Sri Lankan-born Tamil man, Kamalanathan Pakkianathan, also known as Theepan, has been granted permanent residency in Australia and is currently employed at Gunnedah Leather Processors. He has decided to share his story of fear, hunger, frustration and, eventually, triumph on his journey to freedom with the Namoi Valley Independent.
FREEDOM comes at a high price for some and Gunnedah resident, Theepan, knows only too well the cost.
Theepan was born on March 11, 1983 to Tamil parents from Jaffna in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948 which strained relations between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities.
Growing ethnic and political pressures and riots advocating for independence for Tamil people in 1983 led to a civil war, resulting in thousands fleeing the country to escape the perils of war, and the deaths of more than 100,000 people.
Militant groups such as the Tamil Tigers formed in conflict against the Sri Lankan government.
For as long as he can remember, Theepan saw fighting in his country, with his family forced to move as conflicts arose in various parts of the war-torn island.
They moved from Jaffna to Vavuniya, and eventually to Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo when he was 14-years-old.
At 18, the Sri Lankan government began to question Theepan.
Theepan’s uncle offered to find him work to help him.
At 21, Theepan was working in a government department in Colombo, when it was bombed.
“Police swarmed the building and moved everyone out,” Theepan said.
“They arrested me and other Tamil people. They asked me about bombs and accused me of supporting Tamil Tigers.
“I told them I work here – I do not support Tamil Tigers.”
Theepan spent a month in jail before his father and uncle were able to bribe police with $6000 for his release.
His uncle also paid “agents” to fly Theepan to Malaysia.
“My sister lives in Switzerland and that’s where I wanted to go, she helped me, we pay a lot of money to my agents,” Theepan said.
“There were eight of us and we were told very soon we could go to Switzerland but we kept waiting.
“I rang the agents and his phone was switched off – I wanted my money back.
“I was out shopping and Chinese people warned me not to go home, the agents had called the police and they arrested everyone at my house.
“I had no visa, no nothing, so I caught a bus to Kuala Lumpur where a friend was.”
Theepan’s sister paid more agents, who arranged a Malaysian passport and a flight to Thailand.
“For 16 days I waited in a Thailand airport for someone to come help me,” Theepan said.
“I had no shower, no food and no money.”
Theepan managed to escape and, again at the mercy of agents, he flew to Dubai where he was questioned by police over an expired visa.
Theepan asked to use the bathroom and hid from police, who eventually left.
He spent another 25 days hiding in the Dubai airport with no food, clothes, or money waiting for someone to collect him.
Eventually he was told to go to Iran, however, immigration arrested him before he had a chance to leave. He escaped again and flew to Iran.
“I was granted a visa in Iran and my agents told me I would go to Greece and Europe in one month.”
Theepan’s sister eventually paid more money to an account in an Iran bank, because Theepan had no money to pay the owner of the hotel he was staying at.
“I prayed for help,” Theepan said. “The hotel owner gave me $20 every day so I could eat, until I could pay him money.”
Theepan was travelling with a friend by this stage and his agents booked a flight from Iran to Turkey.
“We were arrested in immigration again because my visa had expired but we didn’t know because it was in another language,” Theepan said.
“They wanted $1000 to fix it but we had no money left.
“One good man said how much do you have? He said we must pay $100 each for a 15-day visa.”
The pair caught a flight to Syria and received more money from Theepan’s sister and his friend’s brother.
“My agents phoned and said tomorrow you fly from Syria to France, but just you,” Theepan said.
“I said what about my friend.
“My friend rang agents and they told him to wait, my friend cried. So I ripped up my ticket and we said let’s cut the agents out.”
After many more moves, they were told to get to the Turkey border.
“We were told to walk to the river and cross, it would only take one day,” Theepan said.
“We walked into the night, with no food. We didn’t know how deep the river was and we were very scared, but we crossed it.
“It was very cold and we were wet, but we kept walking.”
It was five days of severe conditions before they reached Damascus.
“I just didn’t think about how bad it was, I thought this is better than my life in my country,” Theepan said.
Theepan was taken to Greece, Slovakia, Austria and eventually Germany.
A woman told German police Theepan was Sri Lankan, and he was sent back to Turkey, where he was arrested. Theepan spent six months in jail before he was taken back to Sri Lanka.
“As soon as I got there I paid more money and, two days later, I got to Singapore and then Malaysia,” he said.
In 2009, Theepan paid more money to get on a refugee boat to Australia.
“The Indonesian navy stopped the boat and took everyone to Merak,” Theepan said. “We had to live on the boat for three months.
“I went to an office, I tell them my history and nobody helped me.
“I went back to Malaysia again, then Thailand and then Sri Lanka.”
Theepan made his way to India where eventually he was able to board another boat to Christmas Island in 2011.
“Immigration accepted me and gave me permanent residency in Australia,” Theepan said.
“I was so happy.”
After working in Brisbane, Theepan made the move to Gunnedah where he now works at Gunnedah Leather Processors.
“I love Gunnedah, it is my number one in Australia.”
He went back to Malaysia in 2013 and married a Sri Lankan woman named Meera, who he is hoping to sponsor to Australia.
“I miss my wife but because I came over on a boat I cannot sponsor someone to come to Australia until I am an Australian citizen,” Theepan said.
Theepan will become an Australian Citizen in July next year.
“I say a big thanks to Australian people because I am safe.”