- Can you tell us a little about your background and how you were first affected by/became aware of asylum seekers or displaced peoples?
I am a Sri Lankan Tamil Australian, born and raised in Canberra. My mother, my aunt and my beloved grandparents were displaced at the beginning of Sri Lanka’s civil war, during the anti-Tamil riots of 1983. These riots are referred to as Black July.
Black July severed the connection between my mother and Sri Lanka, her first home. Though she lived through years of anti-Tamil discriminatory policies which must have shaken her sense of belonging in Sri Lanka, Black July was for her a vehement and inescapable rejection of her peoples existence in her homeland. These riots saw my family’s home, possessions and business burnt by violent mobs made up of members of her neighbourhood and wider community.
My family’s experience of these race riots was also defined by hope and refuge. Targeted by the Singhalese mob, who were provided with voter registrations lists to identify Tamil families to murder, and houses and businesses to destroy, my family were given refuge and hidden by Singhalese friends. My Singhalese uncle (a term of affection and respect in our culture), drove through the streets of Colombo after curfew at significant person risk to pick up my mother and bring her to safety. The bravery of the Singhalese family that saved us is a part of our identity, and the story of my family’s trauma can never be told without the acknowledgement that it is because of their humanity that we have our lives.
I grew up in Australian household whose individual members dealt differently with displacement. My mother buried her experience deep down, and for us, forged boldly ahead in this new and foreign land. It is only in my adulthood that I began to understand some of her pain and loss. My grandfather was different. With me, he openly nursed his broken heart. He grieved furiously and profoundly for his homeland. I am grateful for both my mother and my grandfather. My mother’s forward gaze, allowed me a life and a future in our new home, and my Grandfather’s connection to his past, gave me an understanding of who I am. He told the stories, cried the tears, introduced me to the ancestors, drummed the beats on the coffee table that would give shape to my identity.
- If you have worked with displaced people, can you tell us about a particular person, event or interaction that was most memorable?
I will never forget the Sri Lankan Tamils I have encountered, both professionally and personally, facing rejection and deportation from Australia. I cannot know the pain of being deprived of not one home, but two. These Tamil men inspired the piece I contributed for this anthology.
- In many countries, including the US, Australia, and UK there is often a stigma against and negative feeling toward refugees. What do you want people to know about refugees?
I find it incredibly depressing having conversations, as I do, with members of my community that go along the lines of ‘refugees are people, just like us.’ This is not a truth that should need illumination, other than in a society that has long lost its humanity.
- How does it make you feel when people in the West characterize asylum-seekers, refugees and immigrants as dangerous, causing them to want to close their borders?
In Australia, I think we must ask ourselves about the role of xenophobia in our national identity, and examine how it is playing out in the devastating status quo in Manus Island, in Nauru and in the ‘repatriation’ of asylum seekers Australia sends back to the countries from whence they fled. What shadows within our national consciousness calls for this destruction of lives?
- What is next for you?
I am working curating an anthology on Sri Lankan Tamil women, that explores our diverse experiences of this diaspora. It explores how our Tamil identities have been transposed and translated in new lands, and at the creation of a Tamilness distinct from that of our parents and ancestors.
Kirsty Anantharajah is a writer, poet, human rights lawyer, and academic. She has worked and published in the fields of sexual violence and impunity during and post Sri Lanka’s civil war; and contestation of constitutional land rights and rule of law challenges in post-war Sri Lanka. She has also worked in a pro bono capacity in refugee legal protection in Sydney. Her commentary has appeared in various news sources including The Conversation (Australia) and the Colombo Telegraph (Sri Lanka).