The Skype calling tone rings through Illamaran Nagarasa’s laptop in his apartment. It’s 4:00a.m. in Toronto, where Nagarasa currently resides while he works for a multicultural radio station, CMR 101.3 FM. “Appā!” said his daughter in their native Tamil tongue on the other end of the Skype video call. She had just arrived home from school and was elated to talk to her father. At twelve years old, Skyping is the closest she’s been to being with her father in seven years. “Don’t they know a child has the basic right to live with their parents?” she asked her dad about the Canadian government, which he translated. Nagarasa was speechless as he starred at his laptop screen. As Sri Lankan refugees, his daughter and wife have been living oceans away from him in Tamil Nadu, India. Nagarasa and his family were separated when they sought safety during the twenty-five year civil war in Sri Lanka which stretched from Jul 23, 1983 to May 18, 2009.
While his family sought immediate refuge, Nagarasa put his hope and the equivalent of $40,000 on a small cargo ship heading for a safer country so he could soon bring his family to join him. Without knowledge of the ship’s destination, Nagarasa hoped that wherever it took him he could use his freedom and voice as a journalist to help others around the world. Once he arrived in Canada, he struggled to convince immigration officials to accept him as a refugee. “Canada closed the doors on us,” said Nagarasa. Now, with the arrival of new refugees from Syria, Nagarasa is once again sidelined, waiting to be reunited with his family.
In Sri Lanka, Nagarasa owned a media agency, Motivation Media Network, and also worked with BBC Radio. Nagarasa was accused of being part of the insurgency against the Sri Lankan government because he is of the Tamil minority. During the mass genocide of the Tamil people, Nagarasa was faced with threatening calls that gave him an ultimatum: to give in to using government propaganda at his agency or sacrifice the safety of himself, his wife and his daughter, who was four at the time. “If I stay here, the threat is not only on me, but on my family,” were the thoughts passing through Nagarasa’s mind the day he cleared his desk and packed away the photograph of his family he had perched on his wooden desk. Feeling helpless, Nagarasa called the number that was given to him on a business card in Thailand, where he first went to seek refugee. It was that phone number that led him to take a small boat out to the rusty Ocean Lady cargo ship which would take him to safety.
On his 45th day at sea, Nagarasa made his way up to the top deck of the ship and smiled at the Canadian flag on the plane overhead. He craned his neck up towards the symbol of hope and waved his hands above his head along with the other men, reaching for help after their long journey. “God had come to save us,” said Nagarasa. The following morning, Nagarasa flickered his eyes open, after his only peaceful night’s sleep aboard the ship, and found himself at gunpoint. “Am I back in Sri Lanka?” he thought to himself. With the hopes of being welcomed into Canada with open arms, Nagarasa feels that since his arrival in Canada, he and his family’s welcome has been delayed.
Military officers ordered all 76 refugees aboard the ship to exit the boat without their belongings. Nagarasa looked down to his personal items arranged beside the single mattress on the floor, which he shared with two other men. He quickly swooped up his journals, his most valuable asset that accompanied him on his long journey. The two journals, one brown and one blue, were both filled with stories of the bloody genocide in Sri Lanka and Nagarasa’s journey to Canada. Through eight storms that tossed the small ship around the sea, “like a football being tossed around a field,” Nagarasa said he kept his journals in perfect condition.
When Nagarasa stepped foot on the Western Coast of Vancouver on Oct 17, 2009, he along with the other refugees were accused of being terrorists. “Our only crime is that we wanted to live,” says Nagarasa. He was subsequently jailed in Vancouver for 40 days and interrogated for alleged affiliation with a Tamil separatist organization.
After his release, he moved to Toronto and began his application for permanent residency to get the process of his family joining him in Canada underway. Now, in year seven since his arrival in Canada, Nagarasa says he still doesn’t know what’s going on in his application for permanent residency, which will allow him to sponsor his family to join him in Canada. Unlike the current crop of Syrian refugees, some of whom were welcomed by the Prime Minister, Nagarasa is left without answers. The 18-month application turned into a 33-month-long application. Citizenship and Immigration Canada provided no other information as to why there was a delay in his application other than that it was “still in the assessment process.”
Nancy Caron, a spokesperson for Immigrations, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said that “within the refugee population, no group is prioritized over another.” The 15,000 and counting Syrian refugees already settled in Canada, have government agencies and private organizations aiding them in their settlement process. Francisco Rico-Martinez, co-founder of the FCJ Refugee Centre and a refugee from El Salvador, said the Syrian refugees are “the golden refugees, for good reason.” While there are a lot of people helping them, Rico-Martinez says his organization deals with the “forgotten ones”.
Nagarasa hopes that under the liberal government his application for permanent residency will be approved sooner, rather than later. When he looks at his cellphone displaying an incoming call from his family, he is full of fear that he was unable to bring them to safety soon enough. In his plight to advocate for refugees in similar situations, he stands firm when he says, “justice delayed is justice denied.”