtailed after the police came around, intent on ensuring that the institute was not a training ground for terrorists. Many of those who dropped out and were forced to leave the state, became child labourers, says Mr. Chandran, who has tried to keep track of those who left.

Today the young people who rely on the Indira Gandhi International Academy continue to have serious cause for concern. Poverty, hunger and discomfort are, more or less, their constant companions. While they have several buildings scattered around the small campus, these seem to offer only a modicum of comfort.

“We have no electricity in either the classrooms or the hostels,” says Mr. Chandran.

In the hostels themselves, most of the windowpanes are broken and gaping – bringing in the freezing night air. Small bedrooms serve as dormitories to nearly 30 children at one time.

When the rains come, the hard floors on which the children usually sleep are hopelessly flooded, he said. Fortunately or unfortunately, there are no mattresses or pillows to be worried about.

On any given working day, the students only reliable meal comes from the ISKCON’s (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) Akshaya Patra Mid-day Meal Programme. Other than that, breakfast and dinner most often consist of an insipid menu of salted rice or porridge and there is no provision for milk in their diet. “On government holidays and weekends we have to fend for ourselves,” says Mr. Chandran.

The supportive local community is the biggest reason this valiant group remains in existence. For instance, they have enough drinking water only because Mr. Chandrappa, a local businessman, pumps water from his own well to the school for free everyday. A handful of volunteers and well-wishers contribute their time, effort and money, and will teach the children and help them study when they can. Others stop by with second hand clothes or books; and on one memorable occasion a benefactor took the children to a theme park just outside the city, says a grateful Mr. Chandran.

Many of the students of the academy attempt their Pre-University College (PUC) exams, which are equivalent of A/Ls and O/Ls. With these qualifications in hand, most set out to find a job, says Mr. Chandran, adding that those with relatives often return to Tamil Nadu hoping to be of some use to what remains of their families.

However, one of the most outstanding examples is that of an ex-student – Lalitha Devi – who learnt Karate from a volunteer teacher at the academy. She not only received a black belt but went on to win five National Medals and even represented the country in Russia earlier this year, says Mr. Chandran proudly.

But day to day life still presents innumerable challenges. Aside from providing them with the bare necessities, coping with the emotional needs of the children is also difficult. The youngest is a tender four while the eldest is 20, reveals Mr. Chandran, going on to add that when the children suffer from homesickness or trauma induced by exposure to war, there is little any of them can do. “We try to treat them like our children,” he says shrugging sadly, adding that this is not made easier by there being only a few residential staff.

Knowing all this, knowing of their bereavement and deprivation, it warms the heart to see that these are children who laugh easily and joyously at little provocation; who are unafraid of strangers and inordinately proud of their little vegetable plots that boast small crops of onions and bananas. Watching them interact, it becomes obvious that they are like children everywhere. The girls share cheap pottus and plastic earrings, the boys play cricket in the afternoon. The younger children are more hesitant, and follow your every movement with wary eyes, until they warm to you and then their smiles shine out.

Caught in a war not of their making, for these children and their caregivers the future is uncertain. As the raw December cold gets ready to grip Bangalore, one can only wonder how long they can continue as they have…while there are no reliable answers and no sureties there is, however, always hope. From four-year-old Naveen to Mr. Chandran himself, it seems that each member of this little band knows very well that all they have is each other. Taking on the roles of parents, sisters and brothers, they have transformed themselves into a family of countrymen in an alien land.

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