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In 1986, Tamil refugees fled war for a new life in Canada

After Tamil refugees landed on Canada’s east coast, Maclean’s spoke to some of the newest members of Montreal’s Tamil community


 

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While the Tamils who landed on Canada's east coast last week changed their story of the route they took, there is no doubt that in their Sri Lankan homeland members of the Tamil minority fear persecution by the ruling Sinhalese. Maclean’s Montreal bureau correspondent Bruce Wallace spoke to some of the newest members of the Montreal Tamil community.

For Marimuthu Thavarajah, the nightmare began in April, 1978, with a late-night knock on the door of his stone cottage in the northern Sri Lankan farming village of Chankanai.

While his wife and two young children watched, six Sinhalese policemen arrested Thavarajah for conspiring with Tamil militants against the Sri Lankan government and took him to jail.

There, he says, they hanged him by his feet with ropes, held his face down on a table and beat his heels with a bat. Tamil villagers found Thavarajah, then a 28-year-old truck driver, by the roadside where he had been abandoned for dead and drove him 10 km to Jaffna General Hospital where he recovered. But Thavarajah—one of 155 Tamil refugees to seek asylum in Canada last week—said his life remained in peril as long as he stayed in Sri Lanka. From the Montreal hotel room where he spent his first night in his new city, Thavarajah told Maclean’s: “Chankanai was the home of my family for generations. But living in safety is more important.”

Escape: Most of the lifeboat passengers found drifting off the Newfoundland coast last week were young adult male Tamils. Like many of them, said Thavarajah, he lived in constant fear of what he described as increasingly indiscriminate violence by the Sri Lankan military. In his desperate bid to escape, Thavarajah left behind his family and carried no mementos of his former life—he even sold his wedding ring to finance the trip. Despite the warm greeting by the Montreal Tamil community, refugees like Thavarajah face the difficult task of learning two new languages and finding jobs. Said Prins Rajaselvan, 38, an unemployed air cargo manager who flew from Colombo to New York via London before crossing into Canada on a Greyhound bus last February: “Sometimes I get up in the morning and wonder what to do with the rest of my day. I do not want to be a burden on society.”

Thavarajah said that local fishermen in Sri Lanka will often rent their boats to escaping Tamils. Last January, Thavarajah decided to join the exodus as the first step in his plan to move his family out of Sri Lanka. After travelling north to a tiny coastal fishing village, he slipped on to a fishing boat at night along with five other Tamils to cross the 22-mile Palk Strait to India. “The army often shoots at the boats,” said Thavarajah. “But there are sympathetic people who will take you for the cost of fuel.”

Thavarajah said he spent one month in an Indian refugee camp, then travelled north to live with friends in the coastal city of Madras. He claimed that last month he paid 30,000 Indian rupees ($3,300 Cdn.) for his journey to Montreal. Thavarajah said that his group travelled on the upper deck of a ship and had no contact with the crew or other refugees below. When they were dropped overboard in lifeboats into the Atlantic, he and his fellow refugees thought that they were close to shore. “We were cheated,” he said.

Violence: Still, many observers say that as long as the violence in Sri Lanka continues, Tamils will find inventive ways to leave the country. “My aim was to go anywhere as long as I left the shores of Sri Lanka,” said Lakshmanan Kumaradeva, 30, who escaped last May escorted by two elderly women. “I pretended I was off my nut to get past military checkpoints,” he recounted.

But problems persist among the swelling ranks of Montreal’s Tamil refugee community. Even well-educated and skilled Tamils have had difficulty finding suitable work and monthly welfare payments for single people under 30 are only $163. Said Selva Ponnuchamy, president of the Eelam Tamil Association in Montreal and an employed chemist: “Tamils will do any kind of work. But many of us are accountants and engineers, so the frustration grows.” Still, those obstacles seem mundane to refugees whose memories of violence remain vivid. Said 23-year-old Ravi Raveenthiran, who arrived in Montreal last year: “I hope for marriage and I hope to go back to school. But for now at least I am safe.”

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