It was a pleasant experience to return to Toronto during Christmas. Some 300,000 Tamils from Sri Lanka are contributing to the Canadian economy rather than to Sri Lanka’s. The recent Sri Lankan announcement not to grant dual citizenship to those who have sought refuge outside betrays a total failure to understand the Tamil experience.
I grew up in very happy times in Jaffna which ceased with the early 1970s. We remember growing up. The older boys went to university or work in the South and would thereafter be seen occasionally during vacations or when they came to marry a girl and take her away. With all development confined to the South since 1952, we simply produced a workforce for export. The war simply changed the destination from the South to the West. Wherever we have gone, we have innovated and adapted to the adopted environment as we built up new lives.
Many Tamils have come to Canada. It is said there are even 60 Tamil priests looking for placement in Toronto. All of them are “doing well,” with most at least owning a home.
Consider Muraleetharn who celebrates his fiftieth birthday on Jan. 2, the proud owner of Easwaran Takeout and Catering in Bramptoon, Ontario. He is from Peria-puli-aalan-kulam in the Chettikulam AGA Division, with characteristic multi-word hyphenated Tamil village names. His father was Selvanayaham, the TULF Village Council Chairman 1970-77. With Selvanayaham’s early death, Muralee dropped out of school and turned to farming. He married Manoranji whose job was to cook for all the field workers and carry the food to the fields balanced on her head, atop a chummaadu (rolled piece of cloth). He remembers Peria-puli-aalan-kulam as a happy place with rich fields fed by three ponds and some 30 children always playing. He says that they were self-contained except for “salt and sugar.” Without the war, that is where he would still be, a farmer in a complex world unable to direct and satisfy the ambitions of his talented children.
The war broke out. With regular army atrocities that destroyed their houses, only 2 children are to be seen in Peria-puli-aalan-kulam. The family’s herd of goats was sold for the eldest brother to flee to Germany and the next to London. Muralee and Manoranji had their son Selvaruban and daughter Thiviya when the daughter Niluja was born at the Madu refugee camp. They soon sheltered in abandoned houses in the Muslim village of Kaakayan-kulam which the Tigers had ethnically cleansed of Muslims. With further disturbances they moved to Puttalam as refugees. In 1994, using the earlier proceeds from selling his tractor and contributions from brothers, he paid $15000 to an agent and arrived in the US with 9 others as a seaman and was left by the agent at the border in Buffalo with $35 for the bus ticket to Toronto. The border agents found him eligible for asylum and let him through to apply for refugee papers.
With regular papers, the family joined him and by 2000 they had saved enough to pay $21000 as down payment for a $189000 house. He has brought down several relations to Canada since then – hock family jewels with a Chinaman at 2% a month interest for the since increased agent fees of $25-30,000 and they come and begin paying back the Chinaman slowly and redeem the jewels for him. There have also been disasters as a brother-in-law joined the Tigers and had to be brought out quickly as the fighting with Karuna escalated. He was arrested en route, once in Malaysia and another time in Dubai before things worked out for him.
In 2002 August he started Easwaran Caterers, a name chosen by writing the names of all his gods on slips of paper and then drawing a name. It was then the first Tamil takeout in Brampton where better-off Tamils were moving after establishing in Scarborough. As such they had some margin for error as customers after ordering string hoppers would even wait as much as an hour. He says the only thing they knew was from Manoranji’s experience and energy cooking for workers from age 15. They had 10 rice cookers going to meet the volume required. They struggled in their amateurish way.
A Brampton customer, Richmond Paulpillai with his own success story was staring his Medical School in the Caribbean, All Saints Medical School in Dominica. His selling points in relation to North American universities were low tuition ($4500 a semester unlike $25,000 in the US), an accelerated program with 3 semesters a year, the final semester and clinical rotations in the US (which make students poised to get US internships) and, like in the British system, a straight path to the medical degree without having to spend 4 years first on a first degree.
Paulpillai persuaded Muraleetharn to let his son Selvaruban join his first class. For loans for the tuition, owning the house hurt. So a scheme was proposed by a friend who would take title to the house. That helped Selvaruban at medical school but backfired when the friend would not return the house and served eviction notice on them in 2008.
Upon graduation Selvaruban got good scores in the USMLE and is now finishing his residency in the US at $5000 a month and by June will earn well over $200,000 a year. He is engaged to a Tamil neurosurgeon (whose parents Maraleetharan says, “have asked me to name the dowry” which he has declined). Thiviya has now finished her own medical program, helped by Selvaruban, and will do her clinical rotations soon.
The business too has matured after a Tamil friend from Kilinochchi began working for them after 11 years of experience in a restaurant in Switzerland. They know now how to handle the scale without 10 rice cookers going at once. Today they rake in $2000-3000 a day.
He has an even better house – a $500,000 house he picked up in bankruptcy proceedings for $390,000, putting down $30,000 of his own and another $30,000 which he says he “rolled.”
Doing so well, Muraleetharan has not forgotten home despite how his country treated him. He is presently putting up classrooms in Chettikulam in memory of his father.
He and his family have done better than most professionals. We cannot work 12-13 hours a day from 10:00 AM 7 days of the week. We will be embarrassed to “roll” cash. We will not have the support mechanisms of large extended families nor can we live cramped in apartments and the wife cannot be asked to slave with the husband at a shop because that goes against our middle class values.
Muralee’s experience reminds me of the Prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17:7-24) who was hated by the King who was being punished by God by denying the land of rain. There was famine. As the king sought to Kill Elijah, Elijah was sheltered by a woman with a son, despite the famine. She had enough only for a meal for herself and her son. Yet she fed Elijah and her supply of flour and oil did not finish as she made hoppers for Elijah till the rains returned.
In some ways Muraleetharan’s plentiful flour and oil are the herd of goats he sold to send his brother to Germany. It has sustained his family. His children are doctors. He has a thriving business. He loves Peria-puli-aalan-kulam and indeed Sri Lanka. His story is not unlike the story of most Tamil refugees in Canada who fled because of problems and have done well.
Did they do wrong by Sri Lanka in telling their true stories to get a new life that was denied them in Sri Lanka? To broadly hold them all ineligible for dual citizenship is plumb wrong.