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Human Rights Solidarity speak on Tamil refugees

Human Rights Solidarity commemorated refugee week and world refugee day by speaking to Gayathri Thivyaa, a medical student at Imperial College London and the child of Tamil refugees who fled the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Reflecting on her own experiences as well as the experience of her parents, Thivyaa spoke about the impact that trauma has on refugees and their children, saying also that “the impact […} on subsequent generations is overlooked.” She also spoke about the hardship of Tamils in Sri Lanka as well as the difficulties they face once they come to a new country.

“I’ve seen the first hand affect the war has had on my parents and their family. It’s not just been on their health but also on their education, which has impacted their access to jobs, their ability to trust people, their friendship, their family, their relationships.”

Thivyaa maintains that “Tamil refugees haven’t been granted justice” and that this is a driving force for her passion for working for refugees. There are still “missing parents, missing children […] stories that need to be heard.”

At the end of the armed conflict, an approximate 70-140,000 Tamils were killed in during the final stages. Sri Lanka has one of the highest counts of enforced disappearances with over 100,000 disappearances since the 1980s.  Thousands were seen last in the custody of the military but were never seen again. Families of the disappeared have protested for over 1,200 days, many of these family members have died waiting for an account of where their loved ones are.

Read more here: 1,200 days of protest and still no answers

Thivyaa also talked about the role that employers, teachers and healthcare professionals have in ensuring that refugees feel welcome.

Commenting on employers she notes that refugees are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. This may be that many refugees are undocumented. This enables exploitation as predatory employers may underpay workers knowing that they cannot report them to authorities without themselves facing the threat of deportation.

UK immigration law further prevents refugees from taking up employment for a full 12 months. Instead they are provided a small allowance by the government. This has been criticised by refugee rights groups such as Refugee Action which has called for the £36.95 granted weekly to be increased by £20, in line with universal credit.

Thivyaa further notes that teachers have a special role in welcoming young refugees to the country and breaking down existing barriers such as linguistic barriers. Many refugees, who have had to deal with the shock of war and violence have difficulty trusting authorities due to their experiences.

This fear of authorities was not helped by Britain’s hostile environment policy which forced banks, employers, landlords, and front-line services to conduct immigration checks. Many refugees and survivors of abuse felt afraid to speak to authorities due to these checks.

Thivyaa also comments on the need for healthcare staff to be more aware of the socio-political world, in order to better help their patients. Due to the nature of their experiences, refugees and their children are at a higher risk of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which can in turn lead to other health problems. However, this is often overlooked by many healthcare professionals due to their lack of knowledge about what their refugee patients have gone through. As such, the root of the problem is never solved, and many people suffer in silence. Reflecting on her own experiences of transgenerational trauma and depression, she states how it was only after she had spoken to a psychiatrist who was politically aware of what the Tamil community had gone through, that she was able to get the care that she needed. A GP without this awareness would not be able to offer the support that Tamil survivors, or indeed any refugees, need.

“The health side of things is swept under the carpet”, she notes and calls for medical schools to include more teaching about refugees and their struggles.

Concluding the interview, she recited her poignant poem, “On Being Uprooted” which uses the analogy of a young tree, a sapling, to convey the struggles of a refugee’s journey:

To live in kinship with other creatures 

Is to live on a canvas of colour, 

Where the rich tones of life create a harmony… 


Such was the land where my mother used to live,

Bursting with feathers of every shade

And leaves of every shape 

And chirps of every octave,

That it was hard not to feel awash with joy 

Simply from opening one’s eyes!


But one day those senses became alight, not with pleasure but

With grief 

For someone had set a conflagration

Claiming that the land was their territory. 


And so it was that the leaves

Became singed, now soot covered where colour had sprung. 

In the enemy’s eyes, the creatures - the birds, the goats the trees –

Were all weeds to be snipped off and dug out and wiped without a trace. 

So what could my mother’s community do but try to save their symbiotic friends?

They went in search of any surviving seedlings

And saplings too, which had been buried alive -

Fledgling lives, struggling, choking on the smoke and gas. 


And though the enemy had bulldozed over the now barren land, 

They found a solitary sapling,

Its neighbours deceased

And its fruits fallen. 


Whilst its roots screamed that it would rather die here with its dead family,

Here in its homeland than be sent far away,

What could they do but wrench it from its soil?


They watered the withered sapling and wrapped it in a crate 

And whispered, “Don’t worry my child, a few miles away a safer life awaits.”

Hoping in their hearts that it was not with false hope that they had soothed its suffering.


News came that some other saplings had been shipped into lorries,

Driven for several days 

But the lack of sun and water and air had made them suffocate. 

Others had been stuffed together

Under the planks of a boat

But the sea had taken them under

And stolen all their hopes. 


So this little sapling was placed instead in the boot of a car,

So near the exhaust fumes 

That it nearly wilted en route.


Parched and without sunlight, the sapling struggled to breathe; 

It had not been warned of the added grief of travelling solitary. 

After several hours of not knowing night from day, 

With the passage of time being marked by the growing pain of hunger and thirst and tiredness, not to mention the loneliness, 

The sapling was dropped off in the middle of nowhere; 

They had crossed a fence, the driver said

And this was as far as they could go.

But unplanted, unwatered the sapling was vulnerable to being trampled on. 


It hoped and prayed

How much more pain could it endure?


Would it die now, after this wretched journey?

Or would there be a different end in place? 


For some years it passed the treacherous hands of those who stole its fruit

Kept it in the dark and watered it just enough to stop it from wilting. 

It was trapped in the confines of a plot, 

Stuffed alongside others who had come from afar, 

All exploited,

Labelled here too, in this foreign land as ‘weeds’,

Second-class organisms undeserving of life. 


“What is this?” the saplings thought,

“We had hoped to find a safer place to live,

Not to encroach upon another

But to simply to find another patch of the earth where we could breathe! 

Instead we are back in that conflagration.

This time what is singed is

Our hope

And what is chipped are

The wings of

Our seeds, now struggling

To grow in a place where they are made to feel that

They do not belong. 

What was the point in making that journey if here too we are told to be gone?”


It is not easy being uprooted, 

Nor to leave

One’s friends and family. 

And even when one is lucky enough to have been replanted with the kindness of strangers,

Survivor’s guilt can stump one’s growth,

Not to mention the trauma of the journey 

Nor the disorientation of living in a new culture

Nor the challenge of communicating in a new language

And above all, the strangled sense of identity. 


It seems that until the threat to life touches home, 

Many will turn a blind eye to its reality.

(Like the current pandemic, I suppose.)


Perhaps now 

We will try a little more to understand one another’s pain,

To offer a kinder hand 

And be less judgemental of those who ask for help…


Just think, if you were this sapling,

And life turned upside down for you 

If your country was ablaze and your life was threatened, 

What would it be that you would do? 

  • By Gayathri Thivyaa, @thecreativemedic

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