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Jeya Surendran

I was born and raised in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It was my home. In July 1983, I was fifteen years old and studying at St Bridget’s Convent. We were supposed to be safe in Colombo. If there was a riot, I always thought ‘they’ would make arrangements for our security. But that wasn’t the case. When I look back on July 1983, I remember the hurtful experiences. However as fifteen-year-old girl, all I could think was, “No school!” because they closed down the schools when the violence started. I didn’t think that our life was going to be turned upside down.

On July 25th, many people used the word “trouble” in Colombo or “there is trouble going on”. My younger sisters and I usually took the school bus home, but that day my father said that he would come and pick us up in his own van. On the way home that day, we gave lifts to people on the way and dropped them off in Wellawatte or Dehiwela. On the way, I remember seeing shops burnt, tires burnt, mobs with sticks and knives.

As soon as we arrived home, we thought we would be safe. But this was not so. We were renting at that time and the house was owned by another Tamil man. Given the high risk of the situation, the owner was asked to leave the house. Since we had lived in the same house for more than 15 years and my dad was businessman, we thought we were safe. But even our neighbours suggested that we pack our things and stay elsewhere temporarily. We didn’t know where to go. Some of our Sinhalese neighbours invited us to stay with them. My mom and dad used to visit India very often and they had very expensive sarees and jewellery. So we packed these things first. But how much could we pack? So we packed the most valuable of our possessions and gave them to our Singhalese neighbours who were our good friends. I remember we used to share anything we cooked. We moved into the home of another Sinhala neighbour who lived on the same street. They suggested that my dad should be separated from us, and live elsewhere as they were killing men mostly. He left. As children, we were very young and confused. We wondered where they were taking our father. A day or two later, we came back to see our home, but the entire house was burnt to the ground because it had been identified as a Tamil home. Finally, we saw our father again, and thankfully nothing had happened to him.

The police then arrived and suggested we go to a camp. So we went to the Ratmalana camp. My mom left with only a night gown. She had never left home in anything other than a saree, but that day she had to leave in a night gown to Ratmalana camp. It was very painful to see. It was not just us. The bus was full of other Tamils as was the Ratmalana camp itself. It was only then that we realized the seriousness of what was happening. We never thought this would happen. We were born there. We were brought up there. We lived there. We didn’t think that this was what “troubles” meant. On the 29th, when we were at the Ratmalana camp. A rumour went around that the Tigers were in Colombo. There was so much tension. Our lives were uncertain. It felt as if we would be lucky to survive through it all. We didn’t have any connection with the outside world. We didn’t know which of our relatives had survived. When we saw other people we knew in the camp, we greeted each other by saying, “This happened to you too?” We stayed on in the camp for over two months by sleeping on the floor and eating whatever was available. When the camp got full, we were transferred to a school, which acted as a camp. None of our Sinhala neighbours with whom we had been so close invited us to stay with them, which was very sad. Finally, a Sinhalese driver who worked for my dad came and took us away from the camp. We finally saw our relatives again.

One of the bitterest experiences was when we went back to our Sinhala neighbours for our possessions and they claimed that our goods had been stolen.

Soon after the riots, we left Colombo. In May 1984, we decided to leave for India by ship. Our family went to Mannar and then to Rameswaram where we registered as refugees. We couldn’t stay there as it was overcrowded with Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. Appa had a friend in Madurai. So we moved and continued our studies there. I went on to do a sociology degree there. We went through difficult times in India. Appa’s business in Colombo had been burnt and we had sold everything in Sri Lanka before leaving. In India, he was not as active as he had been. So financially, it was very difficult for us. . We went from being well-to-do family to having nothing.

As a Sri Lankan citizen, getting a job in Tamil Nadu was not easy. So in 1990, I came back to Sri Lanka and started to work there. It was a huge change in circumstances for us. With every bomb that went off, the tension would escalate. In 1991, my parents arranged for me to come to Canada. Soon after, I arrived in Canada as a refugee.

After my marriage in 1992, I continued my studies at Seneca College and successfully attained a diploma in Social Work. I started working as a Child Care worker and later found job as a Settlement worker. Though it was financially difficult, I wanted to desperately bring my parents to Canada. It was more difficult living in anxiety about the security of my parents and sisters. My husband and I were finally able to sponsor them in 1997. It brought me immense joy to be reunited with them in our new home- Canada. Finally, we were all safe.

After working more than 15 years as a Settlement worker, I continue to cherish every moment of my career. My experiences as a refugee has helped me work closely with many new Canadians especially refugees from Sri Lanka. By supporting them through their new journey and in sharing in our experiences, it has helped me heal and become a stronger person despite Black July.

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