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After fleeing civil war, refugee starts family in York

Julia Scheib
505-5439/@JuliaDispatch
Thavarajah Thiruneelakavdan, his wife  Tharjini  and their 8 month-old son Keerthikan call York their home after moving here from Sri Lanka.  (John A. Pavoncello - The York Dispatch)

In a few months, Thavarajah Thiruneelakavdan, who lives with his wife and baby son in Manchester, will take the test to gain American citizenship.

Sitting on the couch in his colorful living room last Sunday afternoon, 40-year-old Thiruneelakavdan recounted his journey. He had just gotten off work at Round the Clock Diner in Manchester Township, where he has been a cook for most of the past 14 years.

Thiruneelakavdan fled Sri Lanka, his country of birth, at the age of 14.

"It was nice," he said of the island nation, which is close to the east side of India's southernmost tip. "Fresh fish, fresh seas, fresh coconut, everything fresh. My dad had a convenience store and we had a farm. ... We had a couple cows, a couple goats, a couple chickens ..."

But there was a civil war and Thiruneelakavdan couldn't go outside by himself because he was a member of the Tamil ethnic group, and the Tamil Tigers, who were fighting the government to try to secure part of the country for themselves, would sweep through towns and take "all the young boys" to go and fight.

Raja Thiruneelakavdan talks with a coworker while at his job as a chef at Round the Clock Diner Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. He sought refuge in York after fleeing Sri Lanka during a civil war.  (Bill Kalina - The York Dispatch)

"I was to go," he said. "But I didn't want to go."

He and his family often had to hide from bombs and shooting in a bunker underground.

"Sometimes, you'd meet a snake inside," he remembered.

Long journey: His cousin helped him leave the country. Thiruneelakavdan said he wanted to go to London, but ended up in Germany.

There he was granted asylum, but he couldn't get citizenship — just a work permit that he could renew every six months.

After almost 11 years in Germany, he decided it was time to leave and tried to get to Canada, where, he said, there is a big Sri Lankan community.

But because he was using a fake passport, he said, he only made it as far as his layover in New York. He was jailed at a detention center in Queens and then transferred to the York County Prison.

Thiruneelakavdan spent four months in York's prison before being released when he won political asylum in September 2001.

Welcome to York: Thiruneelakavdan said he met Craig Wolf, executive director of the YMCA of York and York County, the same night he was released.

Wolf and others helped him deal with paperwork when he stayed at the Friendship House, which was on West Market Street in York.

The purpose of the Friendship house, which closed in 2006 because the county prison stopped housing refugees, was to give refugees a place to stay and help them integrate into American society, Wolf said. The YMCA provided management services for the house between 2000 and 2002.

After staying at the Friendship House for a few months, Thiruneelakavdan said, he rented a few different apartments from the YMCA over the course of two years and eventually saved enough money to buy his house in Manchester.

Soon after he was released from prison, Thiruneelakavdan was hired as a dishwasher at Round the Clock.

He had gained experience as a cook in Germany, said Liviu Hotea, who hired him and has been his manager all these years, and eventually started cooking at the diner.

"He's a very good person, with a good heart, and he's always been loyal to the business," Hotea said. "He's done an outstanding job. ... I wish all the people we had were like him."

Getting married: In 2004 Thiruneelakavdan's parents arranged his marriage to Tharjini Thavarajah, who took his first name as her last, as Tamil custom dictates.

They met and married in Singapore after Thiruneelakavdan was unable to get a visa to travel to India, he said. That was in 2006.

The couple's 8-month-old son Keerthikan crawled toward his father across a thick rug made of foam puzzle pieces, smiling. He burped.

"'Scuse! 'Scuse!" Thiruneelakavdan said.

In the living room, the couple keeps a portrait of their extended family who gathered in Singapore for their wedding.

Holding Keerthikan, Thiruneelakavdan's wife, Tharjini, pointed out each family member, showing how they are scattered across the globe.

"That's his auntie, in Canada," she said, pointing to a woman in a dark blue dress.

"My brother, in California. My dad, in Sri Lanka. This is my mom, and my sister, in the Netherlands. This is her husband and children."

A wedding photo of just the couple shows them both draped in gold necklaces and red-and-white garlands of flowers, each holding a bouquet. He wears a turban topped with a fan-like object; she wears an ornate crown and orange flowers seem to radiate out from her head.

After they were married, Tharjini, 32, had to return to Sri Lanka for about eight years. She said she stayed with her parents and took a class here and there. She was finally allowed to come to this country the day before Valentine's Day in 2014, Thiruneelakavdan said.

It took so long for Tharjini to get a green card because the U.S. government had to conduct a long series of background checks on him, he said, and it will take another three years after he becomes a citizen until she is eligible to take the test, too.

Fears of returning: The civil war ended in 2009. Thiruneelakavdan said he badly wants to visit his home country, but he believes there is widespread corruption there and worries he might be expected to bribe officials because he's an American now.

He's not afraid of being jailed if he doesn't give authorities bribes — although "you never know," he said. "If you have a nice car, nice anything, maybe they'll knock on your door with a gun, asking for money."

Missing home: Thiruneelakavdan said he likes America, even though he works very hard — six days a week — to support his family.

Manchester suits him. "Nice and quiet afternoons," he said. "Not too much traffic on the road after work hours."

Tharjini barely speaks any English, although she can read and write it, her husband said, and mostly stays in the house. Traditionally Sri Lankan wives are homemakers, he said.

He knows Tharjini would prefer to live in a community where there are more Sri Lankans. Since the baby was born, they have gone to Canada to visit friends and family three times, he said.

Tharjini expressed an appreciation for the technological gadgets available to her in this country.

Using a tablet, she showed pictures of where they are from, a town called Karainagar on the Karaitivu island in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. A marching band, a holiday festival and a brilliant sunny beach flashed across the screen, casting a glaring brightness on the scenes of war Thiruneelakavdan had described when he talked about leaving the country.

— Reach Julia Scheib at jscheib@yorkdispatch.com.