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With Palme d’or-winning film Dheepan – about a Tamil refugee’s struggle in Paris – opening in Toronto on May 13, its star and the city's Tamils speak openly about their experiences in their home country and adopted city
I was a refugee – my parents brought me to Canada. We were escaping Sri Lanka after our home was looted and set ablaze during the 1983 Black July riots, an anti-Tamil pogrom in which years of ethnic tension boiled over and gave way to a full-out war between the nation’s army and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).
We escaped to Hong Kong, then Tokyo, got a visa to Peru and a flight that connected in Vancouver. When we hopped off, Canadian border agents were there, ready to welcome us to our new home: “Sri Lankan refugees, this way.”
My story is not unique, especially in Canada, where an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Tamils reside, most in the GTA. We only make up one wave of refugees. The Vietnamese came in the 70s, the Somalis in the 90s and the Syrians today.
Next week, Toronto theatres will welcome a Palme d’Or-winning film that captures the Sri Lankan refugee experience like none before. In Dheepan (NNNNN), a former Tamil Tiger lands in Paris with a woman and child who pretend to be his family. They struggle to communicate in a new language, find work, acclimatize to a new culture and keep up hope. Many Torontonians understand that story intimately, whether they’re Tamil or not. In the GTA, there are so many more stories like it.
Toronto’s Tamils have built a cultural centre and become “the backbone” of the restaurant industry (according to Corey Mintz). The community is so large that anyone running for office has to consider the Tamil vote along the campaign trail.
You see them every day, but you may not know what it took for them to get here. These are some of those stories.
When Arunthathy found out her son has autism, she wasn’t sure what that meant. The subject is taboo in South Asian communities. The single mother of two is grateful that she had her children in Canada, where support services are available. Things would have been different had she still lived in Sri Lanka.
She left that country after the army closed in on her Jaffna-area village in 1999, beginning systematic interrogations and intimidation of locals. With the help of an older brother living in England, she escaped via Singapore and an immigration camp in California. They both eventually arrived in Canada.
“I didn’t like it,” says Arunthathy. “It was November – so dark and cold. I asked, ‘Why did you bring me here?’ and my older brother responded, ‘This is a really good place.'”
They landed in an apartment at Jane and Finch, and she began the process of becoming Canadian, ditching the churidar for jeans and watching cartoons to learn English. She started going to school during the day and working evening shifts at Tim Hortons. She married and had a son, Pradeep, and daughter, Subitsa.
When Pradeep approached school age, his behaviour changed. He started acting up, refusing to eat and attacking others. That’s when she learned about autism. Soon after, her husband passed away in a swimming accident.
“As a single mom still struggling with the language, it’s not easy,” she says, elaborating that even getting groceries is a challenge when your son could lash out violently in public. “I couldn’t reach out to others because I couldn’t expect them to be patient with my son. I didn’t have any friends. It felt like every door was closed to me.”
She was eventually referred to the South Asian Autism Awareness Centre (SAAAC). This not-for-profit group builds the discussion around autism and provides support services like behavioural therapy and arts programs led by volunteers who speak the same language.
“They provide a community for him,” says Arunthathy, who finds relief at SAAAC every Tuesday and Thursday. “It was good for me, too, because I met other mothers with my struggle. We could talk and laugh.”
Since landing in Canada in 2009, Illamaran “Maran” Nagarasa has been going to school and working at a multicultural radio station. He still remembers the first time he heard our national anthem.
“We Tamils don’t have a country. We don’t have our own soil. When I was taking classes at a school in Toronto, the first time they sang O Canada, I felt something I’d never felt before. There was real patriotism in that room.”
Canada is not yet home to Maran, a scenario that leaves him feeling like a “half-dead body.”
He’s in legal limbo, waiting on a permanent residence status that has eluded him all these years. He needs it so he can begin the process of bringing his family to Toronto.
They are in Chennai and haven’t seen Maran since he left Sri Lanka. There, he worked as freelance reporter, operating his own online news agency while the government kept the international media out. Reporters across the country relayed information to him about war crimes and atrocities, which he then fed to news outlets abroad. He and his friends were often the targets of threats and intimidation because of their work. Some didn’t make it.
In 2004, 15 minutes after his colleague Aiyathurai Nadesan met with Maran, paramilitaries gunned down Nadesan within earshot of Maran. The following year, Maran’s mentor, Taraki Sivaram, disappeared days after they hosted a workshop together for young journalists.
“The next day his body was found in a high-security zone near the Sri Lankan parliament,” he tells me in the safety of a Scarborough Tim Hortons.
Maran continued his work until 2009, when a paramilitary commander asked him to cooperate and write promotional copy. Maran refused, so the commander made sly threats toward his wife and four-year-old daughter.
Maran escaped, leaving his wife and child in the care of his mother – they took a separate route out. He flew to Thailand and ended up bartering with human smugglers. They stuck him on long bus rides and then a small boat. After 28 hours they met the infamous MV Ocean Lady in the middle of the ocean.
That cargo ship carried Maran and 75 others on a perilous 45-day journey. Ferocious storms tossed the passengers below deck around “like footballs.” Most didn’t know where they were headed Australia was a possibility.
Near the end of the journey, a plane with a maple leaf painted on its tail flew overhead. They’d landed in Victoria, BC, but their relief soon gave way to terror as authorities arrested them at gunpoint and quickly transferred them to a prison in Vancouver.
Maran only found out what was happening from a television set inside his shared prison cell: Sri Lankan authorities had linked the Ocean Lady with the LTTE.
“They want to destroy us,” says Maran, referring to the continued reports from Sri Lanka’s defence ministry that the Ocean Lady harboured bogus asylum seekers armed with RDX explosives. “They want to silence us because the Sri Lankan authorities know we are living witnesses of genocidal war crimes.”
The Harper government ate up the Sri Lankan government’s story, seeking to make an example of the Ocean Lady and take a hard line against illegal migrants who pose “terrorist” risks.
Four months after his arrival, in October 2009, Maran was released from the Vancouver prison on a bond from a media friend in Toronto. He received a work permit in 2010 and started building a life, all while dealing with a frustratingly long immigration process.
He’s anxiously awaiting the day the Canadian government makes room for a family reunion. His daughter was four years old when they parted.
She’s 11 now.
Former Tamil Tiger
Almost 33 years have passed since Black July, the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom and riots in Sri Lanka, when homes were burned down (mine being one) and thousands killed. That incident sparked mass migration from the island nation. It also inspired thousands of young men to ditch school and join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Velu was one of them.
The former Tamil Tiger is now a family man living in the GTA. He is known to Canadian immigration, but because his residency is still uncertain, we cannot reveal his real name. Nor can we be specific about how he came to Canada in the 90s, leaving the LTTE when it strayed from the ideology that inspired him to join in the first place.
“I have seen Tamil families lose everything,” says Velu, remembering the tensions and institutional discrimination that boiled up to Black July. “Tamils were treated as second-class citizens.”
When Black July happened, Velu’s family was saved by a neighbouring Sinhalese family.
“There were a lot of good Sinhalese people,” he points out, arguing that you don’t have to be hateful to fight for a cause. “Not all Sinhalese are racist. And not all Tamils are good. We have Tamil racists, too.”
Velu described his time with Tigers as a golden period in Tamil militancy. They were a band of guerrillas accepted by the people, controlling a de facto state in the entire Jaffna peninsula. Over time, he became frustrated with their politics, their refusal to win the hearts and minds as they pushed harder with a militant agenda.
When Velu decided to leave the LTTE, he had to leave Sri Lanka.
“You’re never safe from other Tamil militant groups, the government of Sri Lanka or even the Tamil Tigers,” he says. He ended up in Canada by pure chance, and he considers himself lucky for it.
“All over the world people fight over their differences,” says Velu. “In Canada, we celebrate differences.”
Former gang member
Rajan works long hours at a factory job seven days a week. He’s trying to piece his life back together after serving a decade in prison.
His sentence was negotiated in a plea deal. The charges stemmed from a fight in Scarborough that ended with a man being shot and killed. I can’t reveal more about the case or his real name, which has been changed to protect his identity.
He sounds defeated by the way things turned out in the years since he escaped Sri Lanka. He witnessed war all through his early years and was in his late teens when he arrived in
Scarborough in the mid-90s. He grew up in the kind of low-income apartment block that houses immigrants and gangs, where newcomers are easy targets for racist bullying.
“They would always harass us,” Rajan remembers. “They would call us Pakis. You couldn’t walk alone because you would get picked on or jumped by the black gangs. So you have a choice, you’re either a nobody or you number up and be somebody.”
Rajan’s reasoning was shared by many of the Tamil men who ended up forming the now notorious Tamil gangs. Whether by fist or machete, they initially built unity and made examples out of anybody who tried to pick on them.
“When we built our reputation, we got our respect,” he says. “It’s a terrible way to be, but when you’re in that moment, it’s what’s most important.”
Eventually, bitter rivalries between the Tamil gangs took over. Rajan was affiliated with the AK Kannan gang, who waged a long, bloody war with the VVT. In 2001, Project 1050 – massive raids coordinated by police and immigration – disrupted the gangs, and several members were deported back to Sri Lanka.
When 1050 happened, Rajan was already serving time for the mistake he can’t take back.
“I wish I didn’t go that night, bro,” he says. “It destroyed families. If I stayed home or we hung out somewhere else, he would still be alive and maybe have his own family. I think about what his life would have been like every day.”
Before he walked the Croisette at Cannes, Antonythasan Jesuthasan was working in restaurants and a supermarket. After the film Dheepan, in which he starred, won the Palme d’Or, French President François Hollande hosted Jesuthasan at a celebratory dinner.
The president inquired about his next steps.
“I’m still living off my money from the film,” Jesuthasan told him. “When that runs out, I’ll go back to work at the supermarket.”
He wasn’t kidding. Jesuthasan is a humble sort who works for his livelihood and lives for his art and beliefs. He’s moonlighted as an author under the pen name Shobasakthi but has rarely seen royalties from his novels. He’s currently in Toronto shooting an independent Tamil film he wrote with Lenin M. Sivam, the director of 1999. Jesuthasan isn’t even sure he’ll be paid for the gig he’s just grateful his meals and accommodations are covered.
We’re in his room at the Travelodge motel in Scarborough. Jesuthasan is brewing coffee for me and our translator, a brother-in-arms from his days with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Jesuthasan’s history with the Tamil Tigers is the reason Dheepan director Jacques Audiard chose him to play a former guerrilla who escapes to France to forge a new life.
Like his character, Jesuthasan escaped to France using a doctored passport. He roomed with friends from his old village, all of them rotating one person’s work permit to find jobs as dishwashers, street sweepers or bellhops.
“To save two euros, I used to jump over the turnstiles at the Métro,” he says, sounding nostalgic. “Now people recognize me and smile. I have no choice – I have to buy a ticket.”
While Dheepan’s success has cost Jesuthasan his anonymity in France, it afforded him the opportunity to bring more attention to micro-budget Tamil films like the one he’s making in Toronto with Sivam.
“The Tamil community struggles to get their voice out as an art form because they don’t have an industry to support it,” he says.
He’s not talking about the lucrative song-and-dance movies that come from Kollywood (the cinema of Tamil Nadu, India). He focuses his efforts on stories about the diaspora and the struggles back home. That’s something that the Tamil movie industry in India has never really bothered with.
“There are so many social issues in India, and their movies can’t even deal with that,” he snaps. “We can’t expect them to bother with Sri Lankan Tamil problems.”
Another challenge for Jesuthasan comes from within the Tamil diaspora. His novels and his previous film, The Dead Sea (Sengadal), have been critical not just of the Sri Lankan government, but also of the LTTE. The people who supported the Tigers to the bitter end have been vocal in their opposition.
The Dead Sea, which played 40 festivals across the world, was scheduled to screen in Toronto in 2013 during the FeTNA (Federation of Tamil Sangams in North America) convention, a large annual gathering. The film was pulled at the last minute because of that very pressure.
Attitudes have cooled since, and many of those opposing voices have embraced Dheepan. Is the Tamil community ready to tackle these stories because the war in Sri Lanka is over?
“The war is not over,” Jesuthasan answers. “My village, Allaipiddy, is still controlled by the army. People’s lands have been taken. There are still over 10,000 political prisoners. The military fighting may have ended, but equal rights have not been won.”
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