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Calls From Back Home: Telling the Stories of the War Diaspora

First published in The Aerogram on 17th July 2013. See here for original article. Text reproduced in full below.

Photograph The Aerogram

When my Amma calls me on the telephone, she sometimes fills the distance that separates us by reading me her poetry and asking me for translations and opinions. She often wants me to translate her own writing from our shared mother tongue, Tamil, to German or English. This leads to inevitable debates on words, meanings, worlds and linguistic displacements. Many of her poetry and short stories center around themes on war, resistance, diaspora, feminism, her hometown Jaffna and her own beloved mother.

As politicized people who have been exiled for many years, my Amma and Appa never try to hide their feeling of homesickness. Sometimes it feels like they’ve been waiting all day for the opportunity to talk with me, their youngest son and share the news from back home.

My parents arrived as refugees in Germany — empty-handed. Back home is the land they left amidst war and terror, fleeing racial pogroms, bombings, torture and assassinations. Although we’ve lived in Europe for 28 years now, arriving here never equaled economic and social security for us. Like many other forcefully displaced women and men, we struggled. My parents arrived as refugees in Germany — empty-handed. In order to survive my Amma cleaned dozens of households and restaurants for almost two decades — facing racist insults and abuse almost daily. Her educational background was never acknowledged and neither was her intelligence. She was the Other.

Nevertheless, she added shift after shift, sometimes going from one house straight to another to clean. She walked through the idyllic Bavarian village in her work clothes, afraid to be seen by her children or recognized by neighbours. She was underpaid and overworked. The little money she received, she divided to donate some of it to the people back home.

During our many conversations, my Amma regularly updates me on her involvement with private sponsorship programs for young Tamil students, orphans, women-led households and others set up by the diasporic communities to support the war-ravaged community back home. During the Sri Lankan civil-war and beyond, Tamil refugees and immigrants residing in Western countries began collecting money and supplies for those unable to leave. This remains a story often unheard or deliberately silenced in discussions about war diasporas. For years she has sponsored dozens of orphaned students and women-led households in the Jaffna, Vanni and Mannar regions in the north and east of Sri Lanka, the region we refer to as Eelam.

But her support is not just financial. She writes letters to female students and mothers, encouraging them to invest in sewing machines and cattle to create sustainable economic conditions. Together with her circle of poet friends she organizes aid for additional children and diverts others to her transnational network of friends reaching as far as Vancouver and Canberra. She puts out donation boxes in the restaurants she cleans and puts the tips she receives for her hard work into a red little box decorated with photos of destitute Tamil children. During Christmas parties or birthday celebrations she walks around and asks people to donate some money to, as Hindus do, return a good deed on an auspicious day for more blessings.

On our birthdays she donated money to Hindu temples in Eelam to provide free food for impoverished people. She opened bank accounts in our names and donated the money to orphaned students. Reacting to desperate announcements for help on diasporic radio channels, she called her sisters in Canada, Denmark and Norway to help more people beyond their initial network. She rallied other relatives, often disenchanted by Sri Lankan politics and consumed with their own lives, to lend their support. Even if she was increasingly emotionally and physically strained, she was never too tired to help.

Despite all she did, she never would brag about the help she provided. Never would she tell the people back home how she earned her money. Never would she tell her middle class diasporic friends in Canada, Australia, Britain and America how she struggled. Never would she tell anyone how she survived in the West. How she faced self-inflicted and imposed humiliations every single day — at 53 — mop in hand to clean filthy toilets. Never would she tell them of the many times she cried in the face of losses she continues to face almost 30 years after fleeing Sri Lanka.

My Amma’s dignity continues to live in the farce of pretending to do okay, to live well. And if folks back home would ask, she learned to embellish her reality. And taught her children to do the same. Being humiliated by white people is more than enough, being humiliated by fellow South Asians would hurt her even more.Being humiliated by fellow South Asians would hurt her even more. Especially the people she so strongly believes in and strives to help.

As my mother talks to me on the phone one day, I picture her lying on the couch — exhausted from her double-shift. Wide-awake. All she can think of is home — and a sharp remark from one of the young people she sponsors. The girl has no concept of the sacrifices my Amma made to fund her education — she simply thinks it her due. It breaks my mother’s heart.

The perception that the refugee community as a whole thrives is a tiresome concept to fight. I see many diasporic families around struggling for survival like mine. Even 20 to 30 years after many of us have fled, we continue to struggle. We continue to face crisis and we still long for peace of mind and socioeconomic security.

It’s exhausting to hear others, whether it’s back home or abroad, speak for us — throwing out buzzwords like “success stories” or “model minorities.” I’m tired of this monologue that excludes us working class refugees. I’m tired of having to explain our position, our mobilities or rather the lack thereof. I’m tired of others framing our debates and discourses and conveniently forgetting our existence or placing us into a far-gone past. I’m tired of this monologue that excludes us working class refugees.

I think of my mother.

She insists that I not reduce her to the figure of the refugee, the working-class woman, but speak about the parts that no one sees, that she fears to be forgotten by others and someday, maybe also herself. My mother, the educated Tamil woman born into privileged Jaffnese background. Passionate. Articulate. Daring. Rebellious. A woman who never shied away from societal taboos or political cleavages. Who has not just lost her home, her family and her land because of war and racism, but also parts of herself. Whose loss is not just confined to the past but to the present. Whose suffering is not just hers but that of many other refugees all over the world.

Those of us who clean, work in kitchens, in stock rooms, car factories, live in tower blocks, social housing, placed just above or under the poverty demarcation line, classified as the lowest taxation group, struggling to make a living in the present and to obtain an adequate pension in the future, those whose children couldn’t afford education if they weren’t getting grants and loans for underprivileged families, who have to do multiple shifts to finance their ticket to a better future — they are here, amongst us, amongst you. Their struggles aren’t a far-gone past, but are instead a current reality for millions.

I wish we would take a moment and stop embellishing our working class diasporic reality.  Share our stories. Stop being ashamed of who we are as a people.Stop being ashamed of who we are as a people. Stop feeling embarrassed. Stop lying about where we came from and how we came to be. We have successfully left behind bombs and terror, but our fight for recognition and self-respect still continues.

All of us hold responsibilities. Amongst them is the responsibility to examine our positions, privileges and diversities — and share those stories.

Sinthujan Varatharajah is a collector and narrator of stories on migration, refugeehood and diaspora. He graduated in race, ethnicity and postcolonial studies from the London School of Economics and starts his PhD in human geography at University College London this year. Find him on Twitter at @varathas.