Ease Tamil anxiety

  • October 16, 2009
{mosimage}Throughout May their faces of anger and defiance were displayed on nightly newscasts and in daily newspapers. Canadian Tamils took to the streets by the thousands to demand that the federal government intervene in an apparent slaughter of Tamil civilians as the civil war in Sri Lanka came to a violent end.

Five months later, an investigation by The Catholic Register’s Michael Swan has uncovered a “mental health emergency ” among a Tamil community that is now grieving dead loved ones and despairing over family that have disappeared but may still be alive in squalid Sri Lankan refugee camps.

This isn’t a story about who was on the side of right in a war that, according to the United Nations, took more than 80,000 lives. It isn’t about the legitimacy of protest marches that disrupted Toronto. It isn’t about charges of ethnic cleansing by Sri Lanka. And it isn’t about the Tamil Tigers, a separatist organization branded terrorist by Canada. Those are the political issues. Important, perhaps, but they should not overshadow the human story unfolding around us, the story of a community that is suffering, grieving and desperate for help — but with nowhere to turn.

As Swan reports, some 37,000 Tamils died in the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war and more than a quarter million are now caged in guarded camps. In Canada, many Tamils are grieving the deaths of family but even more are despairing because they can not learn if loved ones were killed or if they are among the innocent thousands who have disappeared into the camps. That anxiety among Toronto’s 150,000 Sri Lankan Tamils has triggered a crisis rife with growing alcoholism, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.

Local aid agencies are ill-equipped to respond. Treating mental-health issues requires intimate conversations and there are too few Tamil-speaking professionals to meet the demand. Even then, OHIP does not cover psychologists. Priests and parish support groups can offer comfort and prayer but are not trained as professional counsellors, although pastors should be able to make informed referrals. 

One viable response is for the federal government to let Canadian Tamils know they are not alone and not forgotten. Canada should intervene with the Sri Lankan government to gather information about what actually happened in the final weeks of the war, obtain wherever possible the names of the dead and the living and appeal for freer flow of humanitarian aid into the camps. Canada should also work with other nations to provide safe havens for innocent victims of the war.

In addition to grieving their dead, many Canadian Tamils are suffering unbearable anxiety and depression because they have lost all contact with family or because they know family members are trapped in miserable refugee camps. Ottawa should make it a priority to lessen that anxiety. It’s the least we can do.

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