Dharshini Suntharam has finally been offered a sense of peace and stability in her tumultuous life.
The 33-year-old Tamil who fled Sri Lanka in 2012 has been issued a safe-haven visa that allows her to stay in her new home Port Fairy for a further five years.
Now employed at Lyndoch Living and studying English at South West TAFE, the refugee who survived horrific conditions to live in the south-west, said her Subclass 790 visa was a blessing.
“I’ve had lots of miracles in my life,” she said. “And now Port Fairy is like my family.”
“It is a very wonderful community, I am so grateful and thankful to live here.
“It is a small town with a big heart. It has helped me start my life safe and happy.”
The safety and happiness Dharshini enjoys in her new home is a far cry from the unimaginable hardships she endured in her birth country.
After her father died when she was just a teenager, the only child was left to care for her mother alone.
When joy came to her life in the form of a husband in 2003, the media studies graduate hoped her hardship as a single woman was ending.
But just three years after her betrothal her husband was kidnapped when their son was just one.
“That’s it, my life is gone after that, I didn’t have a very good life after that,” Dharshini said.
“I was treated very badly in Sri Lanka as a single woman. I had very sad and bad things happened to me as a woman.”
The circumstances Dharshini refers to are what the world refers to as one of the biggest humanitarian crises since World War II.
When her recycle-businessman husband vanished without a trace she said her personal situation escalated.
“Without a husband to help it’s very hard for a single woman in Sri Lanka,” she said.
Dharshini has not seen her husband for over 10 years now.
“I don’t know if he is alive or dead,” she said.
Dharshini fled with her son aboard a flimsy fishing boat to escape the atrocity.
“I came from Sri Lanka by boat, it took me 25 days,” she said.
“We ran out of food and water after five days.”
The boat Dharshini boarded was a small fishing boat she said she paid “a lot of money to”.
“I just want to go from Sri Lanka,” she said. “I thought if I die on boat, I die with son and we die together.”
Despite his youth, Dharshini said her son was her motivation to continue living.
“It was very frightening and my son was six, he looked after me,” she said.
“Our boat was damaged and the water tried to come in.
“They tried to fix it but couldn’t. Luckily we are rescued in Singapore by a cruise ship and they took us to Cocos Island.”
Four days after arriving on the island, Dharshini and her young son were transferred to Christmas Island where they lived for six months.
“Christmas Island had five different camps,” she said. “So many different countries, 500 people in one camp.
“It was like a prison. You can’t go outside. It is not good for children.”
Explaining their situation to her son was devastating for Dharshini.
“My son’s questions were heart-breaking,” she said. “’Why can’t I play outside, why can’t I go to school?’” he’d say to me.”
During this time Dharshini said her poor mental health led her to attempt suicide on three separate occasions.
“I got very sick,” she said. “I needed support.”
Support came in the form of another transfer. This time to the Broadmeadows Immigration Centre.
She was at the centre for three months before authorities sent 200 refgees to a hotel in Footscray.
“They just drop all of us and go,” she reflected. “Australia is new to us so we don’t know what to do, where to go for help, how to get a house.”
As though it were a “miracle”, it was here that Dharshini and her son met Sister Bridget, a local nun.
This kindhearted nun assisted Dharshini in her search for a new, safe home and introduced her to a Port Fairy lady who would become “like an angel” to the refugee.
“When we arrive in Port Fairy it’s very quiet for me because I can’t speak English,” Dharshini said. “I don’t know anyone and I’m so shy to talk to the people.”
When her son was enrolled at Port Fairy’s St Patrick’s Primary School, the school community soon became her welcome party.
“He started school and first day I am introduced to all parents,” she said. “They take me to coffee and I start few words so I say ‘hello’. Now I am lucky to have them.”
“My desire is to express my thanks to the school and Port Fairy community who welcomed me and gave their love to my son,” she said.
Dharshini’s advice to other new south-west migrants is simple.
“Learn English, it’s important to make conversation with people. Living in a small community is best,” she said.
“Share your stories and your culture, and your food – the people here love the Sri Lankan food.”
And for the community accepting migrants: “People just need to feel safe, and loved”.
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