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From refugee to councillor: A Sri Lankan in Britain

From refugee to councillor: A Sri Lankan in Britain

The story of a Tamil who fled persecution at home and who is now a respected local leader in his adopted land.
31 July 2002
Paul Sathianesan (third from right) awaiting the results of the local elections in May. He won and retained his position as a councillor in the Eastham constituency of London.

LONDON (UNHCR) - No sooner had Councillor Paul Sathianesan stepped out of his local Sri Lankan restaurant, than he was besieged by well-wishers. Sathianesan is a celebrity in Eastham, a working-class area of London boasting the capital's biggest refugee population. In May he was elected for the second time as the area's local government councillor, polling the highest number of votes.

"I am so grateful that God has given me a second chance to achieve something in life and that I have been allowed to serve refugees," he said.

Sathianesan himself is a refugee. Seventeen years ago, he gave up a good job and a comfortable middle-class existence in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, arriving in Eastham with no money, little English and few prospects.

"I felt so guilty running away. I didn't even have time to tell my parents, but after the police raided my office and arrested my father, I knew that I was a wanted man," he recalled.

Life for Sathianesan, a Tamil, was not easy in Sri Lanka. He had left his hometown of Jaffna in search of work in Colombo. "I always felt I was being watched, singled out by the Sinhalese authorities."

His arrival could not have come at a worse time. The civil war between the government and Tamils pressing for self-rule was at its height. Caught in the battle, Sathianesan's boarding house was torched and he went into hiding before escaping by boat back to Jaffna. Many of his Tamil friends and relatives were less fortunate, ending up in refugee camps. But with no work in Jaffna, he soon came back to his job in a printing company in Colombo.

Sathianesan said his company was falsely accused of sending Tamils abroad for military training. "The day after the authorities raided the office, my boss handed me a plane ticket to London, saying my life was in danger."

He boarded a direct flight to London, with 74 other Tamils. It was the start of the mass exodus. A few months later, the United Kingdom imposed visa restrictions. Since then, many refugees have turned to traffickers to help them enter western countries.

In 1985, refugees were allowed to work as soon as they arrived. Within a month, Sathianesan was doing voluntary work and within six months he had secured a paid job with the Refugee Council as an advisor. Since then, he has not looked back, building European networks for Tamils and other communities, representing Eastham on the local council, chairing the Eastham community forum and leading various community voluntary organisations. He is also encouraging investment in this deprived part of London.

Personally, it has not been so easy to adapt to life in Britain. "There is not a very strong community spirit in London. Few people know their neighbours and there is a strong tendency to pigeonhole people like me."

Sathianesan is proud to now be called a councillor, but says that ever since he came to Britain, he has been labelled as an asylum seeker, a refugee and a Sri Lankan. He wishes people would peel away the label and just know him as Paul.

His dream, like that of many refugees, is to return home. His parents have joined him in Eastham, but he still misses Sri Lanka. A friend has just gone back for a holiday for the first time in 22 years. Sathianesan has asked him to bring back a handful of sand from one of Sri Lanka's beautiful beaches.

"I really want to go back when there is permanent peace," he said. "But until then, the sand is the nearest I am going to get to touching my country's soil."

By Claire Doole
UNHCR London