We beg you not to send us away
29 June 2005
© 2005 Independent News and Media (NI)
The Somasundram family have spent four years pleading for asylum in Northern Ireland after fleeing their native Sri Lanka. Soma Somasundram's eldest son was shot dead by the Tamil Tigers, he was tortured and imprisoned by the authorities, and his wife and four other children received death threats. Karen Ireland hears how desperation led them to stow away in a container
Four years ago, 52-year-old Soma Somasundram and his family were thrown out of the back of a container and on to the streets of Belfast.
Soma, his wife Vino (46), and their four children, Sujatha (26), Raj (18 yrs), Kousalyaa (17) and Vyishnu (13), were dumped on the Newtownards Road with just £20.
The family had no idea where they were and, furthermore, had never even heard of Belfast. A few days earlier they had been smug gled out of Trincomalee in their native Sri Lanka, where they feared for their lives.
In broken English, an emotional Soma recalls the horrific circumstances which led to them ending up in a city where they have spent the past four years pleading for asylum status.
"In Sri Lanka I owned a fruit and vegetable shop and had a van which my eldest son Karigalan and I used to transport the goods," he says.
"The terrorist organisation the Tamil Tigers forced us at gun point to transport arms for them and, on one occasion, my son was intercepted by the armed forces and shot dead.
"When I arrived to collect his body I was arrested and thrown into prison, where I was tortured for days. Meanwhile, my wife and family were also tortured and harassed and received many death threats from the Tigers.
"When I was finally released from jail I knew we could no longer remain in the country as we were being targeted from both sides. Our lives were no longer safe."
Soma sold his possessions and arranged to be smuggled out of the country.
FOUR long, horrendous days of travelling in the back of a container brought them to Northern Ireland.
Norman Uprichard, former headmaster of Newtownbreda High School, has been campaigning for the family. He picks up the story.
"It is difficult for Soma to talk about the incidents which brought him to Northern Ireland," he says. "He lost his son and then his family had to suffer torture and abuse. They are all still traumatised by that and the journey here has scared them too.
"When they arrived, they got help from the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities who got them accommodation immediately and put them in touch with the local education board, who placed two of the older children at Newtownbreda High - which is how I became involved with the family.
"I realised early on just how much they had suffered and recognised that all they needed was a chance to become a real asset to the local community.
"Raj and Kousalyaa have really excelled at school and fitted in so well. They had never gone to a mainstream school before. Their father was so worried about them being kidnapped by the Tigers he had them schooled at home. But here they feel safe and secure. The whole family do.
"As asylum seekers they are not allowed to work so both Soma and Sujatha do volunteer work for local churches and community groups, while Vino takes care of the home."
SOMA says that, while the family feels safe in Belfast, there is always the fear that immigration officers could come and lift them at any time. Going back to Sri Lanka would be like sentencing the family to death, he claims.
Norman, who has been lobbying on behalf of the Somasundram Family Support Committee for the past three years, explains: "What they desperately need and deserve is to be given their status so they can get on with the rest of their lives.
"We've been writing to politicians, meeting with solicitors, doing everything within our power to try to get this case heard, but we keep coming up against brick walls."
Soma adds: "Our future remains uncertain. We have to take things one day at a time. It has been tough on all of us, particularly my wife. Vino struggles with things from time to time.
"She especially found the tsunami difficult to come to terms with and all the lives that were lost. Our region was hit hard and we lost friends and family.
"But we have had nothing but support and acceptance here within the community we live in.
"People have welcomed us with open arms and gone out of their way to help us."
A proud man, Soma reveals it has been difficult for him, too, going from being a middle class businessman to relying on benefits of just over £30 a week to support his family.
"But while the conflict remains I can never put my family at the kind of risk again. We have already lost one son," he adds.
"We want to stay here and build a future. I have studied since arriving here and am now a qualified engineer.
"I just want to provide for my family and give them a safe and secure future. What father wouldn't?"
You can support the Somasundram family in their fight for asylum status by contacting NormanUprichard@aol.com