“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” – Warsan Shire
This essay will describe one of my unforgettable and life-changing events that happened in September 1997. Due to my involvement in the civil war in Sri Lanka, I could no longer live there, and I had to flee Sri Lanka because of my political opinion and fear of persecution. Since independence from Britain in 1948, the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka have faced marginalization, discrimination, and oppression. Most Tamils have lost hope that the Sri Lankan government would ever accommodate Tamils socially, economically, culturally, or politically (ICG, 2010). Thus, like many other Tamils, I also wanted to settle down in a western country and complete my education which I never did due to the ethnic conflict.
On the other hand, it is impossible to obtain a visa from any of the high commissions for western countries even though Sri Lanka is a member state of the Commonwealth of Nations. Therefore, I had no choice but to travel as an undocumented migrant or “illegal migrant” to Canada. These kinds of migrant activities have been prevalent among the Sri Lankan Tamil community for quite a long time, known as “Alien Smuggling” (UNHCR, 1996). I do not condone this idea since I am well aware that it is an act of transgression, but leaving the country by any means was my only choice since I had received death threats from the Tamil rebel movement in Sri Lanka.
Therefore, in this paper, I will distinguish between stimulus/observation; express my thoughts/ interpretation; my feelings upon the reflections, identify needs in the circumstances, and my intentions in this situation. Hence the case will focus on communicating and relating.
In September 1997, I came to Canada illegally as a political refugee from Sri Lanka with a travel agent’s help. When I was preparing to leave Sri Lanka, I lived in an apartment in the suburbs of Colombo. My travel agent, ‘Mario,’ sent me information about a permanent resident who had lived in Canada for about six months. I had to study his background, such as where he lived, studied, currently worked, and the addresses and telephone numbers of the places he had worked. I was learning someone else’s identity. Mario sent me a picture of the man, a Tamil from Sri Lanka, to cut my hair like him, and I hoped that this would be enough to convince the authorities, although the photo only looked a bit like me. Mario joked about it, saying, “Don’t worry – most western immigration and customs agents cannot tell the difference between one Tamil and another. To them, we all look the same, and they cannot tell the difference between a Pakistani Muslim from Islamabad and a South Indian Hindu from Chennai.” I laughed awkwardly at his attempt to diffuse the tension. To be honest, I was very nervous.
I had to assume someone else’s identity to the best of my ability: haircut and all. I learned what his family looked like and everything about his job, where he was a cook and what he cooked, and so on. I also learned some essential words in French and how to pronounce them. “The French language is complicated to pronounce,” Mario told me, explaining that many Montrealers speak English and use French as their second language.
In August 1997, I had received a letter from Mario, including maps, general information about Canada, metro and street names, landmarks and essential Montreal locations, restaurants, currency, baseball teams, hockey teams, everything that a Montrealer would know. He even sent me a Montreal Canadians hockey jersey. I learned everything I could.
Then on September 1, 1997, Mario called and said that he had bought a plane ticket. He sent me $2000 through the Hawala money transferring system, an illegal under-the-table system used by immigrants, including the Sri Lankan community. Because it is unofficial, the funds cannot be traced, and there is no paper trail from Canada to Sri Lanka to discover where the money came from.
Mario told me that he was on his way to meet me in Singapore and buy a return ticket to Singapore from Sri Lanka. I told the Sri Lankan immigration that I was going to Singapore to get married and that my fiancée was sponsoring me to go to Canada later. I also had to have a $1000 travelers’ cheque. Travel is never easy when you are leaving a developing country and going to a developed country. This is the way the dynamics of the world work. If westerners want to visit Sri Lanka, it is usually easy for them to acquire a visa and travel there in a matter of days. Doing things the other way around and leaving a country like Sri Lanka with a destination such as Canada is practically impossible. You have to prove to everyone that you have money and an estate to go back to in the developing country, or you will be automatically suspected – not without some justification – of attempting illegal immigration. For this reason, I planned to fly to Canada from Singapore, which is more developed than Sri Lanka and a tourist hub in South-East Asia.
Mario said I had to arrive in Singapore on September 5; his plane from Zurich would land in Singapore at 8 am. He told me not to pass through immigration and to wait in the transit section for my false documents. I arrived in Singapore at 6 am, so I had a couple of hours to wait. I was to bring newspapers with me to read, write letters, buy tourist cards, and not look suspicious or nervous. I had to try to look relaxed and be inconspicuous among the other transit passengers. Although I did not expect that looking casual in an airport would be too tricky, I had never left my country before, so I did my best to prepare mentally and physically to assume the air of a seasoned traveler.
In the passengers’ transit lounge of the airport, sitting and thinking most of the hours, my emotions caught up with me, and I began crying with guilt as my father’s angry words echoed in my mind. My father blamed me for everything that happened in our family because of my involvement in the civil war. Although I was forced to fight as a child soldier against my will, I felt responsible for so much death and destruction. My family and I had lost our status as honorable and respected in our society, and now we’re even seen as traitors to our people. I thought that I would make up for all the problems I had caused for my family and my people before I died.
At 8:00 am, I was waiting in front of the A&W restaurant in the airport when Mario came and tapped me on my shoulder. He asked me how long I had been waiting and made small talk. He passed me a Tamil magazine and told me to read it: pages 27 and 28 were glued together with the ticket between them, and between pages 45 and 46 was the passport. Then between pages 18 and 19 were my Canadian landed immigrant papers, and pages 60 and 61 held my boarding pass. Mario had exploited the loophole in the system that when you leave Canada, they do not stamp your passport.
Mario had explained the plan to buy a ticket under the name on the passport, I would receive the necessary documents for this identity in the airport, and from that point on, I would become the other man. This would make it look like this person had gone on vacation to Singapore, from Montreal to Zurich, and Zurich to Singapore via Singapore Airlines. After one or two days in Singapore at the Hotel Delta, we flew to Bangkok, Thailand, back to Singapore, and then to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and back to Singapore, from where we flew to Paris and then to Montreal.
Once the plane had landed in Montreal, I waited in the washroom for about 15 minutes before passing through immigration and customs, memorizing all the information I could cram in my brain about Canada and Montreal and this man whose identity I was borrowing. As I looked in the mirror, I felt the euphoria that I was coming closer to achieving my mission: telling the world what was happening in my country. I knew I would have to be in a position to do so without endangering my life and my family. I felt optimistic about the future for the first time in a long time. With this new feeling of purpose, I went out and bought a good-luck card for my mother, and I asked her to pray and thank God that I had reached Canada safely. Then I wrote a letter to my father asking him to forgive me because we had had harsh words before leaving. In the letter to my father, I asked him to pray that I would start a new life in Canada and eventually sponsor them.
Due to my complex involvement in the war in Sri Lanka, I became a liability to all the parties involved. I did not have any freedom because I lived in a military camp only to be safe. I could not even visit my family or travel anywhere freely because of the fear that the Tamil rebels would target me for working with the government forces. Thus, I could not live over there any longer and needed to leave for a safer country to live peacefully. On the other hand, it was almost impossible for me to legally emigrate from Sri Lanka to a western country as those countries only provide visas to entrepreneurs or high-ranking government officials. Therefore, my only choice was to travel as an undocumented migrant and claim asylum in Canada.
Now that I was in Canada, I had two options: shred and flush all of the false documents at Dorval airport – now known as Pierre–Elliott–Trudeau airport – and claim refugee status there. Or I could walk through the airport and claim refugee status once inside the country. Instead of disposing of my documents, I went through immigration and chose the oldest immigration officer, one worn down by time, who would stamp my passport quickly. Mario had explained to me not to go to a woman or a young man who would still be trying to prove themselves but rather to select a line with an older man at the inspection booth. In each airport, I went to the most aged man I could find. I walked out of the airport where my brother-in-law and sister met me, who brought me to Montreal’s local immigration office, where I claimed refugee status.
Tamils have been persecuted for a long time in Sri Lanka. I felt like I had regained my freedom of expression, political opinion, and self-determination for the first time. I felt elated as I arrived in Canada, and that was the culmination of so many hopes and dreams. Despite all the risks and hardships of the journey, such as assuming someone else’s identity and becoming that person, I safely arrived in Canada. The experience of this journey has made me empathize with other Tamil migrant’s narratives and motivates me to support them in any way I can.
First of all, I realized that I needed to take charge of my life, and in doing so, I took a huge risk for my freedom, which was more important to me than anything else. Secondly, writing this reflection paper made me revisit those events and appreciate how far I came from that miserable time, and it was all worth it to live in a country like Canada.
Author’s note: Canadian journalist Michael Bramadat-Willcock contributed to this report.
Image credit: CosmoLearning
International Crisis Group (ICG), (February 23, 2010), The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora after the LTTE, Asia Report N°186, Retrieved from: https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/sri-lanka/sri-lankan-tamil-diaspora-after-ltte
Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, (May 1, 1996). Sri Lanka: Alien Smuggling. Retrieved from: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8660.html