As an activist, it often becomes difficult to maintain a level of optimism when the current state of human rights is bleak. There comes a moment when all the rallies and late night meetings seem useless. I know I have asked myself repeatedly, “what’s the point?” It seems that every small but glorious step forward is always followed by several steps backwards. It is in these moments that you need to remind yourself why you became an activist.
My story goes back two generations, all the way to colonial India. My grandmother, Rasammal or Pahti as we called her in Tamil, travelled from Namakkal in South India to Sri Lanka by boat with her family. Orphaned at an early age, my grandmother and her siblings lived in extreme poverty for most of their lives. She was married at thirteen, had no access to any level of education, and was confined by our societies gender norms. She went on to help my grandfather build a large network of business in the town they lived in, Nuwara Eliya, one that had very few Tamil people.
In July of 1983, often referred to as Black July, a wave of anti-Tamil pogroms and riots engulfed the island. Although it was difficult to collect data about the riots, it was estimated that up to 3,000 Tamil people lost their lives during Black July. At this time, my grandfather had just purchased a new orange Volkswagen van, in which he took the entire family on a cross country tour only a few prior. Since he was one of the most prominent Tamil people in the town, rioters took special interest in my grandfather, calling out “Kill Pitchaimuthu!” in the late hours of the night. It was my grandmother, who helped my grandfather and the rest of my family escape just as rioters closed on their bungalow. Over the course of a week, my grandmother hid the family in closets and friend’s houses, until it was safe enough to flee the town. By the end of the pogroms, all of my grandfather’s businesses and their bungalow house had all been burnt to the ground. Including the brand new Volkswagen van that they had purchased not even a few weeks prior.
As the years passed, and as civil war and anti-Tamil sentiments began plagued the nation, it became evident that our family needed to flee the country. My mother and father arrived in Canada in 1990 as asylum seekers. Contrary to the popular narrative that most refugees are given many “hand-outs,” my parents worked tirelessly to establish themselves in this country. The blatant and institutional racism they faced here offered very little reprieve from what was faced back home. However, through it all, they worked and established themselves in this country that they now call home.
This intergenerational displacement, trauma, and ultimately resilience, is why I choose to be an activist. In every moment that I feel afraid, or tired, or hopeless, I remind myself of the strength my family showed to make it here. They crossed oceans and fled wars in order to thrive. I believe it is my duty to use all my privilege, especially as a settler on land that does not belong to me, to fight for all those who face oppression and injustice.
So instead of asking yourself “what’s the point,” try asking yourself why? Why are you here? Why do you fight against injustice? Why are you passionate about making change?
Written By: Athavarn Srikantharajah