+94777073441, +94718161660 recdosl@gmail.com

Reviving Seenipura: Refugee Integration1999

Partners: Muslim Aid and the Swarjya Foundation

In 1990, 26 Sinhalese families from the town of Muthur in the Trincomalee district were asked to leave their homes, forsaking everything they had, from their jobs to their land, livestock and personal belongings. These families fled and took refuge in a place near a sugar factory in Kantale, which is known today as Seenipura.

State promises of resettlement were not met, and tensions between local residents increased. Independent of the events in Seenipura, the sugar factory that provided much the employment to the village closed down. Moreover, with renewed cycles of political violence, apart from wide scale unemployment, the numbers of civilians either getting killed or going missing increased. Women increasingly started taking on the role as head of the family and the primary wage earner.

The project

The initiative entailed a great deal of work in community mobilization and leadership/capacity building. This meant that at times, thwarted social relations between residents and former refugees had to be addressed. The refugees were primarily of Sinhalese descent, spoke little or no Tamil among the majority of Muslim residents who had received them during the 1999 crisis. A village committee, comprising mainly of women was formed. The committee started by addressing issues that were common to them – children’s welfare, domestic food security, how to cope with the rising cost of living for example. The committee created spaces for dialogue between refugee and resident women leaders, which ultimately made way for plans on how to collectively revive Seenipura. These plans included the building of 26 houses for the displaced families that subsequently made Seenipura their home. It also included the construction of a building for a new pre-school, the setting up of interest free micro-finance loans, the purchase of pre-school educational material, and the construction of a community well.

Learning points

Community mobilization is no easy task. We learnt that processes must be organic and the initiative must come from beneficiaries themselves. RECDO and its partners were wary of forming village-level institutions, as the impetus needed to come from the residents themselves. Instead, we conducted experiential workshops in participatory community planning and sharing on practices that were influencing communities internationally. Positive message opened spaces for creative dialogue, particularly with respect to community tensions, the reasons why they emerged and how they could be addressed. We acknowledged the fact that conflict was part-and-parcel of everyday life, be it within the domestic sphere or the wider community environment. Yet, conflicts can be turned into productive uses, by steering the ways in which they are expressed. The project created spaces for collective expression and the articulation of shared experiences among residents – irrelevant of whether residents were local, migrant or refugees,Muslim, Sinhalese, Tamil or mixed. It helped individuals appreciate strengths the other could bring into their lives. Furthermore, the destruction that political violence wrought in the area ironically leveled social differences, and created opportunities for people to come together and rebuild their immediate environment.