Former jeweler enjoys being a farmer

Less than five years ago, Seyad Ahmad, 43, was a prominent jeweler in Batticaloa District, his hometown in eastern Sri Lanka. He and his family lived in a big house. "We went to Europe every year, to Germany, to France. I went to Hong Kong for a year to learn how to make good jewelry," Seyad said. In short, he and his family lived a first class life.

Farmer looking at crops
Photo: Ilmi Suminar/CWS

By Ilmi Suminar/CWS

Less than five years ago, Seyad Ahmad, 43, was a prominent jeweler in Batticaloa District, his hometown in eastern Sri Lanka. He and his family lived in a big house. “We went to Europe every year, to Germany, to France. I went to Hong Kong for a year to learn how to make good jewelry,” Seyad said. In short, he and his family lived a first class life.

But then the Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers (TPLT) started kidnapping wealthy people in Sri Lanka. They killed Seyad’s brother, who was in business with him, and threatened to kidnap Seyad’s 20-year-old daughter, Syifana. Finally, they kidnapped Seyad and demanded $10,000 ransom, which his family paid.  

Once freed, Seyad resolved to get his family out of Sri Lanka. He sold the entire inventory from his store for $30,000, paying $24,600 to an agency that claimed it could take him to Canada. He hoped that, once settled there, he could help his family join him.

In December 2007, the agency got Seyad to Jakarta, Indonesia, where he was arrested for having a fake passport. “My agent ran away and took all of my money,” he said. Seyad was detained until April 2008, when the UNHCR granted him refugee status.

“I only had a very little money when I got out of the house,” Seyad said. He rented a room close to the Church World Service refugee center in Jakarta, where he spent his days. When he ran out of money, he slept in a mosque. He lived in this very difficult situation for four months in Jakarta.

His wife, 9-year-old son, Sarline, and daughter, Syifana, were able to join him in Jakarta in October 2008, leaving everything they had behind in Sri Lanka. “We have had to start over from scratch,” Seyad commented gloomily.

Seyad and his family decided to escape the heat and expense of Jakarta and join other Sri Lankan refugees living in Cisarua, Bogor. “At that time, we only depended on a monthly allowance that CWS gave us, so we had to spend the money frugally,” he said. The family rented a small house with two rooms, and walked or took public transportation like other local people there.

Seyad started to participate in activities that were held in the CWS refugee center in Cipayung, Bogor. “I participated in almost every activity CWS facilitates,” he said, including handicraft and computer classes.

But the classes weren’t enough to stop him from worrying about his family’s future. He got sick often, and suffered from insomnia.

Then in February 2010, CWS announced that it would open a refugee farm, and provide 800 square meters of land  about one-fifth of an acre – plus seeds and tools, for each refugee farmer. “I told CWS I was interested!” Seyad said.

CWS has also provided capacity building for the refugees, to teach them how to grow vegetables, make compost, and so forth.

Now, Seyad works on the farm from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. He grows water spinach, long beans, tomatoes, eggplant, root beets, chili peppers, cucumbers and lettuce. He keeps some of his produce for his family’s own consumption, and sells the rest at the local market and to visitors to the farm – for example, on World Refugee Day in June.

Seyad also breeds catfish. He built two ponds in a small space next to his farm. “I lost some money at first because I didn’t really know how to breed catfish and I spent my own money to build the ponds. But now I know and am starting to get a little profit,” he said.

From “well-off family” to “refugees” has been a difficult and dramatic change for Seyad Ahmad and his family. But things are getting a little better for them.  

“Working on this farm is like exercise to me,” he said. “I feel way healthier now. And I don’t have difficulty sleeping at night,” Seyad exclaimed, looking excited. “I enjoy being a farmer and I would still want to be a farmer when I get resettled to a third country.”

Seyad’s wife has joined handicraft and sewing classes.  His son goes to a local school now, and his daughter is now in charge of layout for the refugee bulletin.

Ilmi Suminar is a communication office with Church World Service.  She is based in Jakarta, Indonesia. 

Media Contact:
Lesley Crosson, 212-870-2676, lcrosson@churchworldservice.org
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526, jdragin@gis.net


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