AMBICA SELVARAJ
Ambica Selvaraj was born in a multicultural neighbourhood in Colombo in April 1951. Though she spoke Tamil at home and in school, she spent most of her childhood in the company of Sinhalese and English-speaking children, unaware of the issues that would become so salient later on. ‘Even when the [‘58] riots had happened,’ she says, ‘there was no issue afterwards with the children.’ Originally from Upcountry, her father strove to address the plight of Indian plantation labourers and passed on his passion for politics to his daughter. She studied economics and political science at Peradeniya University, ‘heaven on earth’ in her words. It was at Peradeniya where she first came in contact with a large contingent of Tamils from Jaffna: ‘That was the first time I got exposed to this Tamil thing, yeah, people really making an issue of being proud of Tamil and speaking Tamil.’ She first came to London in 1974, at the age of 23. ‘I wanted to be free to travel, to study, to see the world,’ she says, ‘That was in my blood. And I didn’t want to get married. Being the eldest, I thought this marriage thing is going to start.’ Once in London, she immediately fell in love with the city and set about convincing her father to allow her to stay and pursue nursing. On one of her frequent return visits to Sri Lanka, she vividly remembers the mood after the ’77 riots and feeling, for the first time, like a stranger in her own country. This feeling intensified in 1983, when her family were caught in the 1983 riots and forced to seek refuge in India. The anger and outrage she felt at the time has since subsided and she now channels her energy into her work as a health visitor with refugees and asylum seekers in London, challenging perceptions in the health service about newly-arrived communities and serving as a figure of support for Tamil refugees coming to terms with life outside of Sri Lanka.

I WANTED TO BE FREE

Ambica Selvaraj, 62, talks about her childhood in a cosmopolitan section of Colombo and her desire to forge out on her own and travel to London…

‘Lovely, I mean carefree, large family, you know. Though we were large I think
was kind of a bully, you know, being the eldest and my father’s pet and the
favourite, so I think the others were kind of, I don’t know whether they were
scared of me but I was a bully. And my sister who is next to me was more close
to the brothers, the youngest girl – there is a ten-year gap. So when we were
very young she wasn’t around. But lovely memories, playing cricket, cops and
robbers…So always in the evening all you remember is playing in the evening
with neighbour’s children, oh, carefree.’

‘We all played together fine. The only difference was we knew we belonged to
different ethnicity or linguistic groups, but otherwise we were children all playing
together. With the Burghers obviously you spoke English, but, you know, there
were children who spoke Sinhalese…and Farsi…you know those traders, those
rich traders, Kundanmals and Nagindas? They were there in Kirulapana…
so English and Sinhalese. There were Tamils, some Tamils. Can’t remember.
We got on well. The language wasn’t in the picture at all. We just got on well.
We had fun; we were children, climbing trees. No, language was not an issue.
Even when the riots had happened, there was no issue afterwards with the
children. When we were playing it never came into the picture.’

…her experience of the changing social landscape in Sri Lanka on one of her return visits from London after the ‘77 riots …

‘And the ‘77 riots must have been very bad because when the thugs in the lane
had told my father – because he was respected because he spoke Sinhalese
fluently and we had no difference, we mixed very well – ‘We protected you all,
we didn’t allow any thugs to come down this road this time. But if this
happens soon, next time we won’t be able to protect.’ Just like that, people
have turned, and are seeing you like not Sri Lankans, different…and then
of course ‘78 I go, so the discussion is all about maybe we shouldn’t have our
own house, not in
 that particular area anyway. My father had to sell it for
nothing, really… So that’s the time I felt, though I was not in the middle of the
riots there, that ‘OK, we are different and we could be hurt. We won’t be
protected, we won’t have the same protection from our leaders, from our
politicians, because we are different.’’

…her conflicting impressions of the inspiration and the isolation of arriving
in London…

‘I came and of course I loved it here because it’s, you know, staying at your
uncle’s house, wedding preparation, partying, going out, sightseeing,
I thought no way I’m going back. So I spoke to my uncle and I said, ‘I want
to stay’ but the problem was I had done a general degree in economics and
political science so tried a few jobs, no. Can’t study because there were four
children to be educated. So my uncle said, ‘The only option, if you want to
stay here and support yourself, is to do nursing.’ It came as a shock to me
because I didn’t even do medicine, think of medicine, because I used to feel
sick of wards and the smell of medicine. So the time was getting nearer,
either go – six months visa – I extended it for another six months. So my
cousin said they had friends in the nurse’s home. Their friends from Malaysia
were doing nursing. They said, ‘Why don’t you just come meet them?’
So when I went to the nurses home, of course lovely, met all the girls,
their friends. And they said, ‘Just apply, you can always say no.’ I got the
training. Then when I told my parents, my father said to my uncle, ‘Send her
back. You sponsored her. She is coming back. She is not doing nursing.’
[To interviewer] You know how it’s looked down on in Sri Lanka. Nursing
is not accepted from certain families…

I was excited because I came alone but I was coming for a wedding. I was
going to live with my uncle, cousins. My cousin was going to get married;
she was at the airport with her fiancée. Oh, fascinated, the materialism,
the cleanliness. There was a touch of loneliness in the airport in you when
you got off, until you are met. Because you know it’s so lonely, so many
people and rushing around and that feeling of being in a small place and a
sense of belonging wasn’t there. Suddenly I was nobody, among these
thousands of people that were not from Sri Lanka, not Sri Lankans, I was
nobody. So there was no sense of belonging. You were a stranger, you could
drop dead and I got the feeling that nobody cared. You were nothing. And it
was scary. But I knew somebody will meet me. Whereas when you go to
Sri Lanka and you touch the thing, you look around and you are in your
place where you belong. Even if there is racism but you just know you belong
there. Nobody is going to look at you and say, ‘Who are you?’ Such coldness,
no inquisitiveness, no curiosity, it’s just like machines, people are just
getting on with their lives.’

…her work as a health visitor with refugee and asylum seekers…

‘…Now in the UK, I work as a specialist health visitor with mostly marginalised
communities who are refugees, asylum seekers, and I work in Hayes, where
there is a large Tamil Sri Lankan refugee population, and I speak Tamil,
so I work very closely with them, with all of them. But because I speak the
language, maybe more Tamils come to me, and I have listened to the stories,
and I’ve cried with some of them, and I know they are suffering here too.
Not because now they are fearful of the Sinhalese but their own issues, their
own stuff is coming out, depression, anger, domestic violence, a sense of not
belonging, you know, being in a place, but wanting to be in a place which is
not there anymore.’

…and her hopes to contribute to a future settlement to ongoing issues in
Sri Lanka…

‘I have a dream, like Martin Luther King said, that I could maybe do some work
in Sri Lanka, towards reconciliation and peace building. I have to brush up my
Sinhalese so I can speak fluently, and from the work I’m doing here, I think,
I know I can influence people in a positive way, in a non-threatening way,
without getting defensive about my ethnicity and my religion, because I’ve no
issues with it, because even now, when people say, ‘Are you a Tamil?’ I say,
‘I’m British, I’m Sri Lankan, I speak Tamil, but I also speak Sinhalese, I also
speak English’ because I don’t want to say I’m a Tamil, that immediately
separates me – maybe I’m a woman. I’ll use the things that bind us, not that
separate us. And then when they say, ‘What religion you are?’ I just say,
‘I’m everything.’ And people are just saying, ‘What do you mean everything?’
I say, ‘I’m everything, I’m a Buddhist, I’m a Hindu,’ because I believe in all
those things…Lots of good things are happening in Sri Lanka. I know there
are lots of people working towards lots of good things…’