Branded by terror: Toronto’s Tamils stand together

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By Rachelle Younglai

Between the fighting in Toronto and the never-ending civil war in Sri Lanka, the city’s Tamil community has been caught in the middle of a battle, the consequences of which aren’t just the number people killed. It goes beyond the death toll, to the very mention of the name of the language they speak – Tamil – evoking images of gangs and neighbourhoods paralyzed by fear.

In reality, over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of Tamils have made new homes in North America to escape the 18-year-old civil war that continues to ravage their homeland as the Tamil-speaking people lobby for the division of Sri Lanka and a place of their own.

But even though Tamils do not have to fear a civil war in Canada, they are forced to constantly fight the terrorist and violent stereotype the public has heaped on them thanks to the coverage of their community.

“They (people) think that we are all violent,” says Priyadharsan Sivahurunathan, former president and spokesman for Ryerson’s Tamil Students’ Association.

Sivahurunathan, an often-smiling third-year computer science student, remembers the violence in his home country of Sri Lanka. He also remembers when the civil war got to be too much for his parents and they decided to make the journey to Canada in 1988, when Sivahurunathan was 13.

His family is part of nearly 200,000 Tamil people who have been displaced because of the war and have moved to Canada, mostly to Toronto and Montreal.

Although many consider themselves lucky to live without the anxiety that comes with civil unrest, they find adapting to Canada unsettling.

“When I came here I struggled,” Sivahurunathan, now 25, says. His adjustment was even more difficult because he often felt marginalized as being violent. Now, he is trying to fight the stereotype that young Tamils often face as a result of the violence between the city’s VVT and AK Kannan gangs, both comprised of Tamils.

AK Kannan, named after founder Jothiravi Sittampalam’s nickname Kannan and the notorious assault rifle, has a firm grip on the east side of the city, especially the Scarborough area. VVT, named for Valvettihurai, a town in northern Sri Lanka, runs in the western end, including Mississauga.

The gang members, often in their late teens and 20s, came to Canada as war orphans after the ongoing war in Sri Lanka.

“These people didn’t come with their parents, there was no guidance,” says Sivahurunathan. They congregate together in areas of the city that they settle in and end up battling in what seems to be a self-perpetuating war. Some community members say they exist only to fight each other.

In reality, gang members make up a small percentage of the Tamil community. Some speculate that of the almost 200,000 Tamils in Toronto, a small handful, about 70, make up the main bodies of the groups, although many more may be associated with them.

But confusion about the fighting in Sri Lanka and the constant headlines that the two gangs make in Toronto skew the public perception of Tamils.

Dr. R. Cheran, a research associate at York University and a journalist says Tamils are often referred to as terrorists because of the actions of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE). The LTTE came into the North American eye this summer when it bombed the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka killing at least 20 civilians. LTTE wants a separate and sovereign state for Tamils in northern Sri Lanka, which they plan to call Eelam.

When the British ruled Sri Lanka they merged the Tamil and Sinhalese communities together. When Britain devolved power back to Sri Lanka in 1948, a Tamil homeland was not recognized.

“We don’t have a place we can call our home,” says Sivahurunathan. Tamils have struggled for a sovereign state and equal rights among the Sinhalese majority ever since. More than 60,000 people have died since the conflict erupted in 1983 between the government and the LTTE. Tamil people differentiate themselves from Sinhalese in language alone. Tamil, a language as old as Latin, is spoken in the southern parts of India and Sri Lanka. There are no physical or religious differences between Tamil and Sinhalese. Both groups practice a variety of faith such as Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. But the Tamils are an oppressed community, Cheran says.

Before the formation of the LTTE in the early 1980s, Tamils campaigned for equal rights in a peaceful, non-violent manner but were always crushed by the Sri Lanka military, Cheran says. In 1979 Sri Lanka entered into a state of emergency – a rule that has not yet been lifted.

“We have an authoritative, undemocratic state,” Cheran says. “The Sri Lanka constitution doesn’t have a provision for the right to life.”

Tamils make up about 20 per cent of the population of Sri Lanka and don’t have the same rights as Sinhalese people, who make up about 74 per cent of the population.

“There are systematic barriers,” Sivahurunathan says, reflecting on laws that made Sinhalese the national language in the 1970s and raised the school admissions in the Tamil populated areas of Sri Lanka. Since then Sri Lanka has recognized Tamil as a national language, but Tamils say it is only in theory and not in practice.

And although many Tamil academics and community leaders support LTTE’s cause and disagree with its methods, they say the violence erupted as a last resort. And because many Tamils support the LTTE’s motives, they can be seen by North Americans as terrorist supporters when they emigrate from Sri Lanka.

But even though many of the AK Kannan and VVT gang members are in Toronto as a result of the civil war, community leaders emphasize that the gang violence here in Toronto does not stem from the LTTE and the war in Sri Lanka.

Whatever the motives of the gangs are, violence between the groups has flared significantly over the past year. Community members were pleased with what seemed to be a calm in the fighting until several shootings happened throughout the city, including an attempt on AK Kannan founder Jothiravi Sittampalam’s life last April. The violence brought the gang fighting and the issue of young Tamils to the forefront and Sivahurunathan says the media must share some of the blame for misrepresentation.

“The people who gather information about Tamils don’t understand the people,” he says. “They think because of violence in Sri Lanka, you’re violent too.”

Cheran agrees, saying that Tamil people feel that they don’t have a say in mainstream news media.

And community members say that when Tamils are lumped in a category of being seen as dangerous, they may become more vulnerable to getting involved with gangs.

“Youth could be targeted by potentially violent people,” says Neethan Shanmugarajah, program coordinator at the Canadian Tamil Youth Development Centre in Toronto.

Sivahurunathan, like others, is wary of the portrayal of gangs in mainstream entertainment.

“They want to fit in, they want to be cool,” Sivahurunathan says as an explanation.

“Gangs are promoted as heroes,” he says. The style of some American gangs whose methods are featured in movies and music are often reproduced by the Toronto gangs who use illegal assault rifles as weapons for their fighting. They are also involved in drug trafficking and fraud schemes around the city, as well as other crimes. Toronto police’s Tamil task force was recently incorporated into the organized crime task force to try and crack down on the recent increase in crime.

Shanmugarajah also says Tamils are often the targets of police and security officials because of the violent stereotype. As a result, Tamils become wary of authority figures and the cycle of mistrust continues.

Most are new citizens or refugees who feel alone. And with the history of violence involving the military in Sri Lanka that they have just left behind them, Cheran says the trepidation toward officials here in Canada continues.

“There is sheer fear and hatred of security officers,” says Cheran.

Apart from contending with the violent stereotype that exists in Toronto, Tamils, like any group of immigrants, try to understand and integrate themselves in a new country. There are the common issues of language barrier, being misunderstood, trying to adapt to a new culture while retaining parts of their own.

But although all members face difficulties with the transition and integration, its even more difficult for women. When women come over to Canada they are powerless because they are still dependent on their sponsors or husbands and face a major language barrier, says Kanthasamy Parvathy, a social worker and active member of the Tamil community.

Many Tamil women who arrive in Canada were professionals in Sri Lanka. Parvathy says it is very difficult for them to lose that independence. Some women also face the brunt of the anger and frustration their husbands face with their inability to get ahead in the Canadian workforce.

“Men are angry at the social system. If a man is violent he doesn’t  take it out on a public person, he takes it out on the women,” she says, adding that this kind of abuse runs across the cultural borders.

At Parvathy’s case management job, 80 per cent of her client lead is Tamil women. In addition to her job, she spends much of her free time helping and counseling people in the community. She receives about four to five calls a day from people she doesn’t know asking for help.

But people like Parvathy also give plenty of hope to one of the city’s newest immigrant communities. And there are many that devote their time and energy to helping the community in any way they can.

At Ryerson, the TSA functions in many capacities. It offers support, tutors people in various subjects and holds social events. The association started in the early nineties as a club where Tamils could gather to help overcome the language barrier.

“Here we can speak without embarrassment, speak without judgement,” Sivahurunathan says. There are about 100 students who belong to Ryerson’s TSA.

In Toronto, Tamils are working to help snuff out the violence with putting the emphasis on their community. Apart from the youth centre, there are many other social networks, including eight Tamil newspapers and four radio stations.

This summer they celebrated the inauguration of a Tamil Hindu temple in Toronto – the first ceremony of its kind in North America.

Struggle has long been a part of the Tamil history and it is a testimony to their strength as a people. For the ones that have escaped their country’s strife, they know what it means to survive.

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