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Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (Refugee voices from exile) - From Jaffna to Warsaw

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1997

Rasaratham Suresh, a Tamil from Jaffna in Sri Lanka travelled a long way from his home town to a country he had hardly heard about before. His story illustrates how a mixture of political turmoil and economic hardship drives people from their home countries. It also shows how travel destinations unexpectedly change.

Interview by Jakub Boratynski

On a chilly February morning, the refugee reception centre in Debak near Warsaw is nearly empty. The day before, a large group of Somalis was moved to another centre in southern Poland. That's why Rasaratham Suresh does not have too many customers in the canteen where he sells cigarettes, candies and beer so we sit at an old wooden table and talk.

Last autumn, the 31-year-old Tamil arrived in a country he had hardly heard of before. Coming from a well-off middle class family in Jaffna, Rasaratham earned a degree in electronic engineering from the University of Colombo. He later married Kalevani, his high school sweetheart, who teaches the traditional Indian dance Bharatha Natiyam. Rasaratham says he never wished for anything extraordinary, just a simple, peaceful existence and a happy family life. He took seriously what his father, a former political activist, used to tell him: "Tamils do not have it easy. So study hard and find a good job." But it did not quite work out that way.

"Problems started when I was looking for my first job," he recalls now. "Any employer who realized that I was a Tamil no longer wanted to talk to me. Any young Tamil like me was automatically suspected of being a member of the Tamil Tigers" the army of the separatist movement in northern Sri Lanka.

Rasaratham, like many Sri Lankans of his generation, eventually found a job in one of the Persian Gulf countries. But he returned home after he received more and more worrying news about the safety of his family in Jaffna. In October 1991, his house was bombed. Kalevani survived by chance because she had gone to the kitchen just before the blast. "Before that incident we had problems but we could still stay in our house," Rasaratham said. "When that was destroyed and we lost everything, I really felt like a refugee." After that, as the frontlines continually shifted, so the Rasarathams were constantly forced to move from one place to another in search of safety.

In June 1994, during a routine police check in Colombo, Rasaratham was arrested and held for two weeks. He was released after his family paid the equivalent of $1,000, only to be arrested again in similar circumstances in August 1995. He says as a young Tamil, he was doomed to have problems either with the government or with the Tigers who tried to recruit young Tamils. "I neither wanted to work for the government nor was I keen on fighting for the Tigers," he says.

"My little daughter had a serious hearing problem as a result of the shelling. I was really afraid for her," he said. It finally made him decide to get out of Sri Lanka. This cost him $20,000, practically all the savings his brother had made while working in a restaurant in the mountain resort of St. Gallen in Switzerland. The money went to a smuggler in Colombo who euphemistically called himself a 'travel agent.'

Everything then happened very quickly. He recalls taking a taxi to the airport, where he showed his brand new passport and ticket. "The 'travel agent' had told me that everything was O.K. and I shouldn't worry," Rasaratham laughs sarcastically, "I really was not worried at that point. I thought that the $20,000 would get me to Zurich." To his astonishment the signs at the airport where he and his family landed read MOSCOW. In the arrival area, they were approached by a Russian who spoke little English but nevertheless collected the 'balance' of the money owed the so-called travel agent.

They spent five days in total isolation in a house on the outskirts of Moscow before being bundled into a car for 36 hours and finally dumped at another large house already full of Sri Lankans, Indians and Bangladeshis. "We were crammed into this house like sardines in a tin can," he says. "A guy brought us some water and biscuits. The 'Made in Poland' label on the packet of biscuits told me where I actually was."

Rasaratham was finally taken by the Polish police to a reception centre in the town of Debak where he "spent the first three months just sleeping and eating. It was very depressing." Eventually one of the centre's social workers, Mrs. Ania, asked him to run the canteen where he now earns 200 zloty ($70) per month and escapes the boredom just a little. His wife and daughter Anushika have joined him and life is getting better. "It's very simple," he says. "Here, we don't hear bombs and machine guns."

Asked whether he would like ever to return home, he responds, "Sri Lanka is my only mother country. One day I will go back there. We still have 50 acres of land which is now in the war zone." He points to his friend who has joined us at the canteen's table and says emphatically: "He is a very, very rich man. For generations they had accumulated so much land. Do you believe that if our country was peaceful we would have any economic problems?"

Rasaratham talks a lot about the future. A Polish businessman offered him a job. Mrs. Ania has told him that he could have his engineering degree recognized in Poland. And as more Sri Lankans start to settle in Poland, his wife could perhaps start giving dancing classes. At heart, whether in Sri Lanka or Poland, Rasaratham is an optimist. That is in sharp contrast to many asylum-seekers striving to make it to western Europe.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (1997)

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UNHCR country pages

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Most of the people working on the hundreds of tea plantations that dot Sri Lanka's picturesque hill country are descended from ethnic Tamils brought from India between 1820 and 1840 when the island was under British colonial rule. Although these people, known as "Hill Tamils," have been making an invaluable contribution to Sri Lanka's economy for almost two centuries, up until recently the country's stringent citizenship laws made it next to impossible for them to berecognized as citizens. Without the proper documents they could not vote, hold a government job, open a bank account or travel freely.

The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.

Things improved markedly, in October 2003, after the Sri Lankan parliament passed the "Grant of Citizenship to People of Indian Origin Act," which gave nationality to people who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1964 and to their descendants. UNHCR, the government of Sri Lanka and local organizations ran an information campaign informing Hill Tamils about the law and the procedures for acquiring citizenship. With more than 190,000 of the stateless people in Sri Lanka receiving citizenship over a 10-day period in late 2003, this was heralded as a huge success story in the global effort to reduce statelessness.

Also, in 2009, the parliament passed amendments to existing regulations, granting citizenship to refugees who fled Sri Lanka's conflict and are living in camps in India. This makes it easier for them to return to Sri Lanka if they so wish to.

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

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Shortly after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, killing over 30,000 people and displacing nearly 800,000, UNHCR was asked to take a lead role in providing transitional shelter – bridging the gap between emergency tents and the construction of permanent homes. The refugee agency is not normally involved in natural disasters, but lent its support to the effort because of the scale of the devastation and because many of the tsunami-affected people were also displaced by the conflict.

Since the 26 December 2004 tsunami, UNHCR has helped in the coordination and construction of over 55,000 transitional shelters and has directly constructed, through its partners, 4,500 shelters in Jaffna in the north, and Ampara District in the east. These efforts are helping some 20,000 people rebuild their lives.

On 15 November, 2005, UNHCR completed its post-tsunami shelter role and formally handed over responsibility for the shelter sector to the Sri Lankan government. Now, UNHCR is returning its full focus to its pre-tsunami work of providing assistance to people internally displaced by the conflict, and refugees repatriating from India.

Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

Picking Up the Pieces in Sri Lanka

In an unprecedented response to a natural disaster, the U.N. refugee agency – whose mandate is to protect refugees fleeing violence and persecution – has kicked off a six-month, multi-million dollar emergency relief operation to aid tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Somalia. UNHCR has worked in Sri Lanka for nearly 20 years and has the largest operational presence in the country with seven offices, 113 staff and a strong network of partnerships in place. The day of the tsunami, UNHCR opened up its warehouses in the island nation and began distributing existing stockpiles – including plastic sheeting, cooking sets and clothing for 100,000 people.

UNHCR estimates that some 889,000 people are now displaced in Sri Lanka, including many who were already displaced by the long-running conflict in the north. Prior to the tsunami, UNHCR assisted 390,000 people uprooted by the war. UNHCR is now expanding its logistical and warehouse capacity throughout the island to facilitate delivery of relief items to the needy populations, including in the war-affected area. The refugee agency is currently distributing relief items and funding mobile health clinics to assist the injured and sick.

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