Thursday, August 19, 2010

Among the Tamils of Toronto, a tense wait for news

By Joe Friesen | The Globe and Mail

Anton Philip Sinnarasa sits with a phone in each hand. In front of him, a dozen sheets of white paper lined with black, handwritten notes bear the news that dozens of Tamil families in Toronto are desperate to hear. He is the keeper of the names, and he will be the one to break the news, good or bad.

Two men sit across from him, their arms folded, worry written across their faces. One has come direct from his job at the fish market after being tracked down by the Tamil Refugee Co-ordinating Committee. He has been told a nephew was among the 492 refugee claimants from the MV Sun Sea who are being held in detention in British Columbia. His nephew had memorized his phone number and provided it to a lawyer.

The man says he had no idea his nephew was on board the ship. He hasn’t seen him for six years, since he was still a teenager in school. The last he heard from the boy’s mother was that they were in a camp for people displaced by the Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in May, 2009. Now he’ll have to find a way to contact her to let her know her son has made it to Canada safely, having been reassured by Mr. Sinnarasa that Canada is not going to put the migrants back on the ship.

This man’s story ends happily, Mr. Sinnarasa explains, but not all do.

“One came because they said a particular person left Malaysia in a small boat, but unfortunately I checked and that person is not on the ship,” Mr. Sinnarasa said. “So they now presume the boat must have broken up or sank off Malaysia.”

There are dozens of similar stories of people approaching refugee lawyers and Tamil community leaders hoping that relatives not heard from in months might be among the 492. Many are not.

Mr. Sinnarasa spoke by telephone to the mother of the man who died on the voyage of an unknown illness and was buried at sea.

“She is in a terrible state,” he said. “The aunt told me this man was beaten by the army some time back and that’s why he was trying to escape. He has a three- or five-year-old child and wife.”

Ravi Sri sits next to a pile of about 30 boxes filled with clothes and toiletries that Toronto’s Tamil community, more than 200,000 strong, has collected for the migrants. He has just been told that a close relative and her family are among the refugee claimants. He hasn’t seen her in 25 years, but had been sending her money in Thailand after she fled Sri Lanka as a refugee.

“She didn’t tell me anything,” he said. “I would have told her not to take such a risk, crossing the ocean in a little cargo ship.”

He said his relatives had been harassed by government paramilitaries and were told by the United Nations refugee workers that their safety could not be guaranteed. They gave up everything – their farm and business – to flee with their children.

As other volunteers circulate around him, handling calls, fielding donations and organizing files, Mr. Sinnarasa sits calmly at the centre of the room. Above him on the wall of this small, low-ceilinged unit in a Scarborough industrial park is a poster of Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to seek asylum in other countries from persecution, the poster reads.

Mr. Sinnarasa insists he asks very few questions of the migrants’ families, or whether anyone is paying the fee of $40,000 that the government claims is being funnelled to the Tamil Tigers.

“I’m not very inquisitive. I’m trying to tell them the situation. Tell them they’re here so they can have some peace of mind,” he said.

© The Globe and Mail

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