Interview with Fr Varkey Perekkatt SJ: giving Bhutanese refugees a voice
05 December 2016

Fr Varkey Perekkat SJ (Sarah Morsheimer / Jesuit Refugee Service)
"I made sure to take part in all of the joys and sorrows of the refugees I met."

During the 36th General Congregation for the Society of Jesus, JRS had the opportunity to meet with Jesuits that previously worked for JRS.This is the first of a series of articles featuring their experiences in the field. 

Rome, 5 December 2016 - Fr Varkey Perekkatt SJ, former field director for JRS in Nepal, believes that education is what enabled more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees to be resettled and find a better future. 

Fr Varkey started working for the Jesuit Refugee Service South Asia Region in Nepal in 1998 after tens of thousands of Bhutanese people of Nepali origin fled persecution and crossed into India and Nepal for protection and asylum. The Bhutanese government cracked down on minorities, using rape, arson, deportation, and other tactics in an attempt to "protect" Bhutanese culture. By 1991, one-sixth of Bhutan's population was seeking asylum in Nepal and India.

Since 1994, JRS and Caritas Nepal along with UNHCR and other NGOs have worked together providing emergency relief, medical care, shelter, primary and secondary education, teacher training, vocational education, and education for adults and refugees with disabilities. JRS staff also visited refugees and their families in their homes to emphasise the importance of education.

In 2003, Fr Varkey become the field director in Nepal where he oversaw all levels of JRS' Bhutanese Refugee Education Programmes (BREP). During that time, he made constant visits to schools through the camps and noted that students were always eager to do well. Some schools had nearly 7,000 children. 

Working with a largely Hindu population, Fr Varkey described how people of different faiths would stand in solidarity with another. 

"During funeral or wedding ceremonies, there would be a mix of Hindu, Christian and Buddhist traditions. At a Christian wedding, there were monks. At a Buddhist or Hindu funeral, I and fellow Jesuits and Catholic Sisters attended. You live your faith, and it is accepted that religion should not exploit a situation."

Fr. Varkey and Fr. P.S. Amal were instrumental in setting up the Bhutanese Refugees Repatriation Committee (BRRC) in 1999 to unite Bhutanese refugees and give them a voice. 

Along with the formation of the BRRC, JRS organized an advocacy group to talk with government officials of Nepal and India. After considerable discussion, Fr Varkey knew that there would be no chance for repatriation.

"Being aware of the reality, if we had continued on as we were in that present situation, things would have gotten out of hand." 

With no chance for repatriation and pushback from Nepal for integration, the last option that remained was third country resettlement. An international collaboration between JRS, UNHCR, and other NGOs formed to resettle more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees who had been living in Nepal since 1992. The United States agreed to take in 65,000 Bhutanese over 5 years, while Canada and Australia agreed to take in 5,000 each, New Zealand, 1,500, and a number of European countries agreed to take in around 10,000. 

At first, tensions arose in the camp between those who wanted repatriation and those who wanted resettlement. Fr Varkey, along with Mitzi, a JRS USA staff member, talked in meetings with those in the camp about resettlement in the US. However, the real catalyst that moved many to apply for resettlement was a speech that Fr Varkey gave at the height of the tensions after two people had been shot dead in one of the camps.

"In this camp, there are no options left. You are either stuck here in this forest, or you can go to a place where you will have opportunity and you will be able to give opportunity to your children." 

The number of those signed up for resettlement started to rise and in March 2007, Fr Varkey saw off the first group of refugees to the airport heading for the United States. 

From 2007 to 2009, with more refugees being sent for resettlement in predominantly English speaking countries, JRS redoubled its efforts to ensure the education received was comparable with that in North America. They implemented adult English classes and job skills training classes that became very popular in all of the camps and helped to prepare refugees for their new lives ahead. 

Fr Varkey's involvement in advocacy for resettlement gave him the opportunity to build positive and strong relationships with those he worked with. 

"I made sure to take part in all of the joys and sorrows of the refugees I met." 

Many of these relationships last to this day. Fr Varkey recently received a letter from a refugee who he worked with and who took English language courses with JRS while in the camp. He was resettled in Kentucky with his family where they now live in a 5-bedroom apartment and 6 members of the family are working. Fr Varkey believes that it is because of their education that they were so willingly taken into the workforce and given the chance to succeed. 

Currently, 15,000 Bhutanese refugees remain in the camps with two schools that have around 3,000 children. While the future is still uncertain for these students, the Nepalese government has recently given permission for refugee children to register their names from class IX in local government schools starting in the 2017/2018 school year. Adult refugees work in the country but are often exploited and not allowed a work permit. 

From the 2015/2016 academic year, JRS has entrusted its responsibility for Bhutanese Refugee Education Programme (BREP) to Caritas Nepal. Sr. Lourdu Mary, the last Field Director from JRS, along with three other religious sisters who were on the JRS team became the staff of Caritas Nepal. Caritas Nepal will remain in the camps until the resettlement process is complete and all other refugees have found a durable solution. Until then in Nepal and other places of forced migration around the world, Fr Varkey's words will continue to ring true: 

"Accompany people, fight for their rights, and help give them a voice."

Sarah Morsheimer, JRS International Communications Assistant 

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