This is part of the serial online release of my book, Refuge. The story to date: My students inspire me to begin collecting stories about refugee resettlement. I arrange these stories according to date of arrival in Australia, stories that start in Vietnam, Romania, China and now, Sri Lanka.
In July 2016, I call Suthan, a man whom I have never met. The phone signal breaks up intermittently, as if to remind me of the four hundred kilometres separating my study in Adelaide and his home in Whyalla.
‘I left Sri Lanka because of the war,’ says Suthan in a quiet, gentle voice. ‘It was very hard for young people to be Tamil. I left home in 2000 and stayed in Indonesia. In 2002, I arrived in Australia. I was four years in detention. Then I stayed with an Australian family in Blackwood for nearly nine years.’
With pride, he tells me that his friend wrote his story and received an honours degree from Flinders University for it.
‘May I read it?’ I ask. ‘Could you ask your friend?’
‘Yes, we are family, always in contact. She is like my mother.’
A few days later, Suthan sends me a text message, cancelling our phone interview because he’s been called back to work. Three weeks later, instead of the rescheduling I had hoped for, he sends me a three-sentence email: ‘Here is my story. I have attached it in this email. I hope it will help.’
I open the ten-thousand-word document named Suthan’s Story. It is told in Suthan’s voice, in the first person, but there is no author’s name. After the title, it simply launches into ‘The beginning’. The accounts of his childhood in Sri Lanka are endearing, but as civil war erupts, I find myself skipping over painful details.
I write refugee stories. But I do not enjoy reading them. Am I a paradox or am I a fool? A fool uses resources to produce goods no one wants. A paradox tunes in to narratives of happy refugees, but tunes out to horror, war, injustice and all other instances where refugees do not metamorphose into happy citizens.
The truth is that I am uncertain if I will be able to use the material in Suthan’s Story. And so, I instinctively guard my limited capacity for compassion, my personal storehouse of empathy, knowing that if I weep over all the injustice in the world, I will be a dysfunctional wreck.
Three months pass without any further contact with Suthan. In September, I try my luck and text him, informing him there is progress with my book and I would love to speak to him in order to include his story. I also ask for the contact details of his friend who wrote his story because I wish to get her permission to use some of the material.
My phone pings. It’s Suthan. ‘That’s great,’ reads his message, ‘I talk to Barbara, she said that would be fine’. He gives me her mobile number. Suthan and I agree to speak on the phone in four days, on Thursday, 15 September 2016. Later, when I call Barbara, she suggests that we meet in Bowden the following Tuesday, 22 September.
Bowden is an inner city suburb where small-scale factories are giving way to cubic apartment blocks and townhouses. At the Hawker Street Café, golden lampshades hang from a red ceiling. Artwork for sale adorns white walls. Retired church pews provide extra seating in a space filled with square tables and lightweight chairs.
Barbara rises to welcome me. Her hair is greying, and she is slight of frame. Sprightly white bunnies hop across her red shirt, the red carried through in tiny cylinders of art dangling from her ears. Her smile radiates a sense of fun and adventure and she asks me what sort of coffee I would like. She insists on buying our hot drinks, and makes sure I’m comfortable. That’s usually my job in an interview.
I had asked if she could bring some photos of Suthan, as I had yet to meet him in person. She pulls out a pocket envelope from her handbag and we both bend over the glossy prints.
‘He had a full head of hair back then,’ she says. Here, Suthan poses beside a huge stuffed black and white tiger. There, he kneels by a swimming pool, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The photos were taken on Suthan’s excursions from immigration detention facilities to nearby towns, first Port Hedland and then Whyalla.
Before I pull out my lined paper and start the interview, Barbara begins to tell me about herself and her family. It is as if she is saying: you must understand this in order to understand the story of how Suthan became part of our family.
Barbara and her husband, Warren, had taken seven years to conceive their first child, Kate. When a subsequent uterine infection made a second pregnancy highly unlikely, they decided to adopt.
‘It’s much easier to adopt if you have a country in mind, so we looked to Sri Lanka,’ says Barbara.
She had fallen in love with the energy, spirit and strength of several Sri Lankan children whom she had cared for as a nurse. The children had flown to Australia for surgery.
In 1983, Warren and Barbara travelled to Sri Lanka to finalise their adoption. The burnt out bus Barbara saw by the roadside was a curiosity and the eleven o’clock curfew only added spice to her exotic holiday. It was a joyous moment when they finally held one-month-old Renuka in their arms. The only sadness that marred the day was seeing many older children who had been passed over. Barbara made a promise to return. Three years later, Warren and Barbara returned to adopted Jesse, who turned eight when they were there.
‘His original name was Jesus and we thought that’s not going to go down well, so we changed it to Jesse,’ laughs Barbara.
‘So would his family have been Christians?’ I ask.
‘He was a strong Catholic but he wasn’t what you’d call a traditional orphan.’
Jesse was born in Nuwara Eliya, central Sri Lanka, in 1978. He came from a line of Tamils brought over from India by the British as cheap labour for tea plantations in the Ceylonese highlands. They were regarded as unworthy of citizenship when Ceylon received her independence in 1948, and were among the poorest and most disadvantaged people in modern Sri Lanka.
Every morning, Jesse’s mother stood on the steep terraces, picking tender green shoots, until the basket on her back weighed around twenty kilograms. Her husband tended the gardens at the Catholic convent but even with two wages, the children often cried for just a little more food. What mother won’t give up her share for her hungry children?
When Jesse’s mother died of malnutrition and tuberculosis, his father sent Jesse’s sister, who had cerebral palsy, to a home and decided to sell his three sons as servants. But the nuns persuaded him that Jesse was too young to be sold and he was sent to an orphanage instead.
The first night Jesse spent in his new Blackwood home in Australia, Barbara remembers him lying in bed and asking her to say the rosary with him. As a Christian, not a Catholic, Barbara had never recited the rosary. She had never used the beads as mnemonics to recall mysteries of faith to springboard praise and prayer to God.
‘So as well as losing all the other things that he lost, he lost that as well. So Jesse’s story is not a happy one, I’m afraid,’ says Barbara.
‘He lost his Catholic faith or his rosary? What do you mean?’ I ask.
Barbara explained that when her two ‘home-grown’ children were eight, she remembers looking at them and realizing that they were totally formed, very much their own people, and thinking, ‘Oh my God, imagine how they would have felt if they had been picked up’ – her hand reaches down like a crane and lifts up imaginary people and relocates them to another corner of our table – ‘and put down in another country at eight.’
‘No matter how much you try, cook a Sri Lankan meal now and again, link with other Sri Lankan families, it’s nothing like what Jesse had. I think his grief was a big part of him for all of his life, that sense of loss. So in the end, he suicided when he was in his mid-twenties.’
Next Friday 21 June 2019, Refuge #17: Broom Cupboard. Subscribe to receive links to new episodes in your inbox every Friday. The story of Josie from China has been adapted into an English teaching resource for adults.