What it’s like to be a Tamil refugee in a Toronto kitchen

By Corey Mintz - Published on May 12, 2016
Brothers in the Kitchen is a live, interactive multimedia documentary that depicts lives of Tamil refugees.

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When I was a cook, I worked with a lot of Tamil men from Sri Lanka. These guys are the barely seen backbone of Toronto restaurants: they wash dishes, graduating to cooking when they’ve learned enough English. Usually they work two jobs, sending money home and saving as much as they can to bring over their wives, sisters, brothers and children.

One day, 10 years ago, I found my dishwasher co-worker Jaya taking a nap, his head propped against a 40-pound bag of rice. There’s not a lot of napping or resting in kitchens, but I knew that Jaya, like many of his brothers and cousins, worked night shifts here, plus day shifts in a factory.

When he woke up, I asked him about Sri Lanka. Back home, he said, his family were mango farmers. He would take naps under the shade of trees and eat their fruit when he woke. When I asked about the circumstances of his leaving, he only shook his head and said, “No good.”

It was a phrase he employed often to describe his disappointment at improperly delivered produce orders, the too-steep staircase he’d fallen down three times, or burnt yam fries. This time he added a third word – “war” – to sum up what had forced him and much of his generation to flee their homeland.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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That night I read up on Sri Lanka and its civil war. But the history didn’t come alive until I heard it first-hand.

For many years, Cyrus Sundar Singh had unsuccessfully attempted to fund and film a documentary about the Sri Lankan civil war and how its refugees came to live in Canada and work in restaurants. Switching tactics, Singh staged Brothers in the Kitchen as a “live documentary” last week as part of the Hot Docs festival.

“It’s the story about the uprising, exodus and survival of the Tamil Sri Lankan minority, who fled a brutal civil war in 1983,” Singh explains.

As in any documentary, Singh interviewed dozens of subjects, then edited those down to essential pieces that, stitched together, form a clear narrative. But instead of splicing footage he had each interview subject recount their story live as part of an interactive, multimedia tapestry.

The show opened with news clips from 1986, about a boat found floating off the shore of Newfoundland, containing 155 refugees from Sri Lanka. It’s presented, as the news was at the time, as a mystery — played like a cold opening from an episode of Lost. Who are these people in the boats? How and why did they get here?

From there, Singh builds the 20th-century history of conflict between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. It begins with an elder, moving slowly toward the microphone, to recount his witnessing of the 1958 anti-Tamil pogrom, a series of riots that killed hundreds.

It’s a live performance, so no one gets a second take. Singh asks us at the beginning to be forgiving of technical hiccups. But there’s nothing to forgive in the rawness of testimony.

One woman begins to cry right away, as she remembers a mob forming around her house in 1983, throwing stones through the window before burning it down. Another woman describes hiding from the mobs in a neighbour’s house, seeing a human burned alive. “My childhood was over,” she says. “And I have never felt safe again.”

The orchestrated anti-Tamil mob violence, which would come to be known as Black July, killed thousands and plunged the country into civil war that lasted until 2009.

Singh uses the TV news device of an anonymous subject speaking in silhouette, staging it with a screen in front of the audience. The anonymous voice testifies about being in that boat in 1986. The men didn’t know how long they’d be in the water, or really where they were. Mostly they just shivered and prayed.

“We didn’t eat or shit for three days,” says the silhouette.

So the narrative circles back, explaining how people got into those boats, the terror and violence that led them there and the new challenges they’d face as immigrants. This brings us back to the news clips, expanding on the tone of the period, the CBC report incredulous about the motives of these illegal immigrants.

“We were not opportunists,” says the man behind the screen. “We had to leave or die.”

Canada would go on to host the largest population of Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in the world, the majority of them in Toronto. (Statistics are disputed, ranging from 29,000 to 200,000, but perhaps the return of the longform census will help clarify.) And if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant kitchen, you know how tirelessly this population works, as the Brothers in the Kitchen narrator puts it, going from refugees to having an elected member of Parliament (former NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan) within one generation.

Towards the end of the show, former mayor Barbara Hall talks about helping to settle Tamil refugees in Toronto and former MP Bob Rae discusses the need to recognize the human rights tragedy of how the 25-year civil war ended, with an estimated 20,000 civilians killed by army shelling of the rebel stronghold.

With the addition of a narrator, a singing, dancing chorus and archival footage played overhead, Brothers in the Kitchen has the charm of theatrical performance, starring amateurs as themselves, but sticking to a documentary story form.

During the show, boxes of vadai (a savoury donut), samosas and ladoo (a sweet ball of chickpea flour and coconut) are handed out. But the actual kitchen labour isn’t a big part of the performance.

“When we go to eat in a restaurant, if you take a peek in the back, it’s almost always a brown guy working there,” says Singh, who is Tamil from India. “And 90 per cent of the time it’s a Tamil Sri Lankan. The Toronto restaurant industry is essentially on the shoulders of these Tamils, who can be cooking French, Italian, Greek, greasy spoon. They do it all. So that became a window to frame the story of the Tamils.”

Singh saw the changing tide in feelings toward refugees as a good time to tell this story. And the kitchen is one effective way in.

In 2009, when Tamils blocked downtown Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway to protest the war crimes happening in Sri Lanka, it was condemned as the “wrong way to protest” by premier Dalton McGuinty. Last year, when Syrian refugees began to land in Canada, they were met by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, amid a lot of back-patting from Canadians, ready to feel good about their generosity.

A dishwasher I worked with used to give a round of high-fives when he came in at 4 p.m. One day he was late. When he got there the sink was clogged with pots and pans. As he made his lap of high-fives around the room, the pastry chef told him, “Why don’t you go high-five the dishes?”

The dishwasher was probably coming from his other job, or a meeting with an immigration officer. Or he’d just woken from the bed he shared with a half-dozen other guys who sleep and work in shifts.

But when we don’t know each other’s stories, it’s easy to take the brothers in the kitchen for granted.

Corey Mintz is a Toronto-based food writer.

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