Sri Lanka
Ruwanthie de Chickera

Ruwanthie de Chickera
Photo: Ruwanthie de Chickera

What does the term refugee mean to you?

A refugee is a human being whose personal tragedy has become a public commodity in a strange land.
A person who is on show for everyone. Answerable to all. Dependent on anyone. Protected by no one.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

Is a young person’s dream to see a country other than the one he was born into not a legitimate right of youth? Flight – be it away from something familiar and terrible, or towards something strange and unknown - is an inherent human instinct. It is legitimate – because it runs deep in us all. To curb flight is to curb something of the essence of the human spirit.
Our world provides only some people with the right to flight; the right to leave as they wish, enter as they wish, the right to be welcomed, to explore, to decide to stay, to move on, expand, to disappear. For many, many others, this is a world of walls, barriers and cages. Nothing much in it is legitimate.
The fundamental questions we are asking are wrong.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

If you are leaving your home because it has become unbearable. You must be leaving your home because it really has become unbearable. The suffering and trauma has already been intense. Even in the best of circumstances, it will continue. Let’s offer some respite.

When does one cease to be a refugee?

When one can choose not to tell ones’ story in order to justify one’s presence.

Is there a natural right to asylum?

There should be a natural right to travel. If people were given equal travel rights, equal settling rights, things would level out. There would be a tide in one direction and then a tide in another – like, within a country, cities and towns and villages grow and settle; within the world, nations would grow and settle. It’s the construct of borders that creates the madness and the hysteria.
Lets imagine, for a moment, that we divided up the towns and villages in our own countries like we have divided up the nations in the world; with walls, and immigration laws and officers and passports and applications to move from one city or town to the next village or jungle; with detention and removal to deal with those who are deemed unworthy. What a colossal waste of time and money and lives. What madness. When did we stop seeing this?

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

It is more than unconditional. It is natural. But we have come very far from our humanness. The lens of our basic perception has become so skewed that we are no longer able to recognize the common sense we are all born with. We are no longer able to connect with our most natural state – which is one of union with each other, the environment and the universe.

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

No society has ever burst because too many people have been absorbed. Society is a seamless thing. It grows and shrinks and morphs and expands. People arrive and leave in waves. If a situation becomes unbearable, too expensive, too loud, too violent, people will leave and find their own space.
Migration is happening all the time – with or without refugees.
When we change a transient human experience into a permanent form of identity – and this is what has happened to the experience of a refugee - we force something unfortunate that must pass and change, into something permanent that will remain and torment. If we facilitate its transformation, it will disappear.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

I read somewhere that we easily divide people into ‘expats’ and ‘immigrants’ based on skin colour. In the same manner I believe that some refugees are viewed differently to others. These prejudices run very deep.

Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

No. Our system does not know how to deal with them.

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

I cannot imagine any country being brought to its knees because it extended help to people who needed it. Refugees don’t’ come with disease and boils and the intention to scrounge off us for the rest of their lives. They come with the determination to prove themselves as worthy citizens, and the resolve to make their dreams come true. They will work harder at this than we can imagine. It’s when we force helplessness on them that they continue to remain a weight. It’s when we allow politicians to use them as scapegoats that we fall prey to blaming them for everything that’s wrong in society.
Much of the world as we know it now, was built on the dreams, courage and determination of refugees, convicts, slaves and outcasts. People robbed of family, home and dignity – but luckily not a future.
Let’s not forget who we are or how we got here.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?

I think this is an unfair question. Refugees are victims of persecution and trauma. There should be no expectations of integration on them. They should be welcomed and they should be given the support and environment – or for heavens sake, just the space and chance - to begin to live again.
Ask a refugee about their responsibility towards integration once they cease to be a refugee.

- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

No civilization grew when it closed in on itself. In fact all civilizations and empires that naturally crashed, crashed when its people became too convinced of their own truth, their own way of life, and grew un-open to change, challenge and growth. A thriving civilization is built on a confident people, open hearted, not scared of challenge and change, excited by difference and new perspectives.
Remember when we were children? And our games got more exciting as new people joined? We have all stopped to absorb the strange little barefooted kids staring at us play and together we rose up to new challenges. And the food we had was always enough for everyone – however many new kids joined.
When did we stop living by these very simple truths?

Do you know any refugees personally?

Again, this question turns a transient condition, a human experience into an identity. A refugee is a person whose life as they knew it, suddenly ceased to exist. Who is suddenly forced into a situation of extreme helplessness and dependency. Similar human experiences are when people meet with accidents, loose their money, loose their memory. People enter a condition. And then, often with the help of others, they move out of it.
It’s the same for the situation of a refugee. It’s a phase of life. Not an identity.
Yes I know people who have been forced to be refugees. As a child I remember we had an influx of visitors living in our house for a long time. It was wonderful to have other kids around. It was only later on that I realized why they had been there. Later on in life I worked with refugee groups through my theatre work. I found them to be people who had faced the deepest of human fears. It provided them with a perspective that was so wide – I could not fathom it. I learnt a lot from them.

Do you actively support any refugees?

Not at the moment no.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

It will come only in a world without borders.

If yes: what does it take?

It will take the courage for human beings to admit that nation states are a mistake. Countries are a construct. Walls are just old-fashioned. Immigration law is violence. And paranoia, which eats at our souls, and stunts us as human beings, grows because of all of these things.

Have you or your family ever been refugee?


Do you think you will ever be a one?

Of course.

- If yes: why?

No refugee ever thought they would be one.

- How do you prepare yourself?

The same way you prepare yourself for death. You have a vague sense it could happen. You hope that the person that you are building within yourself is strong enough to face the situation with courage.

- To which country would you take refuge to?

If I had an option, I would look for a country where its people are more curious than paranoid.

How much “home” do you need?*

Home is not a physical place. It’s a feeling. Its acceptance from people. It is either given or it is not. When it is given, it is enough.

*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.