This is my very first memory of my childhood: I remember the sun being so large with its red and orange hues as it was either rising or sinking in the ocean. I remember the fresh, crisp air the salt water created as I was on a boat with my parents. This memory is like a scene from an Ernest Hemingway novel. Yet, as tranquil as this memory may appear, we were fleeing Sri Lanka as refugees on a boat to India. It was 1987, four years after the Sri Lankan Civil War officially began. However, I just remember this image of floating on the ocean like a Claude Monet’s sunset painting. I was three.
My next memory is of my mom, my infant sister and I being rounded up by the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the Point Pedro town square. Suddenly random shots were fired in the air. As the army personnel were hysterically laughing, people panicked and started running towards the ruins from previous bombings and blasts. I remember it was bright. No one ran behind us as we were the last ones. If they had aimed and fired, these words and stories would not exist. I was four.
Another memory: witnessing my teenage uncle’s dead body being prepared for his funeral. As the mixture of his blood and water flowed towards me, the doctors or morticians and nurses walked through the saloon-like doors, which swung back and forth in slow motion. He was shot and killed by the Sri Lankan Army. It was during a curfew and he had just returned from school in his all white cotton uniform; long white pants with a short-sleeved button down shirt. He was shot and killed. I was later to find his journal, with what looked like poems that were splattered with blood, and his uniform, which was also covered in blood, on the rooftop. I was confused and looking for one of my favorite uncles; the one who would pay me frequent visits on his bicycle. Instead, I found his bloody belongings, and tried to make some sense of the death and loss of a loved one. These are among my only real memories of being in the Northern part of Sri Lanka. I was four.
During my work with Church World Service (CWS), a nonprofit refugee resettlement organization, I came across many refugees whom had similar experiences to mine. They took me back home to my earliest memories. They were no different from me as they also fled their homes seeking for refuge.
Photos by Gina Marie / www.ginamariephoto.com
Arabic Translations and Editing by Sara Ghaly
Interviews were conducted in Tamil, Arabic, Somali and English
Camera : Sony A7R II
Names of the Syrian family were modified to protect their privacy.
Syrian woman praying
“The basic necessities were cut off for us; the boys knew that they needed to survive. Of course our daughter – who was one at the time – wasn’t aware of what was happening. She was not aware of the war.”
Syrian woman holding Quran
The mother holds a Quran- one of a handful of items brought on to the journey from Syria.
“We had a nice four-bedroom home that we owned but it has since collapsed. It is now leveled; charred to the ground”, said the mother with a frown on her face. “The only thing that keeps us going is the comfort of knowing our children can get an education here”
What’s Left from Homs, Syria
Syrian woman holding what’s left of her family’s belongings.
“There were bombs and airstrikes everywhere. We didn’t have time to pack. My husband carried a backpack- we had a few backpacks that we had to leave behind. We could not carry much because I it was getting too heavy as I was carrying my one year old daughter at the time.”
Syrian man holding Quran
The father of four holding what’s left of his belongings from Syria.
“The journey to Jordan was a twenty-four hour journey. We had rented a car to drive us there, but after a certain point; we had to travel by foot. In the desert, we were surrounded by mud and sand dunes, which the car could not drive through.”
“The journey was exhausting. Our feet would sink deep into the mud and especially into the sand which made it difficult to walk for all of us”
Oldest son Ishmael
“I remember a lot of explosions and loud noises. Very loud noises”
“I remember Syria – before the war. I remember the houses. I remember my friends and my school. It was very nice during Eid, the decorations in the streets. I remember the zoo and shopping markets too.”
“I like it here better than Jordan (host country). I have more friends here; my whole class is filled with friends. They teach me English and I teach them Arabic. I have some Egyptian friends who treat me nicely as well.”
Middle son Khaled
“I remember the house from Syria. I remember the furniture, my room and my toys that I shared with my brothers. I remember the streets, my school, and my dad’s shop. We used to play near his shop.”
Youngets son Amir
The youngest son – who was six at the time of fleeing- was carried by his father on the journey from (Homs) Syria, to Jordan.
“I miss my friends and my grandmother in Jordan (host country).”
“This watch has a big sentimental value to me because of my dad. My dad died when I was 11 years old. There are 3 girls and 5 boys in my family, my mother gave each of us something that belonged to my father and I got this watch. It means the world to me. This is all I have.”
“It was very shocking here (U.S.) at first, especially with the language barrier. It wasn’t safe there (Syria) for us anymore but I would like to go back to Syria when it becomes safe again.”
Mother: “I carried her during the entire journey from Syria (Homs) to Jordan. She was only one years old at the time. She didn’t know what was going on. She is now safe here learning the alphabet and can sing the A-B-C song. We are happy to have her in school.”
Boys looking out of the window
Mother: “The boys were old enough to realize what was going on they knew that they needed to survive.”
Table with homework
Syrian Mother: “I attend school every weekday for three hours to learn English. They are currently teaching us about William Shakespeare, and American history. It’s all great, but I want to learn to communicate first and to be able to help my children do their homework.”
Dahir in his kitchen
“In Somalia, I was teaching English to a group of young students. One of the anti-government groups accused me of being a government spy and demanded that I stop teaching the students. I didn’t listen to them. They called me again and threatened to decapitate me. Out of fear I left the very next day.”
“My father died when I was a teenager,” said Dahir – briefly pausing as tears rolled down his eyes. “I’ve never spoken about this to anyone. The introvert that I am, I’ve always held it in. This has caused me sleepless nights.”
Dahir holding his belongings
*Dahir holding his belongings (prayer rug and Macawis which is a traditional clothing worn by men in Somalia).
“I traveled to Ethiopia and from there to Sudan and then Libya. From Libya I was among 80 passengers on a boat that had a capacity to hold a maximum of 40 people. On the first day, we ran out of water. We travelled for 3 days. There were no bathrooms and we had to survive on the little about of bread we had.”
“There was a riot in the town Trincomalee where the Sri Lankan army began executing civilians. The family had to go into hiding in the woods. Thushanth was 12 at the time.”
“I remember running, but didn’t know what I was running from.”
“I have friends here now. I went to search for jobs and these guys were also there and looking for work. We exchanged numbers and we now hangout together. They are from France and India.”
Dunicka, Tamil Girl
“There was a riot in the town Trincomalee where the Sri Lankan army began executing civilians. The family had to go into hiding in the woods.”
“Dunicka was 5 years old at the time when we ran into the woods. She doesn’t remember the incident. We were in the woods for 5 whole days with no food. The only thing we had was cassava root that flourished in the forest. We survived on it for 5 days.”
“Due to the sounds of gunfire and shelling Dunicka refused to put her feet down and walk for a while. Then somehow she overcame it.”
Santhakumari, Tamil Woman
“We were internally displaced in our own country and our city. If you are Tamil, you become a threat to the Sri Lankan government especially if you are a male over fifteen years old. Anyone who’s Tamil is a targeted and is in danger of being shot, beaten to death or raped.”
“Every Tamil has a family member or a relative who has been killed by the Sri Lankan army. Both my father and my brother were beaten and shot to death.”
Mohanantham, Tamil Man
“I was in another town for work during the riot. They had blocked the roads and set a curfew meaning no one was allowed to enter or leave. I had no idea that my family was in hiding. I didn’t see them for 5 days and then somehow they came looking for me at my workplace and found me.”
“Altogether, six people from my family got killed by the Sri Lankan army. It’s not safe to be Tamil in Sri Lanka despite your religion. Hindu or Christian if you are Tamil you are a minority and they (Sri Lankan Army) will do anything to get rid of you.”
“I can tell you more but if I do, I would begin to cry. There were young girls her age that were lying on the side of the road,” said Mohanantham as he pointed to his daughter. “I had to carry them. They were raped.” said Mohanantham – his voice shaking – seemingly on the verge of tears.
“Dunicka was studying at a school in Malaysia (host country) provided by the UN. We had to pay for it but we didn’t want to keep her away from school.”
“After moving to the US we didn’t have to be worried about running away from the Sri Lankan Army or paying the Malaysian police for being a refugee. We can be free and be our selves”
“I’ve never seen a government in Somalia, a lot of people leave the country because there are no jobs and every day you are thinking that you’ll die tomorrow. The bullets will just bypass you. The people of Somali want peace but the government isn’t strong enough to shut down the rebel groups that are fighting.
“We need to have one government instead of all these groups. People need to come together and respect one another” said Yussuf as he holds out his empty hands. He’s left with nothing.
By Vidhya Manivannan