First-year information technology student Sinthiya Balasundaram says that things such as the Canadian Tamil Youth development Centre award she won this weekend help to improve the image of the Tamil community in Toronto.

Photo: Michael Traikos

Tamil student challenges stereotypes

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By Mary Nersessian

When Sinthiya Balansundaram first arrived in Canada from Sri Lanka 10 years ago, she found it difficult to adapt and learn the language. Today, the 19-year-old Ryerson student is the first in her family to attend university. Balasundaram’s story isn’t the typical one told by the media about members of the Tamil community. She isn’t a terrorist of a gang member, but a hardworking young person who finds hundreds of hours to devote to volunteer work.

On the weekend, the first-year information technology student was awarded the Community Contribution Award from the Canadian Tamil Youth Development Centre, an award intended to counter the negative public image of Toronto’s Tamil community.

“I’m glad to represent my community,” said Balasundaram. “CanTYD gets rid of negative concepts that people have about the Tamil community, and they reach out and help students like me.”

Many youths in the community say there is a negative portrayal of them in the media because of coverage of Tamil gang-related violence in Scarborough and Markham, and the decades-long civil was in Sri Lanka.

They do not want to be equated with this small portion of their community, and rightly so — students like Balasundaram are proving these stereotypes wrong.

She has volunteered at the North York General Hospital, the Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre and has been part of numerous school groups, including the student council and multicultural council at her former high school, George S. Henry Academy.

“I am very proud of myself,” she says. “I knew from the beginning that I never wanted my parents to pay my tuition.”

So far she has received enough scholarships and bursaries to cover her tuition at Ryerson for two years.

She says her parents are always surprised and especially pleased by her success.

“They think if you’re Tamil, it’s hard in this country,” she said.

“At first it was hard,” says Balasundaram of arriving in Canada. “But after connecting with people at around Grades 6 and 7, I felt like I was one of them.” She says that today she feels no different today than any other Canadian student.

She has currently been offered the opportunity to take part in a work-study program at Ryerson and was also hired as the marketing promotions assistant for Student Services.

This year’s Awards of Excellence recognised the talents of 23 young Tamil students for their academic, athletic and community service achievements. More than 1,000 people attended the awards show at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

“This is an opportunity to showcase the cream of our society,” said Anusha Srijeyanathan, director of CanTYD.

The idea for CanTYD arose from a discussion in the boardroom of the Tamil Eelam Society to cut the negative media portrayal of Tamil youths. The Toronto Tamil community is about 200,000 strong, with most Tamils living in Scarborough.

Four and a half years ago, 14 Tamil university and college graduates formed CanTYD to help Tamil youth from the Greater Toronto area to maximize their potential. Today the centre has over 200 volunteers.

Former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall was at the ceremony last week to be presented with the first copy of a compilation of Tamil literary and artistic work.

“These young people have incredible leadership, they are role models for Canadians of any background.”

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