Why is it that most politicians don’t say their names? They are referred to as ‘The Sri Lankan family’ or the ‘Tamil asylum seekers’. They are the Murugappans. The parents, Priya and Nades, are both asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka and their daughters, Kopika and Tharunicca, were born in Australia. You may recognise their faces in images that are plastered all over the news. You would definitely know about the campaign to bring them home to Biloela (#hometoBilo). They are visible. They are relatable. Both girls are sweet and innocent as we expect all children to be. Therefore, you can’t sit back and watch them be subjected to inhumane government policies that strip them from their community, split them up, and deny a sick child’s right to medical care.
This is a true story. The Murugappan family has become the face of many coinciding causes: the plight of all asylum seekers around the world; the struggles faced by Tamils in Sri Lanka who experience cultural, emotional, and physical violence in their homeland (largely perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government); the human, humanitarian, and financial cost of Australia’s immigration policy. We don’t wish these roles upon them but, at the same time, they show their inherent strength as individuals, as a family, and through their commitment to their Tamil and Australian communities. We don’t wish it upon them, yet they bring so much humanity and relatability to these causes.
The Murugappan family’s story amplifies the experiences of the many single brown men arriving on boats and being locked up behind barbed wire fenced compounds on distant islands or in city hotel rooms. But these men are not afforded visibility. They are literally shut away from us. We don’t even know their names.
That’s what has struck us, as Sri Lankans, lately. As the issue of the family’s treatment heated up in the last weeks, after Tharunicca (accompanied by Priya) was medevaced from Christmas Island to Perth (Whadjuk Noongar Boodja) for overdue treatment of sepsis, we have observed what community support can actually look like.
It is the single brown men who show up to the vigils to support these families. It is the young Tamil children who stand at the front of the rallies with their placards. It is the women who stand at the back, out of the way. It is the private conversations with family talking about ways to help. This is how the Sri Lankan Tamil community stands firmly behind the Murugappan family. Sri Lankan Tamils see their own journeys and struggles embodied in Tharunicca, Kopika, Nades and Priya.
As one young woman who sought asylum in Australia, Anu, says: ‘we feel like we are here but we feel like we don’t belong here’.
A young girl, Shivani, quotes a Tamil poem:
‘யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளீர்’; எல்லா ஊரும் எம் ஊர், எல்லா மக்களும் எம் உறவினர்களே’ – all countries in the world are alike and people living in all countries are our brothers and sisters.
An older man, Rama, who has lived in Australia for decades and dedicated himself to helping newly arrived Tamils says, ‘how can we agree to send a child back to Sri Lanka?’
How, indeed? We ask this question knowing that there is growing evidence of and investigations into the threats to Tamil people’s lives in Sri Lanka. This has been their reality both during the war and since it ended. Powerful institutions like the UN, Human Rights Watch, and the US Congress agree that the Sri Lankan government has committed human rights violations during the war. Tamils come to this country with their own personal stories of trauma and torture. Yet, Australia – for its own convenience of maintaining harsh border policies – refuses to acknowledge these realities.
The traumas and stories of Tamils filters across generations. ‘Mum is active in the community, helps other asylum seekers in the community. I know their stories and visit church with them,’ reports a second-generation refugee in Neeraja Sanmuhanathan’s research project on war trauma.
These ‘narratives of survival’ are shared and visible among family, the community, and with the public at rallies. These survivors want change.
This is why the Tamil diaspora gathers around the Murugappans: ‘we think of that Sri Lankan family as our family because we all need to support each other…we want them to know that we are here to raise a voice for them’, says Anu.
The global support for Tamils who are forced to flee Sri Lanka echoes around the world, especially in the corners where the Tamil diaspora settles. In Tamil Nadu, Toronto, London, Norway, Germany, France, and the US. Bodies and voices – Tamil people and their allies – are coming together to create safer Tamil communities outside of the homeland where language, culture, religion, political activism, family life, and a gradual healing can continue away from the brutality of the omnipresent Sri Lankan army.
This week is Refugee Week and the theme for 2021 is unity: promoting the commonality amongst all of us. It has been uplifting to see the tireless campaigning by the Biloela community and the broader Australian community. We have felt inspired by the widespread indignation and pressure placed on the government over their treatment of the Murugappans. Let’s not forget those asylum seekers who, like the Murugappans, are detained by Australia. Those whose images we don’t see, whose faces and names are invisible.
Even as the Australian community rallies behind the #hometoBilo campaign, where is the wave of support for the hundreds of other asylum seekers languishing in Australian detention? They too need support; they, too, need community.
We end with a paraphrased plea from ‘Mallika’ in Charishma Ratnam’s research. Mallika is a Tamil woman who came to Australia as a refugee with two children (one of them developed a severe illness while held in the Christmas Island detention centre and subsequently passed away in an Adelaide hospital):
… from my experience, only thing I want to say is for Australians to look after the refugee families. Most of us are coming because we can’t stay in Sri Lanka. For myself, I’m scared for my life. So for people also like me, they should look after us and pay more attention to us.
Thanks to Niro Kandasamy for Tamil poem transcription.
Image: A banner at the vigil outside Perth Children’s hospital, 20 June 2021. Needhi is Tamil for justice. (Niru Perera)