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'I am a child of refugees. Had others not taken us in we all would have been killed'

Looking at the current crisis, I see myself and my parents at the time when we struggled, writes Thamil Ananthavinayagan.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a few weeks makes. In September, an image of a Syrian toddler washed up dead on a beach outraged the world. It featured on many of the front pages, making people demand answers from officials as to what was being done to solve the humanitarian crisis. 

Fast forward nearly two months and the Irish crew of the LÉ Samuel Beckett are still rescuing people from the Mediterranean, pulling 218 people out of the water just yesterday. Europe says it has agreed to co-operate with each other as thousands of people cross the Balkans looking for refuge. Refugees are to be assessed and taken in by other countries under a relocation programme, with the first people due to arrive in Ireland before Christmas. 

Here, a research assistant working in NUI Galway writes about how he sees himself in the faces of the young children he sees on the news every night.

EACH AND EVERY day I watch the news in the morning, confronted with the appalling pictures of human beings that struggle in their ordeal to reach a place that is providing safety from bombs, freedom from fear, hunger and despair. They eventually want to escape death.

Whenever I see those faces, I see me, I see my parents.

My father was one of the most prominent Sri Lankan Tamil politicians. His ‘nom de guerre’ was “Vannai Ananthan”, a name the Tamils bestowed upon him. He fought against the discrimination of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the minority population in Sri Lanka. And, this is important to underscore, he fought with non-violent means.

In recent years, after his death, his comrades told me about his thrilling and captivating speeches. His appearance and speeches were lifeblood to the Tamil resistance against a chauvinist and racist Sri Lankan government that was dominated by the Sinhala population, which form the majority on the island.

Thrown in prison

For his resistance and membership in opposition to the Sri Lankan government my father was imprisoned under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for seven years in the infamous Welikade prison, the Sri Lankan version of Robben Island.

When I asked my father one day, why he did fight against the government and didn’t simply remain silent and pursue his career as a civil engineer in the public administration, he replied:

“There are moments, son, when you have to do the right thing.”

This sentence should become the common credo of my life.

With the help of Amnesty International my father was released. Shortly after my father fell in love with my mother at their working place, the Highways Department of the Ministry for Transport. Meanwhile, rumours spread around that the government wanted to kill my father.

Finding refuge

With the help of Amnesty International and political comrades, my father and my mother managed to escape Sri Lanka and found their refuge in Germany. My father became the first Sri Lankan Tamil to receive political asylum there, given his prominent status.

Germany, in a dark ocean of despair, became the beacon of hope. It offered my mother and father a home. Germany saved them from death. I know this for sure. Everybody I speak to tells me that if my parents had stayed in Sri Lanka, they would have been killed.

Germany, above all, is also my father country. I was born there. Growing up in Germany, I learnt what it means to live in cultural diversity, I received a great education and above all, I was received and accommodated free from fear, despair and death.

I did face discrimination and perhaps racism in Germany. But those incidents did not represent Germany, they were singular cases. But, in the end, Germans and Germany received me and my parents with open arms.

Right to live with freedom

This country helped my parents. They were able to work. They lived in freedom and peace. They became citizens of this country. They earned honest money for good work. They sent their son to the best schools possible. And the son saw a happily married couple, deeply in love, from day to day more.

This son had the privilege to delve in the vast knowledge of his father. This son had the honour to see him and experience him.

I had the profound gratitude to lay him to rest after years of sonhood. This I owe to a country that offered us refuge. I was able to go to school without the fear of being bombed. I was able to cross the streets without the fear of being shot in the back. I had food and safety. I had a decent education and learnt different cultures, religions and received the greatest friends one can imagine.

I had fabulous teachers, all of them offered me insights, shaped ideas and allowed me to experience their knowledge. I had friends and their families who always embraced me to be one of theirs. They included, never excluded or questioned my “Germaness”. I was always part of the society, never an outsider.

It was this extraordinary greatness of the society that makes Germany what it is. Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils were following in the 80s and 90s. And Germany, among other European nations offered refuge to these human beings.

I see myself and my parents on the TV now

Looking at the current crisis, I see myself and my parents again at the time when we struggled. But just like then, Germany and other countries stepped up, led by the fundamental value of humanity.

Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland made me who I am today: a child of refugees that went to grammar school, studied law, worked as a junior lawyer in tenancy law, majored in human rights law in Maastricht and is currently a PhD researcher in human rights in Galway, Ireland.

I am a product of European unity.

However, it is my fervent hope that Ireland will follow the German example in accommodating and providing for the refugees to come. I hope that the great Irish people won’t fear the moment, but seize the opportunity to live up to humanity and greatness.

The human beings who are coming need hope, compassion, empathy and a home. All of them have a life, with inherent dignity and a past.

Appeal to Irish people 

I hope that the Irish people will receive them with open arms and see in them the human beings they are and not as a swarm who want to exploit the system and distort the culture. No, they won’t, don’t fall for pied pipers.

The human beings coming will only enrich the beauty of the Irish culture and history. It is engineered into the Irish genes to feel empathy towards people in desperate need. Too fresh, still, are memories of the Great Famine or the Civil War.

Ireland can provide them food, shelter, safety, peace and education. Ireland can enable them to be a part of the society. Give them the feeling that they are welcomed. Just as Germany gave a little boy with a funny name the feeling not only of being welcomed, but of being part of a whole and enabled him to excel in what he does. Or, as his idol said: “Do the right thing”.

Ireland, it is time for greatness.

Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan, LLM. (Maastricht University) is a PhD candidate and Fellow under the supervision of Prof. Michael O’Flaherty, at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, National University of Ireland, Galway. His research focuses on Sri Lanka and the UN Human Rights Council. Prior to his occupation at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, he studied law at the universities of Bonn and Marburg, Germany and then worked as a junior lawyer for the tenants’ association in Germany and subsequently obtained his master degree from the University of Maastricht.

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Thamil Ananthavinayagan
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