A Life Interrupted: A Sri Lankan Woman’s Story of Survival and Solace
Written By: Justine Lyn
“Something is going down, you guys, do not go to work,” came a voice in the early hours of the morning at Tharany Thiyagarajah’s door.
Tharany was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka on February 14th 1958, but on that day in July of 1983, a day like any other day, she and her brother were in the middle of getting ready for work.
What did this voice mean to tell her not to leave?
What was this mysterious warning about?
“I didn’t understand what was going on,” Tharany remembered, “I was all the time, all my life in Colombo. […] I was not even exposed to the problems the north was experiencing. I didn’t even know much about it. […] I didn’t know anything. So, when the riots came, it was such a shock. Like why suddenly, why are they looking at us in a different way?”.
Black July had come to Tharany’s life.
The riots of 1983 would make headlines around the world for the deaths, the brutality and the divisions it caused between the Sinhalese and Tamil people.
Tharany was Tamil, she had always known this, but it did not much matter to her as she remembered, “I was more friendly with […] a mixed group. That doesn’t happen all the time, but I was lucky enough to”.
She had Tamil and Sinhalese friends alike, they were just people to her. So, the events of that morning came as a shock.
Despite the division that that July had tried to cause, the man warning them was Sinhalese.
“He came [in the] early morning and he said, “Something is going to go bad. Don’t go outside.” So, we all stayed, and we were wondering what to do. And then we started seeing smoke, the skyline. So, we knew something is really burning out there”. Perhaps it was the bombs, or the fires, or the guns blazing throughout Colombo, but at that moment they couldn’t stay to find out.
“My mom said, “Okay, let’s pack up, close the door.” And we moved to the next door, two houses down, where another Sinhalese family lived. So, they were able to keep us in a corner where nobody can see between the washroom and the beds. […] And so, my mom, myself and another girl stayed there. My brother hid in a half-constructed building, [it was] pretty dangerous. My two other brothers went upstairs to another house, it’s a Muslim house. So, they kept them,” recalled Tharany.
With the family hiding, the Sinhalese man who had warned them, “he came back to kind of protect the house, but there were other Sinhalese young women living opposite in upstairs building and they kept telling [the mob], “That’s not a Tamil house. That’s not a Tamil house.”
So those [anti-Tamil fighters] said, “Don’t lie to us.” They had the […] election list. The elect voters list. So, they knew the names of every house. […] They kept saying, “No, no, no, no. This is them.” Those girls kept saying, “No, they all have gone to work. This is not the Tamils living in there. They’re Sinhalese people. They’ve gone to work.””
It is hard to overstate the courage their neighbors possessed to stand up for Tharany and her family. Tharany reminds us that her protectors were girls, “Sinhalese girls, mind you”. The rioters said, “You only mess around with us,” remembered Tharany. “And then those girls are really tough. They [told them firmly], “No, they’re not Tamils.” So, they let it go”. Tharany was safe.
With the wisdom of hindsight, Tharany believes that the issues of Sri Lanka that bubbled over in violent rage that year were not about what race, religion, or what group you were from, not really.
To this day, Tharany believes, “It’s not everybody. It’s political. Mostly it’s political. But I was told when the economy is suffering, the politicians play the game so that the focus is not on the economy. So, years and years are spent just playing this game and struggling. And in the meantime, our prime ministers are all extremely wealthy now. […] They made the money while this was going on”.
It seems that through all the scapegoating and corruption, what was lost was the ability to see how many souls were lost, hearts broken, and lives disrupted.
Tharany had thought she would be at work by now, but instead, she was hiding between a washroom and a bed. Suffice to say, this day was not turning out how she had planned. She waited with her mother there until noon when, “the mob had come and gone. And then my brother came and said, “Let’s leave.”” Where would they go? Tharany knew, “there was another gentleman offering his vehicle to give us transportation. And then they opened up schools as temporary camp. So, it was actually my brother’s school. And he said, “Let’s get out!””
The family packed quickly. Tharany remembered, “we quickly took toothpaste and a change of clothes.” As they were nearly out the door, the phone began to ring. Tharany remembers, “I got a call from a cousin in England and he says, “We [are] just heading to the airport. I heard that something is going on, should we come?” Oh my God. I said, “Please don’t come. Cancel. We are leaving the house. It’s not safe here. Don’t come.” I was glad he called because there [were] so many visitors who came back who got caught to it and they just died. Most of them, they were in cars and the cars were burnt.” After warning their family, they left their home.
They went to the camp, “basically, it’s a shelter. […] It’s a school. [There was a] toilet facility, somebody supplied the food. […] So the army would come, the police and army would protect [us] so nobody will get in. And they just took everybody […] who was able to come.” Tharany explained, “My mother was smart, she grabbed all the white sheets she had. […] So, we put the sheets and lie down on the floor”.
“Two days,” Tharany remembered, “And then Indian government sent us the ships. So, the Colombo, the harbor is there, the ships came and then they said anybody who wants to go to the north by ship, because the land is not safe, […] they said, “Get ready. You can leave.””
Meanwhile, “Pierre Trudeau, they announced anybody who has a passport and money for a one-way ticket to Canada, can leave now”. What to do? Where would they go? Her brother burst in the door, having heard the announcement on the school’s speaker.
Tharany remembered that, “my brother came running, the oldest. He said, “Mom, I’m going to go [to Canada]. A few of us are going.” Then they had the passports. So, my mom quickly called a few people, arranged some money because, at that time, probably it was about $1, 000 and some equivalent in Rupees. So, he was able to get [the ticket] … and it’s one-way ticket [so] they’re moving for good. So, he left. That’s how he came to Canada”.
The family was, for the first time in Tharany’s life, forced to split up. She recalled that it was a difficult situation, “it’s like, “Hey, go fend for yourself”.” It was a whirlwind. Her brother was gone, and the rest of the family boarded a ship north bound for Jaffna, “the very next day. It all happened within two, three days. It was pretty fast”.
The journey aboard the ship was rough, “so, people were seasick. They’re not used to it, going in the deep ocean. And […] once we got there, there were buses waiting. And then we [went to] our own villages that we came originally from, where there are our people, [our] relatives. [We] were refugees. […] And I guess some people did not have any relatives. We were lucky. I stayed with relatives who were living in our village.”
While in Jaffna, “I did work a little bit. There was [an] organization helping refugees, trying to do some paperwork and all that. I was working for that for a short time. So, this was July, August, September, October, November, December [of 1983].
Six months down the line, I got married. That’s all fast.” Her husband, a Sri Lankan man, whom had lived in England for many years returned to his homeland that year. Like Tharany, “he also got caught to the riots in Colombo. He also managed to get back […] to Jaffna,” and began looking for a bride, so he was arranged to marry Tharany.
She remembered, “I didn’t know a thing about him, but I got engaged [in] December. For us, engagement means you literally sign the book. You are legally married. So, after that, he […] asked me, “So what do you want to do? Do you want to go back to England? I can go back as a student or do you want me to look for a job in Malaysia, Singapore, wherever?”
Tharany pondered what to do next thinking, “Okay I am a Tamil after all […] So, for me [Malaysia] was close to home. So, I said, “Let’s go to Malaysia.” So, he went to Malaysia, got a job. Six months, he came back, we got married. I went to Malaysia with him. Got pregnant. Everything fast”.
Within a year, Tharany and her husband were back in Sri Lanka where she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. “She celebrated [her first] birthday, [when my husband] said we have to leave because Malaysia was not entertaining foreign workers anymore. So now again, we were in a limbo, didn’t know where to go. So, then my brother said, “Why don’t you come? I’ll help you. Come to Canada!”
Canadian life had been treating her brother well. “He ended up in Montreal. […] He started working on the get go. He was a computer technologist, so he got a job right away.” Despite being far away from home, “He was happy. There were already Sri Lankan people here already. Surprisingly, there was already quite a few people,” explained Tharany.
“We went to Montreal first because my brother lived there and we thought, okay, we get some help. And there six months and the jobs were difficult because of the language issue. There was no way we could get any jobs. So, we decided to move and we ended up in east of Toronto, Scarborough, with another family we […] were in the basement.
[But] there were no great jobs. My husband is a civil engineer, but he’s British qualified. He cannot use that qualification here [and recertification] is a long process and we cannot afford it. We need to start making money to live. […] So, I went into clerical work right away. There’s quite a demand at that time. […] Accounting, data entry, accounts payable.” Meanwhile, “my husband […] managed to get into construction eventually as a supervisor […] and then he went up the grades and now he is doing good. He’s big time in demand by the Ministry of Highways. He’s a highway guy.”
Though it was difficult for the family to get back on their feet at first after immigrating to the country, Tharany and her husband were able to buy a home here in Mississauga; first in the Cawthra and Rathburn area, then off Burnhamthorpe.
She remembered her first winter in Canada as an exciting experience, “You cannot see snow in Sri Lanka. There’s no snow. The highest mountain is 7,000 feet high, but there is no snow. Probably the rarest thing. So, when the snow came, […] I’m grabbing my daughter, “Come hold it. Look, what is this?””
For Tharany, it was an exciting time, but it wasn’t without apprehension, as she remembered, “one winter I was holding my daughter, picked her up from daycare and I was at the bus stop waiting, was holding her and it was so cold. And that was Mississauga Lakeshore. And you know how Lakeshore… the wind… Then I started crying, thinking, “What am I doing here?””
It was not easy at first to fit in.
Some Canadians suggested, ““You have to learn to talk slowly otherwise people won’t understand you.” So, I learned to talk slowly. So, when my little one was born and I went back to Sri Lanka with her, my aunt was like, “you drag your words.” But I was like, “Well, that helped me to get my job and survive because you need to talk slowly.””
Indeed, the way she talks and how she looks made her stick out from the other Canadians. Tharany explained that in Canada, “racism is kind of [an] undercurrent. We don’t openly express it, but […] there is undercurrent. [Canadians will] stand in a queue and [they] want to cash [out at the store, but they would] rather go talk to a white person because that’s more helpful. […] It’s simply their attitude. That’s about it. It’s nothing else. And the racism is there in every culture…”. Tharany admitted, “I wouldn’t say the neighborhood accepted us right away. My neighbors did not say hi to us for many years. Probably they were observing to see what kind of people [we were]. Probably, they’re also thinking, “are they safe?” And later we became very, very friendly, but it took a while. But, again, it really didn’t matter because we’re so busy working and raising these children, taking them to school and things, it was a busy life”.
Nowadays, there are so many people in Mississauga from all over the world, it seems as though everyone is from somewhere else. Just like back home, Tharany made friends with anyone regardless of where they were from or how they looked. Tharany remembered, “I had some friends, there was an Italian friend, she would enjoy my food like my curry. We would sit together and share our food and we learn about other person’s food. And so yeah, it opened [me] up”.
Although she is sometimes tempted to go back to Sri Lanka, she remembers that the situation there is, “still bad”. She must remind herself that, “Things can turn against you any minute. Like there’s no warning”.
Among the most appealing aspects of Canada was that, after her life had been so painfully disrupted on that day in 1983, she craved a place that she knew would be safe for her daughters. Tharany remarked that she felt that she could leave her doors unlocked without fear. Mississauga was a place where she could put down roots and make new memories.
Now that Tharany is retired, she keeps herself busy by volunteering with the Senior Tamils Society of Peel, though perhaps her favourite thing to do is explore the city.
Tharany reminds us that, “You need to discover. […] If you walk along the lake, there’s a lot of lovely spots. You have to discover them. […] My people don’t get much exposed to it, but now it’s the younger generation [that] is showing me. I know another young lady is Tamil. She’s a photographer. So she says, “come, come, I’ll show you”.
There’s a little park where you can park and walk up to the lake front, literally wash your feet. And it’s nice. […] We would go up and down Mississauga road, admiring. And that’s how we encourage our daughters to study [saying], “You want to live like this?””
Today, Tharany is a proud Canadian. She is proud of where she came from and all that she has done to come here, but her life and children are here, and they are Canadian.
Ultimately, “the only thing I always thought [the] one good thing I would like to do for the country is bring my daughters properly, make them good tax paying citizens. Good citizens. That’s my only way of saying thank you”.
I believe that we, as fellow Canadians, can learn much from Tharany. Not only should we be grateful for what we have and our safety here, but we should also be thankful for all the experiences and understanding those such as Tharany bring into our lives and our communities. They are ‘Mississaugans’ and they make us who we are today.