Previously in Refuge #23 Don’t Touch the Hot Plate: Suthan received a Temporary Protection Visa and planned to fly to India for his sister’s wedding. To fund this trip, he withdrew from Year 12. When his Indian visa application was rejected, he felt that he lost everything. Coping with such setbacks and on-going depression was not easy.
By 2010, Suthan’s sisters, Bramila and Kagenthas, were living in London. 2010 was a landmark year for all three siblings: Suthan became an Australian citizen, Kagenthas’ daughter turned one and Bramila received her Masters. Bramila paid for their mother to fly over from Sri Lanka.
It had been fifteen years since Suthan saw his family. Finally, in London, so many miles away from Jaffna, Suthan embraced his mother and two sisters. Finally the family was reunited and together they celebrated a birthday, a graduation and the sheer joy of Suthan’s survival after those impossible years and dreadful uncertainty.
With the interruption of war over, the usual concerns of life resumed, and Suthan’s mother started looking for a wife for him, while he continued looking for work.
Two years later, in 2012, Suthan had a full-time position as a level-4 machinist at SA Sawmilling. On the weekends, he also worked at an Indian restaurant in Crafers. At this time, Suthan was still living in the Brown family home. He had moved out several times over the years, but had always returned because of homesickness. In March 2012, however, he moved out permanently after he welcomed his wife, Rathi, to Australia. They moved into an apartment on Portrush Road in Adelaide.
When the couple were driving back from Whyalla one weekend after visiting friends, Rathi urged Suthan to apply for work there so they could be closer to other Sri Lankan families. Suthan had misgivings because he knew that his friends moved around a lot for work.
Nonetheless, he submitted his resumé through his friends and was offered a job. Two days later, SA Sawmilling announced factory closure. Suthan accepted the Whyalla offer immediately, even though it meant forfeiting his redundancy package because he did not want to lose the Whyalla position.
Suthan’s new workplace was primarily a steel fabricating plant, but the company also provided engineering services such as maintaining and repairing mining machinery. He found the work extremely interesting. His boss started sending him on courses and supported him in gaining various qualifications, or tickets, in areas such as scaffolding, rigging, driving a forklift, EWB (elevated work platform) and operating a telescopic handler. An engineer by training, his boss had arrived in Australia as an Italian migrant, who spoke no English, but had built up a successful business in thirty-five years.
Suthan tells me all this over then phone and I ask him about that first job in Whyalla, ‘What was the name of the company?’
‘Link Engineering. You know that Link Lightning basketball Adelaide?’
‘No,’ I say.
‘Women’s basketball. It finished last year, that belonged to him.’
‘So his company closed last year?’ I ask.
‘Yeah. Because he passed away in the last year because he had the bad cancer. Leukemia.’
‘What was his name?’
‘He was still young?’ I ask.
‘Sixty-two. I’m the only one allowed to go to his home. He didn’t trust anybody else. If he wanted high pressure water cleaning in his backyard or to cut his lawn, I am the only one allowed to go. He gave me the remote for his house. He passed away end of last year. Not even six months, went into bankruptcy. I finished on 21 March this year, Barbara’s birthday.
I was like his son. Because he went, I finished, but still I got lots of tickets. I can get a job very easy around the place. He built me up.’
‘Does your wife like it here in Australia?’
‘She misses her mum.’
‘That was how I became depressed too until I moved into Barbara’s house. Once I got family here, it is good. My son calls her Nanna.’
‘We were supposed to come to Adelaide this weekend. It is Warren’s birthday but we all have flu. My son goes to childcare to get a little bit of Australian culture and he goes and brings all the sickness to us both.’
We both laugh.
‘Yes, that’s what happens with childcare,’ I say.
‘Now he starts correcting my pronunciation. Three and a half year old boy.’
‘Well, I have spoken English all my life but my children also correct my English pronunciation. What language do you speak to your children?’ I ask.
‘I try to speak English because I want to bring my kids in Australian style not like some of the Sri Lankans talk Tamil and they want to teach everything Sri Lankan tradition. You are from Malaysia. You adapt to Australian culture or you still in Malaysian culture?’
‘I think my children are much more into Australian culture. For me, I don’t know how to think of myself, as Australian or Malaysian.’
‘Yeah, we just lost both,’ he says.
We laugh again.
‘No. I hope we gain both,’ I say. ‘I think I feel more at home in Australia than Malaysia but when I go to Malaysia I can still understand the way of life.’
‘I have a good friend from Malaysia. He is living in Adelaide. He’s an engineer. I met him at the gym, a Tamil boy. When very bad war was happening in Sri Lanka, when I quit going to see psychiatrist, I went to do serious gym workout, that’s why I got better. I went every day and saw this guy all the time. He looks like a Sri Lankan Singhalese. That was 2009, very bad war. They killed more than 300,000 people in Sri Lanka. And if he come and talk to me I will punch him.’
‘And one day, I was using machine and he came and said, “Can I use with you?” I said, “Where are you from?” He said, “Malaysia.” Then I said, “Which language do you speak?” And he said, “Tamil.” Best friends after.’
We both laugh.
‘So lucky he said Tamil,’ I say.
‘Yes. But …the first couple of years I was here, every time I saw people similar to us, I really wanted to get to know them and ask where are you from, which language. But nowadays, I don’t even ask because I think maybe that’s wrong when you ask somebody.’
I confess that I am still curious to know where people are from, but restrain from asking, as some might take offence. He tells me about his sons, born in 2013 and in 2015. Suthan wanted Australian names; Rathi wanted Sri Lankan names. So Suthan compromised and gave their eldest son a Sri Lankan name, Dashwin. Barbara helped to persuade him by telling him that Dashiell Hammett was a famous American writer, and now everyone calls the boy Dash anyway, and he lives up to his name, dashing everywhere. Rathi also compromised and they named their second son, Aaron.
‘I’m seeing Barbara on Tuesday,’ I say.
‘Barbara is a doctor now. She finished her doctorate. She wrote her mum’s story. Her mum is German, you know, the Second World War. She wrote my story for her honours, her mum’s story for her PhD.’
A few days later, on Tuesday at the Hawker Street café, among many other things, Barbara tells me, ‘Because Suthan was with us for so long, I remember writing once to his mother in Sri Lanka and saying that I never wanted to take her place and she would always be his mother.’
‘And what did his mother say?’ I asked.
‘She was always very gracious and wrote a letter back to say how pleased she was that I was caring for him.’
As my interview with Barbara draws to a close, I tell Barbara that I admire the way she has fought for Suthan.
‘I’m not courageous like you,’ I said. I have never marched, have never held banners in protest.
‘My mother grew up in Nazi Germany. That’s where my concern for others who are repressed comes from.’
‘Was she in the concentration camps?’
‘No. She was not a Jew. But one day, her schoolteacher said all the Jewish children must go to the back of the class and no one is allowed to talk to them. And my mother said, “Eve is my best friend. No one is going to stop me from talking to her.”’
‘Your mother is in Adelaide too?’
‘Yes. She went to England after the war and married my father, who is Irish. I came out here when I was twelve. Mum loved it in Australia. She said it was a very accepting place. More so than England, especially being German after the war … And Eve is ninety years now and lives in Adelaide. It’s not courage. It’s love.’
This is part of the serial online release of Refuge. This episodes concludes Chapter 4 Sri Lanka. Next Friday: Chapter 5 Iraq. This is the story of a famous Iraqi playwright who fell in love with his leading lady. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.