Saturday, March 05, 2011

... And then the rains came

By Jesse Bauman | The Spec

Eight months and 12 days ago I was still in Canada — at Hamilton Place, to be specific. I received my undergraduate degree from McMaster University that day, along with hundreds of other excited and terrified young students. I left Canada a few months later to start a job with a relief and development organization in Sri Lanka.

At the time I knew very little about Sri Lanka, and would have required a few moments to find it on a map. (It almost touches the southern tip of India). I knew that the Tamil Tigers were fighting for a separate state, and that as a result of that civil war, hundreds of thousands of Tamils — the ethnic minority in Sri Lanka — now live abroad, many of them in Toronto.

Rick Mercer spoke at my graduation, and asked his audience to be strong Canadian citizens. He suggested voting and travelling throughout Canada as ways of exercising that citizenship. Living and working abroad means the former is difficult and the latter impossible. Nonetheless I often reflect on Mercer’s words, and feel that there might still be something deeply Canadian about my present experience.

After all, isn’t the humanitarian work I’m doing part of that proud Canadian self-image, which sees peacekeeping and diplomacy as a responsible, considerate alternative to the callous real-politiking of our American friends? As our narrative of multilateralism goes, we care about the suffering of strangers, which is reflected in foreign policy and domestic politics.

We are a deluded nation, more today than yesterday, and more tomorrow still. Afghanistan is a violent and sustained contradiction to our wholesome Canadian self-image. Do any of us actually know how many Canadian soldiers are currently involved in peacekeeping missions? (According to the United Nations, there are 126.)

While Canada-as-peacemaker obviously requires revision, I write this with the assumption that Canadians care, and that Canadians assume their government cares as well. To care, we should also try to understand our suffering neighbours’ situations.

One such neighbour is Rajan Putulingam, whose story is painfully similar to many others’ in the north and east of Sri Lanka. He is 41 years old, his wife 39, and they live with their five children in the Eastern District of Batticaloa. Rajan works as a daily labourer on wealthier farmers’ rice paddy lands, and Delaney, his wife, runs a small shop. This year they used their savings — from Delaney’s jewellery — to purchase seed and plant one and a half acres of rice paddy. Delaney’s shop generates an income when her neighbours have enough work and extra rupees to spend.

Heavy rains started two days after Christmas, which is not unusual in this part of the world. As days of constant rain stretched into weeks, the family was displaced to a shared community building. More than 300,000 people, the Putulingams included, sought refuge in common shelters. As hundreds of families squeezed into buildings built for dozens, toilets filled up and food simply ran out. Rajan and his family stayed for five days in the office of the local farmers’ society.

For others, the situation was worse. According to John Thevatas, a senior NGO worker in the North, in certain places there was no dry land, and many “did not even have a tarpaulin to cover their head. The living conditions are not acceptable, but what to do? There is water everywhere.”

This was the Putulingam’s third displacement. War had chased them from their home twice before. Delaney’s mud-walled shop is basically destroyed, as is the family’s mud-walled home. Glass bottles of soda, muddied by the high water, are all that remain in her shop. Their contents are a luxury none can presently afford.

High water destroyed over 80 per cent of the paddy fields in the East. In Sri Lanka, rice is a staple food in more than one sense: for hundreds of thousands no harvest also means no labour in the paddy fields and therefore no income. Thevatas describes the two harvest seasons (October to January and April to August) as “lone opportunities for a good income for 90 per cent of these flood-affected peoples.” According to the United Nations, there were more than a million people affected.

The Putulingams have few prospects. They were not a part of that lucky group whose crop survived. The children’s school supplies are gone, drowned along with hundreds of thousands of chickens, goats and cows. In Rajan’s words, “every time we start to earn something again it is destroyed by war or displacement.”

He said that days before a second equally massive flood arrived. Most families lost all that remained of their homes and livelihoods.

Bob Dylan should have followed “when you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose” with, when you have next to nothing, you have everything to lose. The Putulingams and countless families like them will require support long after the flood waters finally recede, first to survive, and then to rebuild.

So what do the Putulingams, or any desperate family in poor country X, have to do with Canadian citizenship? Maybe nothing, but maybe by listening to these stories we start to appreciate a little bit of what it means to be “displaced,” to be one of one million flood-affected peoples. As a result, we can exercise that supposedly Canadian capacity to care, and in a more substantial and responsible way. Statistics take on a much deeper meaning when faces are paired with figures.

Finally, with that little bit of knowledge we can see this country in at least a few more shades of grey. A boat full of Tamils seeking asylum is not simply a terrorist threat to national security (no matter what Vic Toews tells us) and the Tamil Tigers are not the one true voice of the Tamil people.

Those shades of grey also reveal the dignity and extreme perseverance of many Sri Lankans, who don’t choose to be Sri Lankan any more than I choose to be Canadian.

Jesse Bauman is McMaster University graduate now working as a “management trainee” at ZOA Refugee Care. For more information:

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