Reid has found a new life

October 19, 2017

Sri Lankan man of Tamil background Reid Pethuru starts new life in Tatura after escaping life in a country ravaged by conflict.

In the middle of the night, for fear of his life, Reid Pethuru fled his native Sri Lanka without telling his wife and daughter.

Mr Pethuru, who is of Tamil background, has had bullets narrowly miss him, had guns pressed against his head, has noticed some colleagues and friends go missing during his life, and had to risk it all to escape to Australia.

His story is filled with fear, discrimination and injustice, but also a desire to represent and create a better life for his people.

Mr Pethuru was born in 1976 into a family on the coast near the capital city of Colombo, where his father made a living as a fisherman and life was good until 1983 when civil war started between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Eelam (Tamil Tigers).

The family made up of mother and father, Mr Pethuru, his five sisters and one adopted sister fled to India in 1985 where they settled for temporary asylum.

‘‘There were riots and Tamil properties were burned to the ground, women were killed in the streets,’’ Mr Pethuru said.

The refugee camp was home to the family before they returned to Sri Lanka in 1988 and started business again.

‘‘Upon returning to Sri Lanka the family found they had lost everything, their fishing business, home, furniture, car and expensive goods were all stolen or destroyed,’’ he said.

However the family continued to rebuild, and in 1991 they started a hardware shop and got into textiles before more tragedy happened to the family when soldiers burned their business to the ground.

‘‘My father and I went to the government asking for compensation, they offered us the equivalent of A$10000 for more than $1million in damage — this is injustice,’’ he said.

‘‘In 1997, when I go to do my high school exam I was not in good position, we had no food to eat, I was lost, it was hard to study, I couldn’t perform well.’’

Mr Pethuru said he was trying to study agricultural science but there were problems because he had no money and couldn’t buy books.

‘‘In my exams I got two Bs and two Cs but I was not accepted into university because of my Tamil background, people were allowed in with lower marks,’’ he said.

It was around this time that Mr Pethuru said he and his friend group were approached by Tamil Tigers to be recruited.

‘‘I spoke to my father, he said, ‘you are my only son and you have to go to India and get an education’,’’ he said.

Mr Pethuru said his family had a knock on the door days after he fled to India by himself, asking about his whereabouts and he later found out his friends were tortured for their association with the Tamil Tigers.

‘‘They were whipped by an electrical cord and had their penis crushed by a door being slammed shut on it,’’ he said.

Mr Pethuru was lucky enough to have the chance to study in India after the Roman Catholic missionary vouched to the Indian Government for him to continue his studies beyond the basic offering in the refugee camps.

‘‘Education is so important, anything can be stolen from you but not your education,’’ he said.

Mr Pethuru studied via an American College doing a Bachelor of Sociology and Religion but struggled in the beginning to get a grasp of the English language.

‘‘I followed the newspaper, radio, and learned English and climbed to second in the class,’’ he said.

Mr Pethuru would return to Sri Lanka again after his father told him of a ceasefire agreement in 2003, but Mr Pethuru said he quickly saw the same injustice and atrocities towards innocent Tamil people were still happening.

Mr Pethuru started working with an international organisation as an administration officer and also did social work at a Sri Lankan University. He joined a youth parliament and tried to speak up about what was happening in Tamil villages.

Mr Pethuru became a project officer in 2009 with an organisation helping war and tsunami affected regions in north-eastern Sri Lanka.

During this time the military stormed the offices where he worked and held guns to the backs of people who worked there. Several times members of his team were killed by mines in the fields still affected by war.

Mr Pethuru had another close shave with death while travelling home on the night of one of his sister’s weddings when he slowed down his car after noticing a tree trunk on the road.

‘‘I felt a bullet move through the air near my head, I think half-an-inch and it would have hit me,’’ he said.

‘‘I drove away to police station nearby, they returned with us and the roadblock was gone; it was an attempt on my life.’’

In 2011, Mr Pethuru was selected as one of four Tamil people by the government to become director of a devastated region.

‘‘I felt this was something I could do for my people because I know that pain from my childhood; my father was arrested 100 times with no reason and could only return after soldiers received bribes,’’ he said.

Despite being in a relative position of power Mr Pethuru was still being watched closely by military officers who told him he could not recruit his own staff and what he could and could not do.

‘‘They wanted to relocate fishermen into the jungle; what would they do there?’’ he said.

The pressure and threats continued and it was at this point Mr Pethuru decided to return to India without telling anyone.

Mr Pethuru said once again people went to his family’s homes and threatened to kill him if he was caught.

In the refugee camp, he spoke to people about going to Australia, which is what he eventually did in dangerous circumstances.

After spending 40 days in India he, along with another 122 people, paid $5000 to board a fibreglass boat in the hope of finding a safe place and better future.

After an 18-day, 4500km tumultuous journey aboard an ill-equipped and unstable vessel, he landed as an illegal immigrant on Christmas Island.

After being processed on Christmas Island, Mr Pethuru was issued with temporary travelling documents that allowed him to be transferred to the Darwin Detention Centre, then to Wickham Point Detention Centre and then Curtin Detention Centre.

Mr Pethuru said he thanked the Australian Government, because the doctors at the detention centre diagnosed and offered treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder.

After being released he moved to Melbourne, living around the Brunswick area for about three years.

In December last year, Reid moved from Melbourne to Shepparton where he spent five nights in the park before Rural Housing found him accommodation in Tatura.

Mr Pethuru is an enthusiastic volunteer for the Tatura Community House and has successfully gained his membership to the Australian Association of Social Workers which recognises his Masters in Social Work.

He has applied for 3000 job positions in two years and only recently secured a casual job with Country Fire Authority and continues to look for more work.

Mr Pethuru said he was grateful to the community and urged people to give people from all refugee backgrounds the chance to prove themselves, their skills and knowledge because they want to help the community.

‘‘Kindly give us the opportunities to give back and live,’’ he said.

Mr Pethuru said he has great joy in still being able to speak to his family but does not know if he will ever see them in person again.

‘‘There’s no answer to that question,’’ he said.

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