British Tamils had their own group of pioneers drawn to London long before it became a port of last resort and asylum for families and individuals fleeing conflict. Universities and jobs, built on the esteem instilled by British colonial power and reputation, often served as early transit stations on the way to Tamil settlement in this country.

Tamil temples in Wimbledon and elsewhere, as well as small Tamil schools and community centres, became a few of the now many visible impressions of Tamil life on the British landscape. In their footsteps followed a great many Tamils in search of many things, each and apart. Many wove through Malaysia, India, China, Eastern Europe or Africa. Migration increased dramatically at times of conflict, especially after 1983, and so too the routes out of the country and into the United Kingdom. In this chapter, speakers talk about the circumstances and memories of leaving and arrival.


‘Nothing. I felt nothing, a huge void. It is very difficult to make decisions in a void. But when you do, only the decision matters. So I had to sell the house, sell the car, sell various things. Get the money. Get whatever the pension was due to me. At that time it was a lot of money, about five thousand quid, about that. Came by boat, tried to look for a place, couldn’t get a place. Put down a deposit and lost the money because they cheated me. There was a lot of racism at the time. Not that there isn’t now but it was very open then. After the riots, it was very difficult to get a place…My son turns around and says, ‘Appa where’s the sun?’ And my daughter says, ‘There are no flowers here and no garden to play in’…’


‘…So I came here in 1968 as a teenager, married, so I don’t have any harrowing stories as the others have. It’s more like happy, carefree days, coming here to London, getting married to Sir Cliff Richard and Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones. ‘Oh, I’m coming to London, I can go and see all of these singers.’ There was no television at that time, it was the radio. So we used to listen to the Housewives’ Choice [BBC radio programme] and it’s Jim Reeves, Ricky Nelson, I could go through all these songs…So that was the happier times here. So you come here and then, you know, because I didn’t want to be a housewife – I got married and came here, my husband was a student – so you sort of got to work so you could have some fun going out, meeting people, learning the culture, learning the other cultures as well and socialising. So I had happier times here.’


‘I came to England in ‘76, I was 21. I got the admission without telling my parents and then asked for the ticket. I didn’t sit the A-level exam. My father didn’t know [laughs]. Then, five and a half years later, I went home after my father died. I kind of didn’t like England, the weather, loneliness. And my father died and I thought, you know, ‘I’m not going to miss my mother either, what’s the point in staying here?’ England didn’t appeal to me because I lived in the north and it was very cold. There were hardly any Sri Lankans…So reluctantly I came here [laughs] in 2001 again and claimed political asylum. Within three days I got it because in the Google everything was there. So they didn’t doubt me.’


‘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 nurse’s 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.’


‘…But I didn’t want to leave the country. At that time, I didn’t want to come to the UK or any other countries. That was not my intention. To be honest, when – especially I have seen these differences even now as well – if you are in an organisation and had all these experiences, claiming refugee status, we don’t think it’s traumatic or problematic or anything like that because we have already had all these experiences. So actually, you know, in a certain sense you feel lucky that you are safe now.’


‘I had imagined how it [London] would be when I was in Sri Lanka but it was not like how I imagined…In London, life is…in my village you can meet a lot of people. If you urgently need to go to someone’s house, you can go without telling them and see them – you can’t here…’


‘I met dad at the airport for the first time. I didn’t know my dad…that was an awkward situation, you know, when you meet your dad only when you’re eighteen years old…’


‘…When I came to this country I was scared, you know, when I go to do shopping and I travelled from East London to Brixton, when I saw the police I was very scared. I thought, ‘I am living here illegally,’ and I was very scared. And all the incidents happened in Sri Lanka. After that, when I saw the policeman I always felt inside something’s going to happen. And after a few months I felt comfortable, it’s very good, very safe place and they treat us very well and I got permanent residence after I married my husband. My husband got a permanent visa, then I got the same status.’