Chennai (WFS) - "It is true that at one point in life every woman wants to get married, set up a home, become a mother. But until that moment comes along, my life revolves around these refugees from my country," says V Thenmozhi, 38.

Thenmozhi is not exaggerating when she says that her life is dedicated to working for Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu. This activist and counsellor has spent nearly two decades working with Sri Lankan Tamils who have fled by the thousands across the Palk Strait ever since the first ethnic conflict broke out on the island in 1983.

In 1990, Thenmozhi, then only a teenager, had to leave her village of Velanai in Jaffna district of Sri Lanka, with her parents and a four-year-old sibling. Their destination was Madras (now Chennai), where her elder brother and sister were already studying. Hers was a family of modest means and so they decided to brave the choppy seas to reach the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. That maiden boat ride made her reflect on her identity as an individual. "That horrible and dangerous boat ride made me think about who I am; about what the words 'my country' and 'my people' actually mean," she recalls. She adds, "These are words one grows up hearing often, but one doesn't quite understand what they really signify. It is only when one becomes a refugee that their real meaning is revealed."

In the Madras of those days, "there were refugees everywhere". Adds the activist, "I kept thinking about my village, my land and the friends I had left behind. I thought about my people who kept fleeing day after day." Once in India, her family was lent a helping hand by the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), set up in 1983. "I was brought to the office of OfERR. Everyone who worked for rehabilitation here was a refugee and instantly felt that I was among my people," she says.

Thenmozhi, who had just finished her Class X, joined a city college. "But I could not concentrate on my studies. My father was ill, the experience of abandoning his homeland was hard for him and there was little money. All these factors made me decide to begin working for OfERR," she recalls.

For the young Thenmozhi, the decision to work with OfERR was not just about taking up 'a job'. How was an 18-year-old to counsel an 80-year-old refugee? How was a young girl to advise a mother who has lost all her children while attempting to flee her village in a leaking boat? What Thenmozhi realised was that she needed to be equipped to help people through their tragedies and apprehensions.

So, she went through the leadership training that every counsellor and community worker at OfERR has to go through. Elaborating on the training, OfERR chief, S.C. Chandrahasan, says, "Here they are taught how to be different from all the other refugees, how to think positive, how to look at ways to move on in life. A refugee life is always in danger of stagnating."

By 1994, Thenmozhi became a full-fledged counsellor. As part of her work, she had to go from camp to camp - there are 117 camps in Tamil Nadu - and talk to angry destitute men, disconsolate women and confused children, who did not understand what had happened to them. "I had to first make friends with every group I met. I had to gain their confidence. This does not happen with just one meeting. So, I had to go back again and again. Slowly, each one came out with his or her story. Their stories were all of loss and devastation."

Over the next five years, she learnt to be the tree that gave the refugees from Sri Lanka the shade of confidence to start anew. She also leant typing and record-keeping, besides getting acquainted with issues like women's empowerment, gender balance and family violence. Not only did she learn all this herself, she also taught others ways to initiate income-generation programmes, like setting up small shops, tailoring clothes, making baskets and selling vegetables and fish.

Along with other OfERR counsellors, Thenmozhi underwent a development course as well. In 2006, she earned a diploma in Social Service Management from Chennai's Loyola College.

Through the years that she has met and helped refugees, there are many heart-rending stories etched in her mind. She talks of a very shy mother of three, who she met at the Toppukkollai camp in Pudukottai district in 1993-94. The woman had become a recluse - she refused to speak to anyone in the camp for months and wouldn't even come out of her hut. She had shut herself out from the world until counsellors intervened. "We had to gather the women of the Mother's Sangam (an organisation of mothers operating within the refugee camps in the 1990s) to intervene," she recalls. Today, this woman counsels other refugees.

The most satisfying part of Thenmozhi's work she says, "is empowerment of the women." OfERR has had a major role to play in this. "For generations, women in this region have suffered a lot of injustice," feels Chandrahasan. "Now, the time has come to right this wrong. We, therefore focus on women as builders of a new and aspiring generation. Our women - refugees, their daughters and granddaughters - now three generations of Lankan Tamil women, are our assets, our best human capital," he reiterates.

In traditional Lankan Tamil society, the husbands generally went to work. "After becoming refugees in India, women had to be a part of the income-generating process," Thenmozhi explains. But this was not an easy task. "We had to teach the women to assert themselves step by step," she elaborates. "Send your children to school. Start working. Learn to do small businesses. Join self-help groups, set up small shops, start vending something, we told them."

But Thenmozhi's decades-long tale of struggle and empowerment is not just about that. She has seen love bloom and relationships develop in these camps. Once, a young refugee woman in the Thiruvathavur camp fell in love with a man, a painter, from outside the camp. Soon they were married. One day, while working, the husband fell from a high elevation on the work-site and broke his back. Though he was disabled and lost his job, the couple never lost out. "We taught the woman to make garlands out of flowers. She began selling garlands in the camp itself (Tamil women generally wear jasmine flowers in their hair every day)," Thenmozhi remembers fondly. Soon, she taught her husband the work. "Now he makes garlands while she vends them and they earn a good living out of this," says the veteran counsellor proudly.

Thenmozhi's stories span across 117 camps. It is a lifetime's work. But she is not alone. She now trains young women, who are inheritors of her struggle for empowerment. "Yes, it has been difficult - at times, traumatic and scary. But, someone has to do it. Yes, we all have a collective dream of going home one day. But, now at last, after so many years of seeing tragedy after tragedy unfolding, I feel the struggle has been worthwhile. I feel a great sense of accomplishment at being able to teach my people to rise from the ashes of being nobodies to being people who have learnt to live their lives once again." (Women's Feature Service)