Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

If I Stay Home, I Cry

Speech by Gisèle Gauthier, March 12, 2011

We had a long line of people stretched along the curb, with their candles, praying, praying for . . . God to take over? A miracle? . . . I don’t know . . . praying.  Some people lost their faith in God on University Avenue that year.  And some people found their faith in God.

All I know for sure is that I have never met a better group of people in my life.  The compassion, the kindness, the patience. . . I’ve never seen anything like it before. 

“What Is To Be Done About This?:

War Crimes Evidence Against Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka"

Book Release

Markham, March 12, 2011

Opening Speech

by Gisèle Gauthier

IF I STAY HOME, I CRY

Vanakkam.

I’m very honoured to be here with you tonight.

Since May of 2009 I’ve been standing with the Tamil demonstrators and I’d like to speak about the wonderful people I met. Many of you are here tonight and I’m very glad to see you again.

I’m going to start by quoting something that Jack Layton said.  “Last spring (of 2009) tens of thousands of demonstrators in Toronto stood arm in arm for their brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka and presented one of the most dignified calls for human rights that this city has ever seen.”

I first became aware of the Tamil people in early 2009 and I honestly didn’t know anything about them before that.  I live in downtown Toronto, where there’s always something going on, parades, rallies, and I didn’t pay any particular attention to the Tamil events at first.  One day there was an announcement on the radio about a human chain of Tamil people surrounding the city. I decided to go and see what this strange thing was about. 

Now before I actually went to see this human chain, shortly before, I was up late at night watching television, and it was at the time, late April, that the police had moved in on the peaceful demonstrators in order to clear the roads.  They were in riot gear, they had crowd control horses and they roughly took down and arrested several people.  A human interest piece was tagged onto to this story that had happened in the early hours of the following morning.

Apparently there was a policeman who’d been at the demonstration in the midst of the confrontation and he was driving home after his shift at about three in the morning.  At the very same time, in the very same place there was another car, packed with protest signs and four young Tamil men.  They too were returning home after that long and upsetting day. As the young men turned off the quiet side street, they heard a big bang and they realized that the police car that had been behind them must have been in an accident.  They immediately turned around and went back.  They found the officer had been injured, they called for help, and they stayed with him until emergency services arrived. 

I thought to myself, that doesn’t sound like terrorist behaviour to me. (The people taking over our streets and causing all the traffic problems were inconsiderate foreign terrorists, said the media.)Something didn’t jive. So I thought, okay, I’ve got to find out more.  They’re not just blocking traffic for the sake of blocking traffic. And so soon after that, I walked over to where I heard there was a human chain surrounding the downtown core, 40,000 strong. I walked up University Avenue from Queen Street and by the time I got to College, my life was changed forever.

As far as the eye could see, men and women of all ages, and their children, were holding hands as they quietly stood along the sidewalk.  As I walked by they were so careful not to block my passage. Their profound politeness considering the situation made everything even more surreal.  Every person there was heartbroken.  The men were weeping, the women were quietly devastated.  The children were handing out homemade flyers and begging people to please read them. They even gave me a little Tiger flag. Shocked seniors stood gazing at all that was going on about them, at tall buildings and the speeding cars and at the posters of wounded and dead civilians that the people carried. I went home in tears that night, and after that, it was impossible for me not to go back.

What I saw with my own eyes was not being reflected in the stories that the media was churning out. Recently a study was released from Ryerson University called “Mystery Ships and Risky Boat People”.  I really do implore you to look this up on the internet.  It’s a study about how the Tamil people have been represented in the Canadian press.  It makes the observation that the very first articles written about the Tamil asylum seekers who had arrived on the ‘Ocean Lady’ were very sympathetic and humanitarian in nature.  Then all of a sudden they switched in tone, and the story was no longer a humanitarian issue; instead it had morphed into a national security risk.

All of a sudden, asylum seekers from Sri Lanka were no longer living breathing people; they were simply varying degrees of danger.  They were called “bogus refugees” by the very government officials who held their lives in their hands, before the facts were even out. And this paved the way for the public to become unsympathetic, it paved the way for laws to be changed, to make restrictions involving asylum seekers tighter.

One of the reasons I’m here tonight is because I want to urge anybody who can write, or talk or do anything, to please put a human face on this.  Because it’s not just some abstract news item, it’s not just a problem to be done away with.  It’s not fuel for a political power game. It’s real people, desperately needing help. By the time the ‘Sun Sea’ arrived a year later, hearts had further hardened and political agendas and careers were advanced at the blatant expense of the asylum seekers.

On my first impressions of the demonstration:  Well, I hadn’t been to a demonstration since the 1960’s when I was a teenager.  They were wonderful and exciting peace rallies.  World Peace for everybody!  And we truly believed in it.  Our world view was very simple:  war is bad; peace is good.  People can live in peace; they die at war.  It was very straightforward and obvious to us.

When I started going to the Tamil demonstrations right away I related because these were the slogans they were shouting, the chants often led by young children:

What do we need?  A permanent cease-fire! 

What do displaced Tamils need? Food and medicine! 

When do they need it?  Right now! 

Who bombed the Safe Zones? 

Sri Lanka bombed the Safe Zones! 

Media! Media!  Open your eyes! 

Canada take - immediate action! 

USA take - immediate action! 

UN take - immediate action!

They wanted their families and their friends to be rescued from disaster.  What a reasonable thing to ask for.  And what did it take?  Forty-five thousand people at a time in the street, and still it was being reported as a traffic problem!  That just wasn’t right!  And then finally: ‘The Gardner’.  (- the blocking of the Gardner Expressway for several hours on Mother’s Day afternoon) I have it on best word that blocking the highway was completely done on impulse.  Towards the end of a long protest march, the young people at the front of the procession said, “Where do you want to go now?...I don’t know...where do you want to go?...I don’t know...how about up there?” (the Gardner ramp). 

The incident finally got politicians talking about the humanitarian crisis in parliament.  Then it went to United Nations.  My heart was just broken when in spite of the majority of nations wanting to intervene, important vetoes resulted in the UN passing a resolution that congratulated the government of Sri Lanka for winning the war against terrorism.  It was so unfair.  And I was so disillusioned.  But the people kept me going.

Before the war was declared over (May 18, 2009) I remember going to huge gatherings at Queen’s Park, and I met a gentleman there on a hunger strike trying to get the ear of the politicians.  Do you remember the candle memorials?  Thousands and thousands of people with lit candles, slowly, gently, silently walking down University Avenue, late at night - this time with the courteous assistance of the police.  The two groups understood each other better by now. The Tamil people just needed to be able to do something for their families, for their loved ones. And over and over and over again the people told me that if they stay home, they cry. 

And you know, in a city like Toronto, multi-cultural as it is, we really should be better prepared when huge swaths of our population are simultaneously traumatized by situations occurring outside of Canada.  I believe that the demonstrations were so good for the people. They could come out, they could talk to each other, they could do something concrete.  And I know that those demonstrations kept the Tamil situation alive in the decision-makers’ minds, and it wouldn’t have been there if you had just been quiet.  I think it’s so important for you to know that. (For instance: the massive IDP camps were emptied two years earlier than originally planned by the Sri Lankan government.)

The demonstrations took place in cities across the world.  In Toronto, the non-stop demonstration went on for a solid 240 days until December 2009.  It was based on University Avenue at the courtyard across from the American Consulate.  Sometimes the people would go on a police escorted march, handing out literature as they went. In the spring and the summer, the students were there overnight, and they kept it going around the clock.  And when they had to go back to school, and the workers had to return to their jobs, it was the senior citizens that kept the thing going.  They would be there from 8 in the morning ‘til 9 at night.  Some would travel two hours to get there and two hours to get back.  They would be there in the rain.  They would be there in the hot sun.  Women would cook food at home and send their husbands down with big trays of food at midnight to feed us.  Sometimes it rained so hard it was coming at us sideways. 

University Avenue was always windy.  At the end of the day, at dusk, as the sun was going down, everybody would light candles and silently stand along side of the avenue until it was completely dark.  Do you remember these?  Plastic cups, with stickers of Tamil Eelam’s national lily flower on them.  There’s a hole drilled through the bottom, to push the candle through, to protect the flame from the wind. At first we would just light the candles and try to shield them with our hands, but the wind would always blow them out.  Then we started using Tim Horton cups.  Eventually we got these, and they were much more appropriate, and rather beautiful. 

We had a long line of people stretched along the curb, with their candles, praying, praying for . . . God to take over? A miracle? . . . I don’t know . . . praying.  Some people lost their faith in God on University Avenue that year.  And some people found their faith in God.

All I know for sure is that I have never met a better group of people in my life.  The compassion, the kindness, the patience. . . I’ve never seen anything like it before.  What hell you were living! How could you have been so . . . sweet through the whole thing!?  You took me in as though I were one of your own.  When I cried, I always had someone holding my hand, saying thank you, thank you (for caring). It was a privileged, unforgettable experience.

The people asked me to tell their stories.  One man told me that in the 1980’s, during the deadly riots in Sri Lanka, his wife had run out the back of their house because the front door was being broken down.  She got to the back of the yard and realized that she’d forgotten her baby and ran back into the house.  Then he stopped telling the story and I was afraid to ask what happened, but I did.  Oh, he said, my wife’s over there, pointing her out to me, and my son is studying medicine. That was a relief to hear. Too many stories didn’t have happy endings. 

Another woman told me how she and her little sisters had run out the back of their house and Sinhalese neighbours had hidden them from the mobs, at great personal risk.  Moslem neighbours had helped their mother.

The Tamil people at the demonstration wanted me to be very very clear on something:  they want justice, not vengeance. They want the troubles to stop.  They don’t want to hurt anybody.  They don’t want the war to go on.  They don’t want anymore blood, anymore death.  They want to live like human beings in their home country.  And that’s all they ever really asked for, that I’m aware of.  And I think that that’s a very fair thing, and that it’s a noble cause to stand up for.  And, I think it’s our duty to stand up for human rights.  Sometimes it’s literally standing on a windy street corner; sometimes it’s writing an article; sometimes its helping somebody that’s been crying.  Sometimes all it takes is to put your arm around somebody’s shoulder.

But it can’t just be about Tamil pain. Tamil light has to be preserved and cherished and encouraged.  And I understand that later tonight (at the event) we’re going to see some of that light, and that’s what makes it all so amazing. The light persists in spite of everything, or maybe because of it.

On the occasion of May 18, 2010, a year after the military end of the war, I wrote a poem.  It’s called “The Winds of Prayer”, and I wrote it as a tribute for my friends.  It was posted on the internet, and I started getting the nicest emails from all over the world.  I got them from across Canada, the United States, England, Germany, Australia, and Indonesia.  People basically writing just to thank me for understanding and speaking out about their situation.  At the time so much was being written, but not a lot about what the Tamil people themselves were saying.  And there was a lot about the demonstrations, yet little was said about what it was like to participate in them.  And this is what my poem was about.

A gentleman named Kana kindly offered to translate “The Winds of Prayer” into Tamil for me.  One day he sent me an email apologizing for how long it was taking him.  He said, “You see, every time I start to read the poem, I start to cry, and I get chest pains, and I’ve had a triple bypass, so I can only translate so many lines at a time.”   Ah!. . .

Every time I look at his beautiful Tamil translation, I think of this dear man, and his unselfish act, as well as those of countless others. It’s made this poem sacred to me.

So now, Kana and I are going to read it together for you. I’ll read a few lines in English, and Kana will repeat them in Tamil.

But first I want to read to you a wonderful thing that the very wise Margaret Mead said:

“Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


THE WINDS OF PRAYER

A good and kindly people

They fed me spicy rice and sweet coffee

And held my hand when I cried for them

Deep warm eyes, dazzling smiles

Shy grins, heads bobbing gently

Brown hands clinging to

Signs proclaiming their dreadful story

Worn old fingers warming over

A feeble flame, a tiny light

Amongst many tiny lights

Praying, crying, sighing

Waiting, waiting

Begging to be heard, clinging to hope

Please, please, please

Have you heard what is happening in my country?

Flyers and signs and sad little alters

Letters to the world, to the powerful ones

Have you heard?

Children leading crowds

Children knowing exactly why they stand

In the sun and the rain and the wind

Into the night

Pausing now and then to play amongst themselves

Parents thanking God as they watch them run and

As they listen to their laughter

But ask why the other children

The children in the pictures

The ones that are no longer children

The same parents ask the same God – why?

They pray for their own parents

For the young men and women, their kin

For elders and babies, and those yet to be born

For the innocents and the battle worn

For peace and home

For simple precious safety and food and medicine

For blue skies and quiet and good honest work

Rich dark hair flowing like ebony waves

Down the wide avenue that streams

Between the people and

The silent flag adorned wall

The silent wall on the other side of the avenue

Thick coats and woolen caps

Standing under winter skies and rain

Umbrellas defending the defenders

Then hot sun and long silky skirts

Students abandoning books to bear witness to history

The flutter of silver winged birds, cooing, cooing

And lush greenery and bright flowers

Hot sun baking the elders day after day

Waiting, waiting, waiting

I’ve brought you cold strawberries

Have you heard anything? Is there news?

The prince drove by and waved.

Did he know he was waving to saints?

Do the speeding cars, racing down the avenue know?

Night falls and candles are lit

And lit again and again

As the winds steal the flames again and again

I wonder where those determined winds

Carry those little flames

Those tiny flickering flames they take from the people

Night after night after night

Those flames, those prayers, those hopes

Of these good and kindly people

Perhaps the winds carry their little flames

All the way to God

Perhaps the winds carry them all the way to those

Who wait so far away

So that those who wait so far away will know that

They are not forgotten.

_ _ _

Again, please allow me repeat Margaret Mead’s words to you:

Never, never, ever doubt

that a small group of concerned citizens

can change the world.

Indeed, it is the only thing

that ever has!

Good bye, thank you so much, au revoir.  I don’t know how to say goodbye in Tamil . . . and I don’t want anyone to ever teach me!

THE WINDS OF PRAYER: A Tribute to Toronto’s Tamil Demonstrators

2009–2010 by Gisele Gauthier gisele.gauthier@sympatico.ca

     For the sake of clarification, when transcribing the live speech, some editing was done, as well as the addition of some descriptive information. – GG