Paris's Tamils thrive despite defeat at home
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It’s often mistakenly called “Little Bombay”, but the lively neighbourhood that stretches from the rue du Faubourg-St-Denis north to La Chapelle is actually home to Paris’s Tamil community. The air is often fragrant in this quarter – where a colourful mismatch of shops sells everything from silks to spices. This façade, however, masks the painful reality behind the area’s birth.
It began back in 1983 when Paris got its first ever Tamil boutique – opened by a refugee fleeing the violent civil war in Sri Lanka. The independence fight waged that same year by the LTTE, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, went on to last three decades and claim some 80,000 lives.
So with a foothold in Paris, and thanks to a systematic period of asylum facilitated by the French Office for the Protection of Refugees, “Little Jaffna” sprung to life in the city’s north. It flourished during the 80s and 90s, incorporating everything from fabric shops and beauty salons, to restaurants, grocers, schools and Hindu temples.
For Raja, a former Tamil Tiger fighter who escaped to Paris 20 years ago and now manages a French restaurant, the conflict in his homeland made life there impossible. “I joined the LTTE in 1983 and was with them until 1988, when I went to India and bought my ticket to France” he says.
“All I could think about was leaving – with all of the political problems and the problems with the Sri Lankan army.”
Sri Lanka’s war is officially over, with the LTTE separatists suffering an annihilating defeat in May 2009 during a year-long offensive by the Sri Lankan army. As in many expatriate Tamil communities, Tamils in Paris staged huge protests against the bloody tactics used by the army, and the lack of interference by the international community.
It’s left a bitter taste for Raja, who insists the cause has not died. From his Paris apartment, he’s still dreaming of a Tamil Eelam homeland. “The war may be finished – but we have to remember why we began it in the first place,” he says. “We were demanding our independence.”
Most Parisian Tamils support the Tigers, says Raja, using the present tense. While the Tigers may have been defeated on Sri Lankan soil, their international network is far-reaching, and seems to have remained at least partially intact.
According to Sri Lanka’s ambassador to France, Dayan Jayatilleka, the LTTE network has broken into three or four large factions around the world. Although there isn’t any single unifying leader, he tells RFI, it’s possible there are members attempting to put the cell structure back together and reignite the armed struggle.
“I can’t take a head count on how many Tamils in Paris support the war, but it seems to me that the politically active and preponderant element of the Tamil diaspora – the more mobilised and active element – seems comfortable demonstrating under the flag of the LTTE,” he says.
“But I am not sure if they represent the bulk of the Tamil community in Paris, or only an active minority.”
What’s missing, says Jayatilleka, is an opposition movement from within Paris’s Tamil community. “Something that says, ‘No we don’t feel comfortable with the flag of the LTTE with its 32 bullets and its crossed rifles’,” he says.
Even here in Little Jaffna, where the women are dressed in colourful saris, the pavements are alight with market stalls and the sounds of Hindi music spill from the shops, it’s difficult to extract the politics from everyday life.
France’s 100,000-strong Tamil population – the majority of whom have chosen to call this quarter home – are Tamil foremost, and French second. It’s a sense of identity perhaps cemented by their ethnic minority status back in Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese majority controls the army.
In a Sri Lankan beauty shop on the rue Perdonnet, a young woman, Anusha, who is Sinhalese and has been in Paris for 10 years, is having her hair done by a Tamil staff member. She says a depressed economy and lack of opportunity led many Sri Lankans to leave – regardless of their ethnic background.
These days Anusha sings and dances for Sri Lankan community shows in Paris.
“I am very much active in the Sri Lankan community, but my friends are not only Sri Lankan,” she says. “They are all nationalities: American, German, Dutch.”
Anusha is happy to chat about her life, friends and roots, adding that she visits Sri Lanka as often as possible. “Now the war is over, Tamils and Sinhalese live like a family,” she adds.
She is unperturbed when asked if active members of the LTTE still operate around Paris, but as she tries to answer, the conversation is suddenly ended by the hairdresser, who hurriedly pushes me out the door.
Fundraising for the LTTE, deemed a terrorist organisation in many countries, has been a sensitive subject in France since the April 2007 arrest of several members of its network on charges of extorting money from members of the Tamil community.
Before the arrests were made, the subject was investigated by journalist Nandita Vij, who works for RFI's sister station, France 24 television. Vij, who is of Indian origin, visited the Paris offices of the now defunct Tamil Coordinating Committee (TCC), which was later raided by French counter-terrorism police.
“The organisation that was collecting funds was working as an NGO that was helping out the refugees back in Sri Lanka,” Vij explains. “So their pretext was that they were collecting money for tsunami victims or for the rehabilitation of the Tamil community.”
While some people were at first happy to trump up money for the cause back home, Vij says that the younger generation eventually became less committed to the cause, and at this point were forced to give money.
“If they didn’t, they were threatened," says Vij. “Sometimes it was their family back in Sri Lanka who was at risk, or else they were harassed here in Paris – and at times beaten up outside their house.”
After her story went to air in 2006, Vij herself became a victim of harassment by TCC members who, even today, have not backed down on their campaign of intimidation.
Even here in Little Jaffna, where the women are dressed in colourful saris, the pavements are alight with market stalls and the sounds of Hindi music spill from the shops, it’s difficult to extract the politics from everyday life
“I am still under threat – I cannot go back to Gare du Nord for one, because people recognise me,” she says. “The harassment still hasn’t stopped, so I can’t even go and shop in the area for Indian groceries anymore.”
Despite the war in Sri Lanka, the extortion arrests in Paris, and the unfulfilled dream of a free Tamil state, the residents of Little Jaffna, and the streets that splinter off around it, have deftly carved out a lifestyle through which they can celebrate the riches of their culture.
There are Tamil newspapers, a radio station and Tamil language schools, while the annual Chariot Procession, a tribute to the Hindu elephant god Ganesha Chathurthi, has become a popular fixture each September for Parisians and tourists alike.
For Raja, memories of the war he fought are never far, but he's happy with his new life, which he says is one of integration for his French-born children, who are able to enjoy the best of both worlds.
“Here in France, my children take Tamil language classes – they learn to write Tamil, and they learn about our culture,” Raja says. “Then every year in June, there is an exam for all the children and they get tested.”
While integrating is much easier for Tamil children who go to school in France, older Tamils often struggle with language and culture barriers. As a result of Sri Lanka’s British colonial past, many are fluent English speakers, and come to France without knowing a word of French.
This means employment opportunities are restricted, with many Tamils unable to find work that corresponds with their qualifications back home. Among this group is Hamad, who works at the Silk Palace general store on the rue du Faubourg-St-Denis.
Ironically he comes from Pondicherry, in the south of India, once a lone French colony. Despite the French connection, Hamad says all of his education was in English. “Although I speak some French, it’s not been sufficient to get a good job, that’s why I’ve been working in a shop for the past eight years,” he says. “Although none of my family is here, as they don’t speak French, I see a lot of Tamils every day, as most of our customers are Tamil. Sometimes I also attend the functions organised by the Tamil cultural associations.”
So now that the war in Sri Lanka has been declared over – with images of Tamil chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s bullet-ridden corpse being beamed round the world – are Paris’s Tamils considering a return to the homeland?
Not a chance says Raja, who points out that there is a strong suspicion among the greater Tamil diaspora that the Sri Lankan army fabricated Prabhakaran’s death.
“Personally I believe that he is lost now – but a lot of people think he is still alive because, in the past, there were often army announcements that he was dead, and then he would appear,” Raja says.
“These days there are two LTTE groups – those who say Prabhakaran is there, and those who say that Prabhakaran is not.”
While the separatist movement in Sri Lanka has been defeated, Raja says the suffering of Tamils continues – despite what he calls government propaganda that depicts Sri Lankan soldiers delivering relief supplies to Tamils displaced during the war.
“Even now people over there are living in fear. It’s not war, but they’re afraid because there is still a lot of violence,” he says. “For families where there is no husband, the women are often raped by the army. None of that has finished.”
Over at the Sri Lankan embassy in Paris, ambassador Jayatilleka says the numbers of people applying to return are encouraging – and that most Tamils on the ground in Sri Lanka have abandoned the secessionist struggle.
“I would say that quite a few want to go back, and the numbers that are coming in from other parts of the world such as Australia and Canada clearly demonstrate that a large number do want to, Jayatilleka says.
“I don’t know if this is simply for a visit, or if it is to relocate back to the parts of the island where they came from. But, yes, there has been a lot of movement, and no one is saying, ‘We don’t want to have anything to do with the place’.”
Regardless of any gravitation back to the homeland, here in Little Jaffna, where shop signs are decorated with the Tamils’ distinctive script, and where the Tamil community is entrenched alongside its Indian, Bangladeshi and Turkish counterparts, it’s hard to imagine this area looking any different.
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