SINTHUJAN VARATHARAJAH
Sinthujan Varatharajah was born in a refugee camp in Coburg, Germany in 1985. His parents fled Sri Lanka in the early 1980s, and, through a chance meeting with a German couple in the Jaffna hotel where his father worked, chose Germany as their destination. The youngest of three brothers, Sinthujan was the only member of his family born outside of Sri Lanka. He recalls the impact this had on his feelings of belonging and his sense of home, leaving him as a ‘vagabond….always leaving but never arriving…or feeling the comfort of home.’ The idyllic scenes of the Bavarian village he grew up in provided him with little of the comfort he was searching for; racism and exclusion lurked in every nook and cranny of his formative years. Despite the challenges, he and his brothers excelled at school with the support and encouragement of his mother and father. They also became adept at negotiating between his home life and German society, at first rejecting anything that could be interpreted as distinctively Tamil – including Tamil food and the strict culture of learning – and seeking new spaces of expression in Japanese manga, African American music, civil rights struggles and finally, for Sinthujan in particular, a growing consciousness of Tamil politics and the war in Sri Lanka. His route into activism was in some ways charted by his mother, a poet and proponent of the Tamil cause. He moved to London at the age of 18. ‘I think my drive to leave Germany was larger than anything else, right. And it was almost like irrespective of where I was going, I just wanted to leave.’ In London, he earned a Masters from the London School of Economics while immersing himself in the Tamil political scene, working with campaigning organisations seeking a solution to the war in Sri Lanka. When asked about the future, he hopes to pursue a career in academia and to find peace for his parents: ‘...Maybe find some place within this world I think that would give them the comfort,’ and Sri Lanka: ‘There’s always some hope that drives you, you know, that maybe someday it will be better.’

ARRIVAL & NON-ARRIVAL

Sinthujan Varatharajah, 27, recalls the many points in his childhood where he experienced what it meant to be a refugee in the eyes of others.

In his interview, he also talks about the different ways he and his brothers
negotiated points of belonging while growing up in a Tamil-speaking
household in Germany…

‘So for many years all of us, all three of us, started to engage differently with our identities, which only came into question after being out of the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine which really dominated most of our lives. And all of us took different approaches upon how we tried to understand ourselves and our environment and surroundings. One of my brothers became a philosopher and he detached himself from all these notions and these subjective kind of ideas and notions, whereas the other one started to engage much more in Hinduism and started to trace much more belonging in this identity of being a Hindu and being a South Asian and being from that particular subcontinent. And I found myself in my own identity much more in these kind of Tamil politics and the identity and the history…I mean like we had our own sheltered world where we kind of disconnected ourselves from our peers and from our environment, which started off with Japanese kind of comics, right. So that was in 1997, I was 12, right. So we started to live in a way, like in this parallel kind of world that gave us some safety and sanctuary that we never found within this real world that we lived in. And I think we spent a lot of years in that kind of world and we had this parallel world for a very long time. It altered. It became black music culture. It became even different forms where we tried to identify ourselves with and where we tried to find commonalities within it, right.’

…the layers of his identity he chooses to articulate in the current context…

‘I’m trying to never reduce myself to any notions of my identity because it’s multiple and there’s so many layers of my identity. And I don’t want to prioritise one over the other because I don’t think there’s one ideology that makes me who I am. But I think out of the history of oppression, out of the history of being persecuted, there’s some strong identification of myself, a very active one, proactive one, and sometimes maybe artificial ones, with Tamilness…whereas I do think there’s a lot of me that is European. And I do think there’s lot of me that is coined by Hindu culture, by the Jehovah’s Witness culture, by this Christian kind of influence and there’s a lot of kind of differences within me so it’s difficult for me to have one single identity. It’s difficult for me to carry it but I do say mostly when someone asks me what I am is Tamil but not because I necessarily consider myself to be representative or because I consider myself, because I consider my Tamil identity strongest, but because I feel that it’s being repressed and that it needs articulation and that it needs to be out in the world, right.’

…and the effect of the war and racism on his notion of home…

‘…I don’t think a return will be a return for me because I think people who’ve
had a similar kind of biography as I had have been lost somewhere on the way,
and there’s no real return for them anywhere, right. So it always seems like
it’s
 points of complacency and comfort but never real tranquility and peace.
And
you’re always seeking but you’re never finding and always departing but
never
 arriving, right. So even if I go to Sri Lanka, it will never be what I
ascribe to it,
what I project upon Sri Lanka, right. It will always be, it will
never live up to
 what I want it to be and it will never reflect the feelings that
I have. I have all
of these romanticised ideas as you know of like how it would
be to return into
 a country where we are equal, where we are free, where we
are able to rule
ourselves, right.’