The struggle for education amidst conflict and displacement – Inbarasa’s story

Youth Skills in South Asia

UNICEF Sri Lanka
Inbarasa in his school uniform, a white button-up and blue tie, looks up while writing in his notebook. A blurred yellow classroom wall with posters is in the background.
UNICEF Sri Lanka/2019/Jenithraj
20 September 2019

Trincomalee, Sri Lanka – Before the war, Inbarasa’s family lived in a house they loved. It was nestled next to their paddy lands, with just enough room for their goat to graze. As a child, Inbarasa loved to go on adventures: he would explore the area near his home, play with his friends outside, and expand his mind inside the classroom.

That, of course, was before Inbarasa’s community was rocked by the violence long-entrenched throughout Sri Lanka. In 2006, that violence, which was a result of civil war, came closer to Inbarasa’s family than it ever had before. The impact this violence had on Inbarasa is a testament to the reality that, in conflict, it is children who suffer the most.

“Whenever anyone mentions the conflict, I remember losing my oldest sister in the war,” Inbarasa said. “It’s painful for me to remember – her death and the impact of the conflict affected me mentally and emotionally."

When Inbarasa was five years old, stray shelling killed his sister. Immediately after, his family fled to a camp for internally displaced persons, where they would be for the next ten years.

“Life in the camp was very difficult,” Inbarasa said. “My family faced financial difficulties and couldn’t buy school supplies, but eventually, I made it into the classroom. The school provided me with a uniform, and I attended class regularly.”

Eventually, Inbarasa’s family returned home.

“When we came home from the camp, we returned with only our bare hands.”

— Inbarasa's mother

“Our house was – and still is – very small. We have a tin roof, and in the heat and the winter, we get sick," said Inbarasa's mother. "When we resettled here, I tried to re-open my grocery shop, but we didn’t have enough money to run it. Then I wanted to create a home garden, but we don’t have our own pump.”

The family did what they could to send Inbarasa to school. At first, they made enough to support his education. But within a year-and-a-half, their finances plummeted again. His father became a fisherman, his mother ran a small grocery shop, and his sister worked in a garment factory. Even so, life remained challenging. The fishing business was unsteady, and at the garment factory, Inbarasa’s sister made only 15,000 Sri Lankan Rupees a month – the equivalent of $207.

“I wasn’t able to attend school for six months,” Inbarasa said. “It was a particularly bad time for my family in terms of finances, and I didn’t have a bicycle to get to school. We also didn’t have enough money to pay for school supplies, uniforms or daily meals at school. It made me feel sad not to be able to go to school.”

Inbarasa knew he would get back to the classroom. He studied at home so he wouldn’t fall behind, doing whatever he could to continue his education. He also began doing things that made him happy again, like spending time with his aunt and playing with his friends on the beach. Eventually, Inbarasa was noticed by a social service group in his neighbourhood.

“The group paid a visit to my home and gave me support to continue my education,” Inbarasa said. “This included money so I could buy stationery, exercise books, pens, bags and shoes. I felt happy receiving the financial and moral support of their visit. When I first started going to school, it found it really difficult. Gradually, I’ve improved and now feel more comfortable in my studies. All of these events have made me even more determined to work hard. I want to study A-Levels and will need to pass more O-Levels to do so. I want to attend extra classes, too.”

Inbarasa smiles as he talks with an older woman.
UNICEF Sri Lanka/2019/Jenithraj
With the assistance of a local group, Inbarasa is now able to attend school again despite his family's circumstances in the aftermath of conflict.

Inbarasa recently sat for his O-Level exams, and so far, has achieved four passes.

“My favourite subject is mathematics, but I also enjoy Tamil,” Inbarasa said. “I would like to work at a bank in the future, and I’ll achieve this by studying hard and getting a job. Working there will provide me with a good salary and allow me to support my family. I also think about playing cricket for the Sri Lankan national team.”