Refugee Devan gives back to new home

Dan Coughlan with friend and refugee Satkuruthevan Vadivel.
Dan Coughlan with friend and refugee Satkuruthevan Vadivel. Sharyn Oneill

JUST over a year ago, a 41-year-old man called Devan took the only option left and boarded a boat heading from Sri Lanka to Australia.

He left behind his two young daughters in a bid to make a safer life for them, free from the torture and assaults by government security forces and armed groups, because of his Tamil ethnicity.

Today, Devan is making a new life for himself in Rockhampton as he waits in hope of a temporary protection visa, and the right to work and stay in Australia.

Devan, whose real name is Satkuruthevan Vadivel, was one of 25,754 boat arrivals into Australia in the year 2012/13.

During the same period, 25,907 people were released from immigration detention here.

Boat people, asylum seekers, illegals, refugees - there are many ways of referring to those who took to the seas to escape an intolerable existence.

But each one is a real person with a story the average Australian could only try to understand.

Devan's story stares in the face of many people's fears about those who fled their country to ours.

Devan is multi-skilled. He is a maths teacher but also worked as a photographer in Sri Lanka.
Devan is multi-skilled. He is a maths teacher but also worked as a photographer in Sri Lanka. Contributed

His mother and two brothers had been tortured and murdered for political reasons.

"Eventually they said they would kill me, so I was left with no other option but to escape to a safe country," he said.

With his sister's help, he found the $8500 he needed for a passage.

The journey to the Cocos Islands took two weeks, with no food other than a handful of rice on most days, and water.

With nowhere to sleep, the 70 people on board sat upright, often wet from the rough seas.

After landing, Devan spent eight months in three detention camps, including Curtin Detention Centre.

It was there he met former Rockhampton nun Sister Desma Clark, who helped him relocate to Rockhampton where he has a nephew with refugee status.

Contrary to many stories, Devan said life in the detention camps was not a problem.

"Detention camp is not detention; it's a maintenance camp," he explained.

He said refugees were given medicines, had sessions with mental health counsellors, played football and volleyball and had classes in basic English, relaxation and Australian culture.

"Each of the religions had somewhere we could go to pray," he said.

"We were treated well... the food was good."

Eldest daughter Tharaka on her third birthday. Devan’s dream is to bring his daughters to Australia.
Eldest daughter Tharaka on her third birthday. Devan’s dream is to bring his daughters to Australia. Contributed

He said it was Sister Desma who helped him with his mind.

In Sri Lanka, Devan worked as a maths teacher, building supervisor, photographer and in hotel management.

His bridging visa doesn't allow him to work in Australia.

But he has made himself busy and become a valued volunteer at Leinster Place, Mercy Aged Care.

Pastoral care co-ordinator Barbara Lunney said Devan originally came to the aged care centre because the elderly reminded him of his mother.

"Devan has great compassion for the residents," Ms Lunney said.

"He chats to them and they miss him when he's not around.

"He's very kind, a real gentleman, respectful and gracious."

Devan said he wanted to help people "who are alone".

"I lived alone for a long time and understand how it can affect people emotionally and mentally," he said.

"I want to forget the trauma of my past, terrible experience, and hopefully live in freedom and peace.

"I appreciate greatly what the Australian people have done for me."

Through Ms Lunney and the Catholic Church, Devan was introduced to Dan Coughlan, who works at CQUniversity.


Although their lives couldn't be more different, the two men have become firm friends.

Each has helped the other in different ways.

Dan has introduced Devan to further volunteer work at the university.

As he does what he can to be productive and helpful in his adopted home, Devan hopes to have a temporary protection visa in the near future.

Though nothing is certain, he knows here he is safe and his dream to one day bring his daughters to Australia spurs him forward.

In the meantime, any number of lives in Rockhampton have been enriched, simply by knowing him.

Topics:  family jobs refugee rockhampton visa

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