Neeraja's journey

Having escaped from Sri Lanka’s civil war, Neeraja Sanmuhanathan is now studying the effects of trauma on refugees and their children.

By Brigid Delaney

Image of Neeraja

Neeraja Sanmuhanathan knows first-hand the fraught journey refugees are forced to make to find safety. In 1995, amid fighting in Jaffna during the Sri Lankan civil war, Neeraja then aged eight, left home with her younger brother and mother to travel to Chavakachcheri and then onto the Killali refugee camp.

“We waited three days to cross the Killali lagoon. We were one of the last people to cross as this passage was later stopped by the government,” she recalls. “I wasn’t scared because I was a kid and it seemed like an adventure.”

They then made their way to Colombo, staying with friends before eventually settling in Sydney and reuniting with Neeraja’s father. Now, 18 years later, Neeraja is researching her Doctor of Philosophy (Health Sciences) at the University of Sydney.
Her area of research – a study of transgenerational trauma in Sri Lanka’s civil war – draws on her own experiences and that of her family. Neeraja is a Tamil born in Jaffna (northern Sri Lanka), but she and her family “moved around a lot” due to an increasingly unstable political situation.

“We definitely had bombs fall on our village. I have very strong memories of running to the bunker and going into foetal position and hearing bombs dropped.”

Neeraja’s uncle died after a piece of shrapnel struck him as he was riding his bicycle home. Although too young to remember the very worst of the conflict, she says: “my parent’s generation witnessed shellings and bombings.” They also had friends or family members killed or imprisoned. It is the lingering trauma that Neeraja is researching. “My PhD looks at the Tamil migrant community in NSW and out of that population how many people show symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”

At 22, I went to Christmas Island – and was exposed to more than any (university) degree. People were sewing their lips up.

Neeraja is also studying the effects this trauma has on the next generation. “There’s a culture in Sri Lanka of children looking after their parents generally speaking. When you grow up in a war it forces you to be even more protective. It’s a mechanism that develops. I am looking at how the second generation has been vicariously traumatised – by storytelling, TV, having family members still there in Sri Lanka.”

Having completed a Bachelor of Arts in 2009, followed by a Masters in Rehabilitation Counselling, Neeraja commenced her PhD a year ago. At first, “the [Human Ethics] Committee was worried if I was mentally able to handle this topic because of my strong links to the community.” But she worked with her supervisor to put in place “debriefing and support mechanisms”.

Once accepted to start her PhD, Neeraja consulted Sri Lankan community groups who will assist her in getting the questionnaire out to the diaspora (this process has not happened yet). Neeraja is using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria when assessing if subjects have PTSD. “I’m looking for things like flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive memories.”

Neeraja hopes her research will have a positive impact on the community. “War trauma is complex and there are individual differences in how trauma impacts upon their day-to-day lives. Although Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war has ended, the long term effects of trauma and trauma symptoms need to be explored in order to better support a migrant population in a newly settled country.”

It is the first study of its kind to be done in Australia. She faces some challenges with her subject matter. “Mental health is a huge taboo topic in the community. ‘Mental’ there [in Sri Lanka] means ‘crazy’ – there’s a lot of stigma around it.”

Neeraja’s undergraduate years were spent at the University of Sydney studying Psychology and Sociology. “I was fascinated but my mum put me off the idea,” she says laughing. “She looked at my Psychology textbook where there was this woman looking dazed and staring into space on the cover and my mum said, ‘Are you sure you want to be doing this?’”

After finishing her undergraduate studies, Neeraja started working at the Institute for Emotionally Focused Therapy and assisted in a research project whilst also enrolling in a Masters. She took a break in 2009 and went to Christmas Island to work as an interpreter with Sri Lankan refugees at the detention centre. After Afghanis, Sri Lankans comprise the highest number of refugees to Australia.

“I went to Christmas Island when I was 22 – and was exposed to more than any [university] degree. I was there when the Malaysian Solution was introduced and when people were sewing their lips up.”

She slept in dorms and worked long hours, especially when a new boat of asylum seekers was brought to the island – often in the middle of the night. It was a demanding job, particularly when Neeraja put herself in their shoes. “It was really difficult for me because they arrived 10 years later [when policies had changed] and I had my dad here already. I knew these people would spend a significant period of time in detention.”

She found it confronting to hear the expectations of each new asylum seeker. “Christmas Island threw me into a world where I saw it all first hand – [the refugees]getting there [to Christmas Island] and getting all excited and then going through the trauma of the whole thing [detention].”

She understands those initial misconceptions: “The stories you hear back home (in Sri Lanka) are the ones of those that have made it.” A lot of the bad experiences are swept under the carpet because “people don’t want to worry their parents”.
But despite the intense experience of working and living on Christmas Island, Neeraja is not cynical or jaded. “I would still like to believe there’s a lot of hope. Despite what many asylum seekers have been through they are still thankful.”

Neeraja continues to be involved in refugee work. “I have continued to go back and forth to Christmas Island. Last time I went was August-October 2012.”

Last year she began working as a torture and trauma counsellor at STARTTS ( NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors). With a combination of practical and clinical work as well as her academic research, Neeraja would one day like to work in policy. “I definitely see myself influencing policy at some stage, as well as an academic career at some point down the track. But first I would like to build up my clinical skills.”

Neeraja expects that her PhD will be completed in 2016. “I will have many days where I wish I didn’t start this long and tedious journey. But when I do, I look at a special post card that was sent to me by the University. It sits on my work desk wherever I go. It simply says ‘Neeraja. No limits’ at the forefront of an image of the Quadrangle.”