Gillian Fernandopulle left her Sri Lankan homeland as a refugee at age six. Despite being in Canada for the past 20 years, she says being a refugee is something that never leaves you. Photo by Michael Swan

A refugee is always an outsider

By 
  • January 25, 2015

TORONTO - At 20 Tarak has been divorced from everything — his family, his home, his childhood and a future that once seemed assured.

Tarak can’t allow his real name or photo to appear in print or on the Internet. There are people who want to kill him, including his father and brothers. And they wouldn’t stop short of killing his mother still stuck in Syria, he believes.

The young Syrian refugee, new to Canada, was one of dozens of refugees who attended a Mass to mark World Day of Migrants and Refugees Jan. 18 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Chinese parish in downtown Toronto.

Tarak arrived in Toronto Dec. 11. But the journey for the 20-year-old student began more than a year before in Damascus when he stepped outside the safety of his family’s Muslim faith and began reading the Bible. In the wake of his mother and father’s divorce, Tarak became Christian and found the prospect of being conscripted into Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army to fight a sectarian war between Alawite-Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslim militias more than a little uncomfortable.

“In Syria, in any Islamic country, it is not permitted to convert,” Tarak told The Catholic Register through an interpreter.

He escaped from Damascus last year to a border town in northern Lebanon. There he met Office of Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto director Martin Mark. Within months Tarak was on a plane to Toronto. He temporarily left behind his Muslim Syrian friend Nabil, also a refugee, but Mark hopes to have Nabil safely in Toronto courtesy of Catholic sponsors in the coming months.

“We must put in the forefront, and we must help our (Christian) brothers and sisters,” Mark told a gathering following the Mass.

But the Church responds with solidarity to all 51 million refugees around the world primarily because they are refugees and human beings in need, Mark said. Parishes in Toronto have sponsored Muslims, Buddhists and others and will continue to do so.

Tarak is already learning English, planning to resume his education in information technology and one day to sponsor his mother and one of his brothers — the two members of his family who accept his conversion to Christianity.

Being a refugee isn’t something that ever leaves you, said Gillian Fernandopulle, who was only two years old when her family fled to Canada in 1990. The 26-year-old Sinhalese Sri Lankan-Canadian finds herself permanently between worlds.

“It’s sort of weird trying to figure out where home is,” Fernandopulle said. “My cousins (in Sri Lanka) call me a foreigner.”

As a Catholic Sinhalese, she found herself also unable to identify with either side in the war that tore apart the country of her birth for nearly three decades. The war pitted Tamils fighting for a separate homeland to protect their language and culture against Sinhala Buddhist nationalists who regard Sri Lanka as the homeland of Theravada Buddhism.

Just getting to Canada was not the end of the Fernandopulle family’s sojourn as refugees. When Gillian was six years old they had to exit Canada and reapply to be admitted as permanent residents. She spent her sixth birthday in a Catholic refugee shelter in Buffalo.

“We were living in close quarters. It was pretty depressing,” she said.

By the time she became a citizen in Grade 8, Fernandopulle already felt Canadian. But the story of her becoming Canadian will always include her family’s time as refugees.

Today she lives on the edge of Toronto’s Greektown, surrounded by Chinese, Turkish and Pakistani neighbours.

“I’m glad my mother decided to come here of all places,” she said. “Here, everybody has a place.”

The Mass for World Day of Migrants and Refugees introduced Fernandupulle to the Vatican day for people forced out of their homes by war, famine, politics or economics. It struck her as an extremely good idea.

“Even though there’s a lot of good happening, there’s always a need to have people at the frontlines, fighting (for refugees),” she said.

The 26-year-old works in human resources for Home Depot and is always sensitive to the many immigrants who find work at the hardware chain.

For Auxiliary Bishop Wayne Kirkpatrick the Mass for migrants and refugees was an occasion to be reminded of the encounter with Christ that awaits every Christian.

“Jesus Christ is always waiting to be recognized in migrants and refugees,” Kirkpatrick preached at the Mass.

“The Church, mother to all, spreads throughout the world a culture of acceptance and welcome. We are the presence of Christ in this world. That means we have to live in a way that makes Christ’s presence known in the world… Much more needs to be done. Indeed, much more must be done.”

Pope Francis’ message for the annual occasion stressed how migration and refugee situations are transforming the world.

“It is necessary to respond to the globalization of migration with the globalization of charity and co-operation,” he wrote.

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