“Run…..RUN!!!” I heard shouts coming from behind me. And then suddenly, through my blurry near-sighted vision, I saw the young men whizz past me and my closely huddled group of friends. I didn’t know why they were running or where they were running to but in a moment, the trickle of runners became an overwhelming tide. Erupting along the street, gaining momentum and bodies as it went. And before I could process what was happening, the herd took over and I too was running, down the road, past the detritus of discarded police bicycles and up an on-ramp onto the Gardiner Expressway. There was already a mob barring several lanes of the highway, blocking dozens of cars, creating a human wall. I would process this moment rationally later as I watched the events unfold on the evening news. I would marvel at the young men as they confronted Police officers on bicycles, wrestle their bikes free from their grip and throw them over the edge of the on-ramp like so much garbage. But at the time, I could only operate on emotion and as I merged into this human wall, I could feel that the wall was angry; the wall was bitter, frustrated, and weeping. But above all, it was angry.
Tamil protesters charge past police officers onto the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto.
Young protesters use coffee cups as make-shift candle holders while riot police stand at the ready in the background.
In May of 2009, the bloody, decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka came to a bitter end as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were defeated by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, leaving a wasteland of death and destruction in the north and east of the island nation. I was born in this nation, once known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean. I was born a Tamil in a country gripped by ethnic violence, oppression, and discrimination. I was born in the middle of the quarter-century civil war, and while my first memories are sugar-coated vague remembrances of nursery rhymes and Montessori school, of uniformed children reciting verses and playing games, I knew that my family was not untouched by this conflict.
The very first birthday of mine that we celebrated as a family was my 4th birthday. This was the first time we knew with certainty that we would be on a plane to Canada in a few short weeks to be reunited with my father who had ventured ahead to carve out a new life for us there. The birthdays that came before my fourth were marred by family tragedy and upheaval.
Just before my first birthday, my uncle moved to the Maldives. Like so many other young Tamil men from Sri Lanka who could not find work in their own homeland simply because they were Tamil, he left behind everything he knew for the promise of employment and an opportunity to provide for his family. He was working in the Maldives for several months when the political climate shifted and he was rounded up along with many other Tamil Sri Lankans and incarcerated. The charges were based solely on prejudicial suspicion after a Tamil rebel group known as PLOT began their attacks. For several months we didn’t know if he was dead or alive. There was no way to get in touch with him. The only news we heard was from other prisoners, those Tamils in professional positions in the Maldives that were interrogated early and released. These survivors brought back the message that my uncle was imprisoned, but nothing more. And there would be no more news for a whole year before he was released and allowed to travel back home to his family.
Just before my second birthday, my grandfather suddenly passed away. He was taken from his home, away from his family, and interrogated before finally being shot and killed. He was not a part of the rebellion; he was too old and too jovial to be of much use to a guerilla army. He was shot because he had had the humanity to provide food for a couple of young men, barely men, who were part of the movement, the then starving and disorganized guerrilla force that was the LTTE. He served these boys a simple meal and offered them conversation, and within days he was hauled off by the armed forces and was never heard from again. We were given the courtesy of having his remains returned to our family. But I and so many of my cousins would never have the chance to know this kind-hearted man that was my grandfather.
The greatest tragedy is that my story is not unique. Thousands of Tamil families have endured these and so many more horrors in their lifetimes. But, in this way, before I was even old enough to know my own name, I was well acquainted with war, destruction, and violence.
And perhaps as a result of these experiences much of my life in Canada has been spent with my head down, working hard, getting good grades, and being obedient. I have been the quintessential model immigrant; grateful to Canada for taking in my family of refugees and happy to do exactly what was expected of me.
Of course, I was always distinctly aware that I was different. My world operated on different rules and parameters than the world in which my white friends lived. No movie dates, no parties, no boys. These were axioms, not guidelines, non-negotiable, and something that I never even thought to question. And in these formative years, I decided politics were best left to the old and white-haired; to those that had lived enough life to decide what was best.
So what changed? How did this quiet, well-mannered girl end up as part of a human blockade on a major expressway in Toronto screaming at the top of her lungs for justice and peace in Sri Lanka?