Amah, my younger sister and myself were home alone with the door locked as we waited till everything settled down. Around three in the afternoon, we heard loud banging on the door. We saw 35-40 people armed with sticks, and hatchets - shouting at us to come out. Surprisingly, we also saw Buddhist monks among the rioters. As voices moved toward the back of the house, my mother urged us to leave the house. As we ran out, I remember the crowded streets, people watching others getting beat, tires being thrown at people and set on flames. It was too much of a shock but we had only one goal- to get to the police station, which was closest to the house. We felt we would be safe there.
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My name is Sudharshana Rajasingam. I am now 52 years old. I came to Canada in October 1986. Before the 1983 July riots, I was teaching at Methodist College in Colombo and I was eight months pregnant. My husband was working abroad. On the 25th of July, I got a phone call from a colleague telling me not to come to school because of “troubles.” The word trouble was not new to us - it meant racially motivated riots. It happened in 1971 and again 1977.
When we arrived at the police station, it was already crowded. Though one of the constables questioned us about our possessions, they did not show interest once they learned that we did not have TV or VCR in the house. Over the course of the day, more people were entering the area to find refuge. About 40 of us were confined in a small room. People who lived further down our road who came to the police station later told us how they had seen our house on flames and had wondered what had become of us.
Early next morning, we were ushered onto buses. I feared we would be sent to an army camp- fortunately that did not happen. We were taken to St. Peter’s College, which was set up as a refugee camp similar to most schools. Its cement desk platforms were used as beds among the now refugees of the riots. Fortunately, at our request, a priest helped us get a ride to the Methodist College where I was at least familiar with the people and surroundings. I stayed there 7 weeks and gave birth to my twins at a Nursing Home nearby. To cheer me up, I remember the nurse saying to me, “You must be excited to go home.” And I started crying.
Soon, we moved in with my aunt in the Eastern part and then to Jaffna after a few months. Staying in Jaffna was a whole other experience. I couldn’t take the random shooting of the army and hiding out in the house. We had to have a bag packed and ready with a change of clothing for the twins and their milk bottles in case we had to run.
Finally, in May 1984 unable to continue living in a state of tension we went to Chennai hoping to stay there for a few months until the situation settled in Jaffna. But we stayed on in India for a year. We had to renew our visitor visas every three months and the uncertainty of being able to return to Sri Lanka weighed heavily on us. In May 1985 we took my sister’s advice and went to England as a way of buying time. However, British Immigration did not entertain refugee claims and we were informed that we will have to leave when they notified us. Then, I heard through a friend who was already in Canada that Canadian churches were sponsoring refugees and that I could send in an application. Following long sets of interviews with the Canadian and the Quebec Immigration, we were finally granted visas to Canada and arrived in Montreal.
On October 8th, 1986, we arrived in Montreal where a church welcoming committee greeted us at the airport. They said, “Welcome to Canada. These are your house keys.” I could only cry. Since July 1983, I did not feel like I had a home. I was constantly moving from place to place. So, it was good to have a place to call home.
Now, 22 years later, I am working with women and their families with refugee experiences. As I work with women in their journey of healing from trauma arising out of civil war, militarization and struggle for self determination I feel that my healing is also going through a transformation. Yet it never ceases to surprise me how 25 years later the experiences Black July are so raw and etched into my soul.
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