Wednesday, June 18, 2014

In Memory, Leo Seemanpillai; in Shame, the Abbott Government--and More

Leo Seemanpillai, "the Tamil asylum seeker who died recently after setting himself alight will be buried in Australia later this week without any of his family being allowed to attend his funeral." (Alexandra Kirk, ABC News, June 14, 2014)
I wrote of the joy of playing, the simple acts of bodies touching as they chase balls or block the stumps. I knew that this moment of sun and park and loved ones, new and old, was a privilege that came with all the things that made me a recipient of safety, but all around me are bodies unwanted and yet they try so hard to make sense of senseless suffering; they try so hard to offer kindness in the face of uncaring and ahistoric judgements of their humanity.

I did not always know where Sri Lanka was or of its divided history; I first learned of its civil war when I was editing an international collection of lesbian short fiction in 1996 and began exchanging e-mails with Yasmin Tambiah, a Sri Lankan writer who had returned home after her college education in America. We could only reach each other when electricity was available, when bombs were not falling, when Yasmin was not attending the funeral of friends lost in the conflict. She wrote then, "September 1984: Three months since I returned to Sri Lanka with an American college degree. The civil war has spilled beyond the Northern Province. Metal gates to my parents' house still bear the dents of rock-throwing mobs. There are ax marks on the wooden doors. New plaster hides a ceiling charred by a burning tire. Embattled elsewhere I relive the horror of July 1983 through my siblings' eyes. It is difficult to articulate the deep loss within, the negation of familiar fictions, the awareness that exile in one's own country is even less bearable that at a distance. It is a loss compounded by my family's fear."

Yasmin and I now live in the same different country from where we started and once again are working together to articulate the world of the displaced. What first saddens and then encourages the deepest of anger in me at the politics of so- called border protection and its new twist here of using the poorest of near nation islands to build detention camps, and this is a policy supported by Labor as well as the right wing Liberal Abbott government, is the cascading heartlessness that punishes the already punished. Our newspaper that we read here, The Age, portrays the exiles that took this young man's life:

"Persecuted in Sri Lanka, exiled to India and tortured in Indonesia, the final indignity for asylum seeker Leo Seempillai--who self-immolated--is that his family has been denied visas to attend his funeral in Australia." (Konrad Marshall, June 18, 2014)

But in his short time in this country, Mr. Seempillai had made dear friends and they gathered, his family of sad knowledge. Cathy, the retired teacher holding the photograph, talked to reporters of Mr. Seemanpillai's generosity in helping other asylum seekers in the Geelong bay side town where he lived. It was she who would translate his letters from the Department of Immigration. "That seal," she said, " never failed to terrorize his heart." This man and so many like him cannot touch the heart of a rich nation, but our hope is always in the eyes of those who go beyond the closed doors, who refuse the national way of doing things. How many camps will the rich nations have to build to keep out the seekers for hope, dispossessed by histories of violence and greed our governments helped to create? How high will the walls have to be and what shriveled remains will be found on our side of the wall, outside the camps, within the gates?

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