Devaki Erande (center)with a group of Sudanese refugees
Devaki Erande (center)with a group of Sudanese refugees

Whether it is working with the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, or providing vocational training to the local residents of the Republic of Chad, or helping the Sudanese refugees earn a living; India’s Devaki Erande shares her arduous yet satisfying vocational journey. Reports Ketaki Latkar

The famous French 35-hour working weeks, the lace-curtained bistros, and the music of the clinking Champagne glasses, romantic sunsets and idyllic landscapes—France is an unmitigated seduction. Who wouldn’t want the high life?

Meet Devaki Erande, the 31-year old face of welcome change, who decided to bid the picture-perfect French life a warm goodbye. And after completing her post graduation studies in international affairs from theUniversity of Sciences Po in Paris, chose a rather untrodden space to work in–the upliftment of the marginalised and displaced communities, and the rehabilitation of refugees.

At present, Erande is in N’Djamena, the capital of Central Africa’s Republic of Chad, which is also one of the world’s poorest countries, and home to more than 3 lakh Sudanese refugees. She is working with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an international organisation that works globally for the emancipation of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons.

Erande’s journey from Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU), where she completed her master’s degree in French translation, to the Chadian capital has not just been interesting, but also remarkably distinct. After completing her French studies from Pune, Erande went to the enchanting medieval city of Bourges in France for a year, to teach English to school-going children. “The year-long teaching stint was a great opportunity for me to reflect on what exactly I wanted to do later. I was sure I wanted to do something in the realm of social development; all I needed was a roadmap to get there. Also, I wanted to do something different; something that wasn’t the usual, run-of-the-mill,” narrates the gregarious young lady.

In the course of her stay in Bourges, she admits, her thoughts about studying international affairs in France, became increasingly clear. During the course of these studies in France, she interned with the non profit organisation ‘Doctors Without Borders’; the task was to study the effectiveness of ready-to-use foods in treating malnutrition in The Republic of Niger. “Also, many of my classmates had already worked in the war-torn and sensitive belts of Syria, South America and India. Insights from them only fuelled my process of goal-setting, and by the end of the course, I had already landed myself an internship with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), in Lebanon,” reminisces Erande, in her free-wheeling style of speaking.

A primary school for the Sudanese refugee kids
A primary school for the Sudanese refugee kids

Rare’s the Way

In N’Djamena, Erande now works as the National Program Co-ordinator for the ‘Education Cannot Wait (ECW)’ initiative, which was launched by the United Nations at 2016’s World Humanitarian Summit. In essence, ECW is a global fund to ensure that no child misses out on education during emergencies and crises. Erande’s role requires her to primarily undertake administrative, organisational and managerial responsibilities. UNICEF is the administrator of the program, and the responsibilities of the effective utilisation of welfare funds and the realisation of the initiative’s vision in Eastern Chad, rest with Erande.

There are twelve Sudanese refugee camps, very close to the Sudanese border, and far-flung from the Chadian city limits; inaccessible by regular transport and characterised by a strong infrastructural and cultural disconnect. “Once a month, I visit the camp sites. It is always good to reach out to people in person, and get an idea of what’s happening. Functional literacy, understanding the vocational inclinations of the camp inhabitants and building classrooms for them are three of the program’s biggest focuses for Chad,” marks Erande, adding how in one of her recent sample studies, she realised that most of the refugees were keen on taking up sales-related work.

“They want to set up shops and run their small establishments. This would be a great way to facilitate commerce within their camps, if it works successfully. For now, we are trying to figure the best way to facilitate this vision, by hiring trainers to hone their skills. We would also prepare a business plan to put things in perspective,” she informs.

A market in the middle of a refugee camp in Chad
A market in the middle of a refugee camp in Chad

Being Anti-fragile 

Disrupted phone connectivity, regular power cuts, torrid outdoors, poverty-stricken refugee camps and Chadian locals on their beam-ends— the challenges of the region are aplenty. “One of the greatest stumbling blocks is the language, since most of the refugees speak Arabic, and seldom understand English. So there’s always the necessity of a translator,” she rues.

For her, the campsites are not just survival battlefields; they’re her gardens of life lessons. Recently, she was at one of the sites, at a little stand-alone eatery that served traditional Sudanese fare. The place had been set up by one of the young Sudanese refugees. On speaking to him, Erande learnt that he’d been in the camp since the age of five. “He shared his story, said his father had started that little food outlet. He, in fact, was always fascinated with motor bikes and wanted to become a mechanic. But there he was—washing dishes and cooking meals. It just got me thinking about how we undervalue the magnificence of being able to make choices in life. It is a luxury that only a select few can lay claim to,” reflects Erande.

Nonetheless, in her most natural element, the woman is all about being sunny side up. No wonder she also runs a dedicated Facebook page titled ‘Humans of N’Djamena,’ where she shares some heart-warming daily life experiences and stories of the local Chadians. “There are always reasons to feel joyful, even in the most adverse conditions. All it takes is optimism,” she concludes, with a hearty smile.

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