With people rushing for Sri Lanka’s exit, is anyone coming back?

Author Jekhan Aruliah

Jekhan Aruliah

By Jekhan Aruliah

In July 2022 the Sri Lanka Sunday Times reported “Pandemonium at passport office”, reporting people sleeping for days in queues waiting to get their papers stamped. The Ceylon Today newspaper reported in September 2022 that “About 2000 doctors have left so far this year due to the current economic crisis”. With so many Sri Lankans heading for the nation’s exit, here is a story about a young man coming the other way back to Jaffna.

When you first meet him you may think Neelesh is from California. He speaks with the languid drawl of a US surfer. He maintains a chilled out enigmatic silence until directly prompted to say something. Then he speaks out confidently with great intelligence and eloquence. Actually Neelesh Jeevarajah was born in Markham, a suburb of Toronto in Canada. A first generation Canadian, Neelesh is the second child of refugees from the Sri Lankan Civil War.

Neelesh Jeevarajah

During that war young men in particular were fearful of being taken away by any one of the combatant groups. The LTTE to conscript them, the Sri Lankan Army to incarcerate them. When boots were heard on the ground young men would flee to be hidden by families, friends and neighbours. In those terrible times it was common for young men to flee the country entirely.

After one session hiding on the roof of his family home the 20 year old Jeevarajah, later to become Neelesh’s father, was told by his family to leave the country. His elder brother Poopathirajah who was already in Canada told him to go to India, from where he would sponsor him into Canada.

Poopathirajah arranged for his younger brother to travel to Chennai in 1986 with his good friend, whose wife’s sister was to become Neelesh’s mother Jeyakumari. Jeyakumari had already gone to Chennai in 1985 soon after the war started, she was staying with family friends. 

After arriving in India it took three years for Neelesh’s father to be admitted to Canada in 1989. In those three years Jeevarajah and Jeyakumari formed an attachment. Jeyakumari arrived in Canada in 1992, and in 1996 they were married. Their first child Vinusha was born in 1997, and Neelesh in 1999.

Canada was extremely generous to refugees at that time. The British effectively abandoned their citizens in Hong Kong when that territory was returned to China in 1997 by not giving them the automatic right to migrate to the UK. In the years leading up to and after the handover Canada accepted the Hong Kongers in large numbers. Similarly, Canada accepted large numbers fleeing the Sri Lankan war.

Markham is one of the Canadian suburbs of Toronto where refugees from the Sri Lankan war were concentrated. At his elementary school though almost all the teachers were white, very few of the students were. Most of the kids’ origins were Sri Lankan, with some Indian and Chinese. Neelesh attended two secondary schools. The first had a lot of Muslims and Sri Lankans. He left this school because the kids formed into gangs, and in his own words he “couldn’t be my dorky self”. He left this school to join another where the majority of kids were Chinese followed by Sri Lankans, again with very few whites. Here he was happy, focussing more on the sports than the academics.

Throughout his school career Neelesh echoed the normal Sri Lankan parental dream saying he wanted to be an engineer. He admits this wasn’t actually true. Neelesh had no passion for engineering nor medicine nor law. At the time he was already doing a lot of volunteering and helping people. This is what he loved. Neelesh decided he wanted to join the police force, a devastating shock for his parents and family. His uncle said to him “do you want to work as a security guard the rest of your life?” For Neelesh, what he really wanted was to help young people go down the right road. Help them avoid getting tangled up in the Justice System.

To get into the police force, Neelesh first did a Diploma in Community Justice and then a degree in Criminal Justice. Neelesh’s career plans changed due to the COVID-19 Lockdowns in 2021, the year he graduated. He planned to do voluntary community work for 2 years, and then enter the police force when he was 25. With the lockdowns there was no opportunity to go out doing community work. So to make a little money Neelesh joined the company Home Depot, which sells construction tools, appliances, and other builder’s products.

Due to the lockdown, customers could not come browsing into the stores. Home Depot took online orders and had a system for the customers to come to a drive-through lot to pickup their purchases. Here the people, already tense and frustrated from weeks of lockdown, found themselves again hanging around this time in long slow moving queues. Bubbling with impatience and anger the customers would become abusive to each other and to the Home Depot staff. This was also a period when in the USA the George Floyd murder trial and protests were happening. Great anger being directed against the whole police force for the crimes of a few officers. Neelesh had the premonition that this is what being a policeman would be like. 12 hour shifts 4 days a week being vilified and abused by the general public! Neelesh didn’t want this, what he wanted was to help people.

From July until September 2021 Neelesh looked for another career. He made 50 job applications without success. In November that year his uncle (strictly speaking cousin, though 25 years older) Suganthan Shanmuganathan came from Jaffna. Suganthan, like Neelesh’s father, had fled the Sri Lankan war as a teenager. Suganthan had had a successful career as a senior manager in the second largest office furniture manufacturer in North America. And he had invested shrewdly in property and other businesses. Already financially secure, the forty year old Suganthan moved back to Jaffna Sri Lanka in 2014. In the years since he returned Suganthan, ably supported by his wife Shakeela, was building a multi faceted entrepreneurial empire in Jaffna and the Northern Province. Producing and exporting Northern foods and drinks, masterminding and investing in a 70 acre “smart city”,  keeping a keen eye on other business opportunities.

Suganthan had brought his wife and two children back to Jaffna, wanting his kids, a boy and a girl, to experience their ancestral land for a few years before sending them back to Canada for university. Having graduated the two kids would be free to choose where they wanted to live. Suganthan had already for some years been talking to Neelesh about the opportunities in Jaffna, but at that time Neelesh was still focussed on becoming an officer of the law. Now disillusioned with the police career and disappointed with 50 unsuccessful job applications, Neelesh decided to take his uncle up on his offer and spend a month in Jaffna just to take a look.

Neelesh came to Jaffna in January 2022, planning to go back to Canada in February. But in that time, spent with his uncle Suganthan and Suganthan’s son Shakeel who is a similar age to Neelesh, he started to see the upside. He felt Canada is fast and shallow. Often working two jobs to have a good standard of living, there is no time to sit and reflect and build deeper relationships with others and with yourself. Jaffna is slower allowing time if you take the trouble to go deeper. Neelesh commented “In Jaffna you start work early and finish at lunchtime, and then there is a whole second day in the same day!”.

Neelesh’s moment of revelation came on a fishing boat coming back from a day on Annalaitivu, one of the small islands off the Jaffna coast. With Suganthan, Shakeel and a couple of others they had spent a wonderful day on that little island. They were leisurely puttering back to the mainland in the boat, enjoying the sun and the water and the leisure. In Jaffna this good feeling was to be had with great ease five minutes drive from home. From his home in Toronto it would take 4 hours to drive to a good beach for pleasures like this. Floating in that boat was the key moment of revelation for Neelesh.

Neelesh latched onto Suganthan’s Palmyrah Resort project, where his uncle was building a 70 acre resort on the northern coast of the Jaffna peninsula. Deciding to focus on watersports, Neelesh plunged into research, learning what others around the World were doing. He built his vision on using the extensive water resource opportunities in the North to create tourism activities. He went to Colombo to qualify and get his coxswain’s licence to captain a 50 foot boat (15 meters), he got trained on water and personal safety. A former Sri Lanka Navy diver, now working for Suganthan, trained him in snorkel and scuba diving.

Supporting Neelesh’s commitment and enthusiasm Suganthan invested in two boats and an outboard motor purchased second hand from the local fishermen. Neelesh is creating an underwater museum and park, with statues and underwater games including chess, draughts, carrom. Currently there is virtually nothing to do in the North for entertainment, either for tourists or the local residents. Through his initiative and his research, with Suganthan’s encouragement and support, Neelesh is creating a waterworld of activities to complement Suganthan’s Palmyrah Resort.

For years Suganthan had told him “it’s not about the money it’s about the opportunities”. Neelesh said when he was young he was always looking for the money. For that part of his life he was chasing the wrong idea. When he was a kid he was always taught to save money, not to make money. His time in Jaffna, mentored by Suganthan and supported by Shakeel, his whole thinking process has changed.

Neelesh’s advice to young people: Don’t just wait in one spot. Get up and go out and look around to see what opportunities are out there in the World. Perhaps after you’ve got up and looked you will go back to that same spot. Probably you won’t.

Neelesh can be contacted at neelesh.j88@gmail.com

( — The writer Jekhan Aruliah was born in Sri Lanka and moved with his family to the UK when he was two years of age. Brought up in London, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1986 with a degree in Natural Sciences. Jekhan then spent over two decades in the IT industry, for half of which he was managing offshore software development for British companies in Colombo and in Gurgaon (India). In 2015 Jekhan decided to move to Jaffna where he is now involved in social and economic projects. He can be contacted at jekhanaruliah@gmail.com — )

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balachandran shankar
balachandran shankar
1 year ago

Once again, Jekhan has written a success story to entice so to say Sri Lankan expats to return home and contribute. He is relentless in this pursuit. He was a sort of responsible for my coming to Jaffna. I never regretted it. In the last 5 years of knowing SL, what Jekhan could do, no one could come anywhere near him. He is so true to his salt.

1 year ago

Hi Jekhan

Great article as always !

Good to know that there are young people like Neelesh who think deeply and make their own decisions, rather than follow a spooked herd.

Sri Lanka was, is and will continue to be a paradise isle.
All we need is honest and capable administration.

The unique wealth in our country is in its environment, its relationships and social fabric.

Do continue your great work in Jaffna and Sri Lanka !

1 year ago

Interesting and very informative article. Keep up the great work, Jekhan.

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