(MissionNewswire) This April, 450 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are set to graduate from a unique vocational training program in southern India designed especially for them. The class of 2012 will be only the second to graduate from the “New Beginnings” program developed by Salesian Missions and funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
The program focuses on job skills training in marketable areas and job placement assistance for young male and female Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who have been living in refugee camps in 15 target districts in India. Overall, the project targets 77 refugee camps in districts of Tamil Nadu, which covers nearly 70 percent of the 112 total refugee camps. Refugees receive training at Salesian Mission’s established network of nine formal and non-formal industrial and polytechnics training institutes and community colleges.
Since 1983, ethnic violence in Sri Lanka forced tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils from their homeland in search of safety and a new life in Tamil Nadu, India. The most recent statistics gathered from governments and compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) show that at the end of 2010 there were some 140,000 Sri Lankan refugees in 65 countries, with a majority—almost 70,000—in 112 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu.
“Imagine a young refugee from a far-flung encampment with little hope for any job, much less financial security,” explains Salesian Father Vincent Thamburaj, who oversees the “New Beginnings” program as the director of the Salesian Cauveri Development Office in Tamil Nadu, India.
“Now, after a nine-month training program, these are the students that are being welcomed by the multinational recruiters who come to interview them for positions as desktop publishers, visual editors, electricians and mechanics,” he says. “They find not only a job, but dignity and hope in this new land.”
Neill Holland, a program manager with Salesian Missions—the U.S. development arm of the Salesians of Don Bosco who secured the project’s funding—says the lack of employment opportunities is a major challenge for the overwhelming majority of Sri Lankan refugees living in Tamil Nadu. “By all accounts, refugees are typically underemployed inside the refugee camps,” he says. “And when work is made available outside of the camps, it tends to be low paying and hazardous.”
Program administrators estimate that 80 percent of the students from the first graduating class were able to obtain employment based on their training. The “New Beginnings” program is the only full-time vocational technical training for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in southern India.
Holland adds that he anticipates even greater success with the second year of the New Beginnings program.
“Not only were we able to greatly expand the number of students accepted into the program from 300 to 450,” he says. “Based on the experience of the first year, we are developing a means to continue training for any students who leave the program to return to their home country of Sri Lanka, so that they may find better job opportunities there.”
This expansion of the training is in direct response to UNHCR’s recent increase in repatriation efforts for Sri Lankan refugees.
“The refugees, like the tens of thousands of internally displaced people who have returned home recently, face challenges in re-establishing themselves. Earning a living and finding decent shelter are two of the things returning refugees tell us are their greatest concerns,” says Michael Zwack, UNHCR’s representative in Sri Lanka.
Fr. Thamburaj estimates that 1,700 family members are indirect beneficiaries of the program.
“We’re working with families to put the focus on increasing the long-term opportunities for youth,” he says. “We’re counseling parents so that they permit their children to continue education whenever possible and we are providing boarding to students of very poor families who are coming from distant camps.”
Funding for the unique program is in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and coordinated with the UNHCR and other organizations assisting the refugees in southern India.
The Salesians of Tamil Nadu have been providing assistance to refugees for three decades, while Salesians have been in India for more than a century. They manage orphanages, centers for street children, trade schools, hospitals and clinics and number more than 2,000 priests and brothers and tens of thousands of lay collaborators throughout the country.
In addition to the work with refugee populations in southern India, Salesian Missions works with refugees and internally displaced persons in the countries around the globe including the Sudan, Colombia, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Kenya.
The Salesians of Don Bosco are widely considered the world’s largest private provider of vocational and technical education.