Jishaya Nayak, a migrant worker in Kerala, southwestern India, had given up hope of returning home amid the protracted nationwide lockdown.
The 23-year-old Catholic youth from Gajapati district in the eastern Indian Odisha state was among some 300 migrants stranded because of the lockdwon imposed on March 25.
Then came a glimmer hope for Nayak and his friends when Sister Sujata Jena from Odisha informed him early-June that he and his friends would go home soon. Sister Jena, a member of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, is the only Catholic nun in Odisha who coordinates with other states for the safe return of migrants.
“We were in great distress. The moment we got a message from Sister Jena, my eyes were filled with tears of joy,” Nayak told Matters India over the phone.
The Kerala government took care of the migrants providing for their needs during the lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus.
As the prolonged shutdown continues, Nayak and other migrants became desperate to reach their families and loved ones.
“We were unable to find a way to return home until Sister Jena intervened,” said Nayak from his home.
According to him, “Sister Jena was a guide and a light for us in this time of lockdown. We are grateful to her for the coordination she did with government officials and others for our sake.”
Another migrant, Tarang Bag, 25, from Rayagada districts of Odisha, said, “Sister Jena was like a star that shows the path to many in the time of the helpless situation.”
Sister Jena, a lawyer and social worker, spoke to Matters India over the phone from her convent in Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital. She shared how she decided to do something for migrants stranded in southern Indian states.
“The spread out distress and discomfort of thousands of migrant workers amid lockdown is a matter of great concern for everyone,” she said.
The federal government announced the lockdown by asking people, ‘Stay home, stay safe, and stay alive.”
Sister Jena says her mind and heart went to the poor working in different states away from their families – daily wagers and migrant workers who have no shelter, food, or money after the lockdown. Their safety and food security bothered Sister Jena.
“The misery, pain, and agony of the migrants disturbed me and I was sleepless. I resolved to do something for them,” she said.
Days after the lockdown came into force, millions of migrant workers walked to their home states in hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometers away. They are to be re-integrated with their families and communities. This challenged her as a person.
“The Golden Rule, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ speaks not just people whom I know as my ‘neighbors’ but also to people whom I do not know,” she said quoting a Biblical verse from Mathew 25:31-40.
Christianity affirms the obligation to treat strangers with love and respect. There is no difference between stranger and neighbor for a kind human being, Sister Jena said.
When the anguished stories of migrants going home became staple news all over, Sister Jena was restless.
The nun, who practices in the Odisha’s High Court in Cuttack near Bhubaneswar, set aside her responsibility and convent activities to plunge into action immediately. She began coordinating with different state ministers, leaders both political and religious, officials, and people for the migrants’ safe return to their home states.
It all began when the volunteers from Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka, created a social media group with the name the Indian Migrant Transport Digital Group on May 16.
The group’s 200 members were workers, officers, and leaders. She requested another digital group ‘Telegram’ which has a capacity of 1,000 members.
As a group member, Sister Jena started coordinating with ten Member of Parliaments from Odisha. She worked with the labor commissioner of the government of Kerala, bishops, priests, and others from the southern states for the safe return of the migrant workers of Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and West Bengal.
One of her intervention was for some ten Odisha workers in Kerala. A video message on a social media group said their employer had taken away their belongings, held back their due wages, snatched their leader’s ATM card, and locked them inside a room when they tried to board Shramik’ (labor) train on June 3.
She shared the video of migrants with Pranab Jyoti Nath, Kerala’s Labor Commissioner, who arranged a vehicle for the workers to reach the state to board the train to Odisha at his own expense.
On June 12, the labor department launched a train from Kanpur, a northern town in Kerala, to Ganjam in Odisha.
Nath also arranged another train on June 17 to send 200 workers to West-Bengal, Bihar, and Jharkhand after her intervention. So far about 300 workers from Kalahandi, Ganjam, Rayagada, Gajapati, Kandhamal, Balasore, and Balangir district have returned to Odisha with the additional help of the department of labor, Kerala.
Sister Jena’s intervention for the ten laborers soon spread among migrant workers stranded in different districts of Kerala and elsewhere. The employers allowed the workers to go home paying their dues and arranged vehicles to reach them to the stations. Hundreds of migrant workers were able to travel back to Odisha.
Sister Jena, a member of the Odisha unit of the Right to Food Campaign, ensured that the workers get sufficient safe drinking water and food during the train journey.
Bishop Alex Vadakkumthala of Kannur, who provided ration to the ten migrant workers from Kandhamal, said he had a tele-conversation with Sister Sujata about the workers. “It shows her concern for people,” the prelate told Matters India.
Sujata Jena was born on September 7, 1981, in Gunupur of the Rayagada district of Odisha. She is the fifth among six children of Navin and Promila Jena. She studied in Gunupur and finished bachelor’s degree from Rayagada Women’s College in 2001.
She said she felt called to serve God after Sister Rose Reeves, who was then the congregation’s vocation promoter, met her at the Rayagada College in 2001. “She had love of God to share with family spirit and openness which attracted me to join in the congregation,” Sister Jena recalled.
The congregation founded in 1800 in France opened a convent in India in 1987. It has some 700 members in 37 countries, including 13 nuns in India.
Sister Jena is among the two first two nuns from Odisha. The first Indian nun was from Tamil Nadu.
“My parents wanted me to become a lawyer, but God had other plans. The miseries of poor, needy, and underprivileged people are the causes of my religious vocation,” Sister Jena explains.
She found the congregation open to serve people according to their needs and necessities.
She studied social work at the National Institutes of Social Science, Bhubaneswar in 2004. She finished her novitiate in the Philippines in 2007 and made the first vow in 2007 and perpetual vow in 2014 in Bhubaneswar. She completed a law degree in 2014 in Bhubaneswar.
Besides her engagement with the Right to Food security campaign, Sister Jena also deals with domestic violence cases.
Speaking about her work for the migrants, Sister Jena said she was inspired by Bollywood actor Soonu Sood who arranged buses, trains, and flights for the migrants to reach their home states.
“I am not a celebrity like Sood. What I did for migrants might be a drop in an ocean. My effort to help them was as a human being, Christian, and nun,” she concluded.
Sister Sujata Jena sscc (India)