Last August, Sribaskaran Rajathurai drifted into St. Mary’s Bay off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland in a dangerously overcrowded lifeboat amid a blaze of international publicity.
As one of 155 Hindu Tamils who had made a desperate journey across the Atlantic Ocean from West Germany, Rajathurai, 24, was part of the story that focused unprecedented attention on Canada’s refugee policies.
Now working as a machine operator in a Montreal plastics factory, Rajathurai has mixed feelings about the attention surrounding last summer’s boat landing.
Said Rajathurai: “In one way, it helped to show Canadians about the atrocities committed by the government in Sri Lanka,” a reference to the alleged misconduct of Sri Lankan military forces in the country’s civil war. But like many of Montreal’s estimated 4,000 Tamils, Rajathurai says that he fears he may become a target of the growing resentment against refugee claimants in Canada.
One year after his ordeal, Rajathurai said that his worst memories of the Atlantic crossing have faded. With the help of Montreal’s Tamil community, Rajathurai has adopted some aspects of Canadian culture, including a fascination with professional wrestling. But like many of the Tamil refugees, Rajathurai still has not mastered English or French. And he closely follows political developments in Sri Lanka, in hopes that the shaky truce in the civil war will last and allow him to return.
Like the others, Rajathurai remains in Canada under a special ministerial permit issued on his arrival. The document, renewed for another year last week, allows him to work legally. But his long-term status remains in doubt. This month he and the other Tamils must decide whether to ask that their permits be renewed or to apply formally for refugee status.
Ten pounds heavier now than when he arrived in Newfoundland, the
slightly built five-foot, three-inch Rajathurai lives in a two-bedroom apartment with three other Tamil refugees who accompanied him on the crossing. Located in Montreal’s ethnically diverse Côte-des-Neiges district, the apartment is evidence of the conflicting influences tugging at the refugees. Above the English-language wrestling magazine spread out on a wooden coffee table is a wall calendar celebrating Tamil guerrillas killed in combat with the Sri Lankan government.
Risky: That struggle prompted Rajathurai to leave Sri Lanka in 1985 for West Germany, where he applied for refugee status but was not allowed to work. Bored and fed up with cramped living conditions, he paid $3,000 to make the risky voyage to Canada aboard the freighter Aurigae. Rajathurai said the nightmares that
plagued him after the voyage stopped within a few weeks of his arrival in Canada: “I still remember being tossed about with no sign of land and thinking that I was going to die.” Rajathurai said that he is is thankful for the support of his fellow Tamils in Canada. In Montreal, where 93 members of the group initially settled, he discovered a close-knit community served by stores that import familiar food, spices and video cassettes of Tamil movies.
Skills: Still, Rajathurai admits that some Montreal Tamils were angry at the publicity that followed the lifeboat landings. He said that they feared the attention would hurt the chances of other Tamils who want to immigrate to Canada. For that reason, some community leaders insist that no special attention be paid to the much-scrutinized group. Said Kandiah Kanagarajah, a former vice-president of the Eelam Tamil Association of Quebec: “If Tamil refugees are working and being good citizens, that is all Canadians should care about.”
Still, Tamils continue to arrive in Montreal every week, often using forged documents. But many move on to Toronto, where jobs are more plentiful and even rudimentary English skills are more valuable. According to Selva Ponnuchamy, a former president of the Montreal Tamil association, fewer than 30 of the 93 Tamils who originally settled in Montreal last August remain there.
For those who have stayed, the Tamil association offers language courses at its community centre, located in an old church building in downtown Montreal. And like his roommate Gunasegaram Alvapillai, 25, who also made last summer’s perilous voyage, Rajathurai says that he still hopes to return to Sri Lanka. Said Rajathurai: “We will go back when we are sure the killing has stopped.”
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