By: Andrea Shanmugarajah
The Tamil community in Toronto is undoubtedly an interesting one – as part of a growing global diaspora that was driven out of Sri Lanka largely because of a long-standing civil war, Tamil people have managed remarkably to preserve our culture, even on the opposite side of the world. Tamils have been lucky in that this is a city that tailors itself towards welcoming all cultures with open arms, but even then, it has required a substantial amount of resilience and determination to build a life here and make it into a home. But why were Tamil people who immigrated here so willing to endure the challenges involved in succeeding as an immigrant? Many Tamil people moved here, to a country with a language they could not speak, were forced to take jobs that they were significantly over-qualified for, and had to drag themselves from the ground up to earn the same place in society they once held. But why leave one’s own mother country for something entirely foreign, and more importantly, what can we, as children of immigrants, learn from the fortitude the Canadian Tamil community has demonstrated over the last number of years.
I remember even as a young child, hearing of the numerous sacrifices Tamil people have had to make to make a life for themselves and their families here in Canada. I can recall hearing people being described by their former position in Sri Lanka, hearing about people who once held great jobs and high stations, who now worked in labour jobs or for minimum wage. I heard also about people who had their rights to a higher education stripped from them – a lifelong dream crumbling, not because they weren’t smart enough, but because of policy outside of their control. But remarkably, as I met people who lived through these situations over the years, I did not find the bitterness and the anger that I was expecting. Even at the time, I found it hard to wrap my mind around the idea that people who had been forced to give up everything because of external forces could be not just content, but actually happy, with their new lives in Canada. In fact, as time has passed, I have only found myself more taken aback by the attitudes of Tamil immigrants. I reflect on everything that I have strived for, and the life I have worked so hard trying to provide myself, and I simply cannot imagine how I would react if I had to give it up. I suspect that the injustice of it would overwhelm me, and even as I tried to start again from scratch, my mind would always return to the life I could have had, had things gone to plan. So, I wondered, what allowed the Tamil community to find joy again even after all their hardships, and avoid being consumed by the life they could have, and should have, had?
I have described Tamil immigrants in Canada as resilient, and this word is undoubtedly fitting. But it fits not just because the community has managed to transport its culture, values and traditions across the world. Tamils have shown resiliency in their ability to not take for granted the opportunities they are presented with, regardless of how small. They have shown resilience also, in their willingness to work below their own station so that their kids can one day live comfortably, in a country that accepts the success and the determination of all, regardless of skin colour or ethnicity. Tamil people sacrificed everything they had and everything they worked forto give their children a better shot at life – a shot that was more secure and stable, because Tamils learned early on, as they lost everything, that their wealth was not in their belongings, but in their children. But most of all, in having done all of the above, yet still continuing to find pleasure and contentment from the small joys in life, have Tamil immigrants in Canada shown true resilience.
As someone born and raised in Canada, I know that I have many blessings to count – English is my first language, I have gone to school here since pre-school, andI have been immersed in Canadian culture for my entire life. However, I count myself even luckier to have been raised as a child of Tamil immigrants. The lessons this community has taught me go deeper than just learning to drape a saree or make the perfect curry, and they are so deeply ingrained in me that I am confident that the path my life takes will be heavily influenced by where I, and my parents, came from. The warmth I have received from the Tamil community is unparalleled, and through my interactions over the years, I have learned to bring kindness and compassion to everything I do, regardless of how my own life is progressing. I have learned also to remain resilient even the face of challenge –being surrounded and raised by people who had to abruptly leave their country and make a life for themselves on the other side of the world, it would be impossible not to believe that anything is possible. The Tamil community has taught me that there is no sacrifice not worth making for the people you love – even the most arduous of hardships can be endured if it means helping your loved ones thrive. And finally, through this community I have learned the importance of always counting your blessings, regardless of how sparse they may seem. Tamil people have so much to lament–they were forced to leave their home country after years of injustices, come to Canada, and find any work they could, just to make ends meet. Despite this, the Tamil people I know have been perpetually optimistic, not absorbed by their misfortunes, but focused instead on their gratitude for what they do have and how much worse their situation could have been. I keep this attitude in mind as I embark on my own challenges and struggles, knowing that if my parents and their peers could have gone through what they did and still emerge with smiles on their faces, then I have no reason to ever consider myself as anything but lucky.