I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 2 Tim 4:7
Stephen Shanthakumar Kathirkamu is a Tamil Asylum Seeker who escaped persecution to seek refuge in Australia. His story is one of innocence, through torture, marriage, refuge, conversion, cancer and death.
This is Stephen’s eulogy, written and spoken by Ms Pam Nair at his funeral on 28 May 2020 in Brisbane, Australia.
Shanthakumar was born on 1 June 1970 and despite the current Covid19 physical distancing restrictions, we were looking forward to celebrating his 50th Birthday with him next week. Just a couple of days ago, he and I had spoken about what sort of birthday cake he would like me to bake for him – chocolate of course!
Shanthakumar has only one sibling - a brother who is 5 years older than him. He continues to live in Point Pedro, Sri Lanka the birthplace of Shanthakumar. His older brother and his sister-in-law care for their aged mother. In 1995 his father was last seen, taken by the heavily armed Sri Lanka army along the roadside in Point Pedro and has never been seen since. Shanthakumar’s father is believed to have “disappeared" by the Sri Lankan army and is presumed dead.
Shanthakumar’s family and other relatives were traditionally engaged in building and construction work. For Shanthakumar, education was important. When he was well, he would often spend his time at the Brisbane State library – it was like an outing for him.
He studied up to O Levels (or Year 10 as we understand it here in Australia) but unfortunately was only able to complete one term of A Levels (or Year 12 as we know it) when in 1987 his school in Point Pedro was closed due to the war. The Sri Lankan army established an army camp in his school which was also very close to where he lived.
So that begun his experience of the war – with major anti-Tamil riots, witnessing of Tamil houses being burnt to the ground, grenades being thrown, army tanks coming out of the camp from his school and patrolling the streets around his home. He has shared stories with me of how paralysed from fear he and his family lived. They had nowhere else to go so they stayed indoors as much as possible and were forced to endure the constant sounds of aerial shelling and bombings close to their home.
Another significant loss that Shanthakumar has shared was the killing of his close friend and classmate Vannakunju in 1987. Vannakunju was at the Point Pedro markets buying vegetables for his family and was walking back home, when for no reason he was shot dead. He had no connections with any militant groups. Vannakunju’s family was not even allowed to hold a traditional funeral for him.
Another friend Thevakumar’s father Ponniah was struck and killed on the spot whilst on his bullock cart.
There were many such stories that Shanthakumar shared with me including the harassment he himself experienced of being stopped at road blocks and abuses being hurled at him.
Being such a non-aggressive, soft spoken person, Shanthakumar began to experience enormous anxiety and mental trauma. In 1990, on one of the massive army ‘roundups’ his family were ordered to evacuate their family home and to walk under gunpoint to the Hindu temple. This was the time of the forced capture of young men. His older brother was beaten extensively and held in the Boosa Prison. Shanthakumar escaped from the temple and commenced his journey of fleeing.
However, he returned to be with his mother as she was very distraught after his older brother’s plight. Shanthakumar was unfortunately captured and made to walk barefoot at gunpoint. There is a lot to share about this period of Shanthakumar’s life where he was tortured – thrown to the ground, kicked by the army boots and beaten by rifle butts.
REFUGE: INDIA / AUSTRALIA
In short after these traumatic experiences, his mother encouraged him to flee the country and so with great difficulty of walking for hours in fear and finally getting onto a boat he landed in India. In 1995, he married his cousin who was living in India. It was an arranged marriage. His wife Nageshwary and her family had also previously fled Sri Lanka for India.
Both Shanthakumar and his wife initially lived in the Trichy Camp but due to Nageshwary’s asthmatic medical condition, they were allowed eventually to live outside the camp which was less dusty. Despite this permission, Shanthakumar has shared that he was still required every Sunday to travel a difficult journey of 125 kilometres one way by bus to report to the refugee camp in Salem where he was registered. In the hope of providing a better future for him and his wife, he decided with great financial difficulties to approach an ‘agent’ for help to get him to Australia.
Shanthakumar arrived with 18 other men seeking asylum in Christmas Island on 4 March 2011. He stayed in Christmas Island for 14 days and then was transported to the Curtin Detention Centre where he stayed for 11 months before securing a bridging visa and was flown to Brisbane in early 2012.
COMMUNITY DETENTION: BRISBANE
In the same year of 2012, Fr Pan Jordan OP and I (Pam Nair) first met Shanthakumar at a rally in Brisbane Square. I still have very vivid memories of my first encounter with Shanthakumar. Fr Pan was speaking at this rally and I noticed this well-dressed young man standing a bit of a distance away from the rest of the crowd.
After the rally, I told Fr Pan about my observations and said I wondered if this man was a government informer as Fr Pan has been noted for his radical justice stance. Fr Pan told me to stay with the crowd and he would go and speak with this young man. They both initially spoke in English as Fr Pan was unsure if Shantakumar was a Tamil. After a while, they both came up to me and I was introduced to Shantakumar.
Shantakumar’s version of this encounter is interesting – as he was an avid reader, he came across Fr Pan’s name in the press and wanted to attend his rally to gauge for himself where Fr Pan stood politically. The three of us have often laughed about this encounter and how it then opened the doors for our close friendship with Shanthakumar. Shanthakumar used to come home for meals often especially during those early years when copious amounts of documentation had to be completed by asylum seekers.
Many came to see Fr Pan as the Tamil spokesperson and as I was a Justice of Peace, it was handy as I could certify their documents and statements. I still remember that Shanthakumar used to be my helper by stamping the hundreds of pages of documents with my JP stamp so I only had to cross check the originals and sign.
We spent many, many weekends in Shantakumar’s company – talking about his life and he showing us many of his family photos. He had such a great sense of humour and was very witty with his comments. Shanthakumar would always introduce me with great pride as Pam akka (meaning my elder sister). So much so, many who were not Tamil speaking thought that ‘akka’ was my surname!
Just before Easter 2015, Shanthakumar had an interview with the Immigration Department regarding his asylum status. Fr Pan, not wanting him to go alone, accompanied Shanthakumar. Shanthakumar was exceptionally quiet during that interview and hardly responded to the questions being asked. Fr Pan initially thought that he was traumatised as he had to relive his life’s history again.
After the interview, Fr Pan drove Shanthakumar home and in the car, Shanthakumar vomited. He just wanted to go to bed. He did not come out of his room for a day or two until his housemate rang Fr Pan. Fr Pan then took Shanthakumar to the PA hospital. The doctor in the emergency department felt that Shanthakumar was only depressed and that nothing else was wrong.
However, Shanthakumar was not improving and again Fr Pan took him for the 2nd time to the PA and was told the same diagnoses, i.e. depression and to get Shanthakumar to see a counsellor.
On the 3rd occasion, when Fr Pan took him again to the emergency department at the PA, Fr Pan insisted that he was not taking Shanthakumar back home as he felt that something more severe was happening to Shanthakumar and insisted that he be admitted and tests be done. Shanthakumar was then admitted to “West Wing” the mental ward at the PA. It was here that thanks be to God for Dr Subramaniam, a scan was done of the brain and the aggressive brain tumour was discovered.
Shanthakumar then went through a neurosurgical resection of the brain tumour in April 2015 followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Subsequently in January 2016 it was noted that the tumour had progressed and he underwent another operation.
Just prior to this 2nd operation, Shanthakumar contacted Fr Pan and expressed his desire to be baptised as a Catholic. Fr Pan told Shanthakumar that he did not have to become a Catholic for us to continue to support him, but Shanthakumar insisted that he loved Mother Mary and desired baptism. On 16 January 2016, together with some of his friends who are here today, Shanthakumar was baptised in the chapel of the PA hospital.
He took the name of the first Catholic martyr St Stephen and chose Prem and I as his godparents. Due to Shanthakumar’s great love towards Mother Mary, he and his housemate … would go weekly for mass at the St Brendan’s Catholic Church at Moorooka.
In October of last year, when Fr Pan and I visited Shanthakumar and … at their home, we noticed that Shanthakumar was not communicating much and was very withdrawn. He always had a good memory and was the spokesperson for that household as he spoke good English.
I remember writing a list of my observations and emailing the Metro South Palliative Care nurse. At his subsequent outpatient palliative care appointment, it was determined that he had declined significantly and as such, could no longer care for himself so he was admitted at the QE2 hospital.
Shanthakumar was fiercely independent and never wanted to trouble anyone or cause a fuss. Whenever asked, he would say “I am okay”. Daily when I visited him at QE2, the nurses would ask me to instruct him to allow them to shower him etc.
From being that well-dressed man, who Fr Pan and I first met at the rally 8 years ago, I could see that he no longer had the capacity for self-care. The end was nearing. Often when I accompanied Shanthakumar for his outpatient medical appointments at QE2, Dr Arvind, his oncologist, who is here today and I would chat about how Shanthakumar continues to defy all medical explanations.
When he was first diagnosed, he was given about 8 months to live. We have celebrated 5 of his birthdays since that first diagnosis. From QE2 we moved Shanthakumar to Trinder Park Nursing Home on 18 March this year, as he could no longer care for himself. He could no longer even remember how to use his mobile or computer. It was really a hard decision as the lockdown occurred soon after and so only Fr Pan and I as his named representatives on his Advanced Health Directive could visit him.
I feel that the isolation and confusion he would have felt may have been great. Even though whenever we visited, we connected him to his wife and other friends via video chat, he had many hours alone in his room. He may have felt abandoned. It is a pain I carry with me.
Fr Pan Jordan OP anointing and Ms Pam Nair comforting Stephen Shanthkumar Kathirkamu at this last hour
The end came quickly when on Thursday 21 May, I received a phone from the Registered Nurse at the nursing home indicating that Shanthakumar was approaching the end of life. Only 2 days earlier Fr Pan had visited and connected me via video chat as I could not go personally as I was recuperating after a surgery. We were both blessed to have had the privilege to be with Shanthakumar on Thursday and again on Friday – his last day on earth.
Shanthakumar died like he lived with no fuss and a smile on his face. May he rest forever in God’s presence free from all pain.
Rest in peace, my thamby (my younger brother and godson) till we meet again!
(Images by supplied by Steve Jorgensen, main image from Pixabay by Free-Photos)