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Tanuja is a champion swimmer. The 15-year-old girl has aced district- and state-level competitions but she is not qualified to go to the nationals. She is Tamil but from Sri Lanka. As a refugee, she is disqualified from normal life and aspirations since she doesn’t have citizenship.

Jayakumar and his wife Aruljothi came as refugees in 2007 from Valvattithurai in Sri Lanka.  Tanuja is studying at Alpha Wisdom Vidyashram in Class 10.

Tanuja started early. She has been participating and winning in swimming competitions for nearly 10 years now. In 2019, she couldn’t compete at the competition held by the government for the Chief Minister’s Cup because she was daughter of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. Later that year, she participated in the national-level biathlon, triathlon swimming competitions and came first, which qualified her to participate in the international competition in the US. But the champion swimmer wasn’t allowed to because she was a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee. “Since I am a refugee, I don’t have a passport. Though I have the talent and skill, I do not get the opportunity to participate in big league competitions,” she says.

Her father, Jayakumar says that his original occupation was fishing when he was living in Valvettithurai in Jaffna. In India, he works as a painter for daily wages. Since he grew with the sea and swimming was natural for him, he taught swimming to his daughter. Since she was five years old, he would take her to the swimming pool nearby and teach her. Her interest and performance in swimming was beyond his expectations.

In 2016, when she was 10 years old, she applied to participate in the under-10 competition nationally. But body qualification experts told her age was 14. The dentist said she was 10 years old while the bone specialist certified she was 14. Advocate D Johnson filed a petition in the Madurai high court on this. A year later, medical testing was ordered. The parents furnished the birth certificate from Sri Lanka that their child was born in 2006. After continuous effort, Tanuja was certified for her right age in 2018. But, her troubles were not yet over. The next year, the swimmer was disqualified from participating in the Chief Minister’s trophy, says Jayakumar.

“We have practically lived all our lives as refugees. We hope the next generation will not be considered refugees and can live normal lives. Just for this, I have been supporting my daughter become a swimming champion in Tamil Nadu so she can live a normal life.” — Jayakumar, father of Tanuja

Jayakumar says they left their house, belongings and kin back home and have been living in India for 15 years. As refugees, they are registered under the category of those living outside camps. Some 300 refugees are living together in Tiruchy. “We have practically lived all our lives as refugees. We hope the next generation will not be considered refugees and can live normal lives. Just for this, I have been supporting my daughter become a swimming champion in Tamil Nadu so she can live a normal life. But the government even recently sent us a letter saying Tanuja cannot participate in the Chief Minister’s trophy,” he adds.

Jayakumar continues: “We came as refugees but we want to move forward in life. Even if we demonstrate our talents, opportunities are being denied to us saying we don’t have citizenship and that we don’t belong to this country. We have approached district-level officials to higher authorities,” says Jayakumar.

Tanuja says that if a child of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees is able to participate in international swimming competitions, Tamil refugees across the world will feel proud and uplifted. Just like me, many other children of refugees are just waiting for an opportunity to prove themselves. Since we have been living here for 15 years, I request that the government gives us normal opportunities in education, sports and jobs. I also request that I be allowed to take part in the Chief Minster’s Trophy,” says the swimmer.


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