About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Athul Pereira wearing a beanie cap against a painted background

Athul Pereira

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Photo and interview by:


Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan

Mirza Durakovic

“I feel free,” says Athul Pereira (pseud, 42), a political refugee currently in Europe. “Now, I can build another life.” A journalist, Athul fled his home in Sri Lanka fearing for his life: “We have no safe place there. Because a lot of people, political journalism media workers were killed.” Athul misses Sri Lanka but says he does not ever think of going back while the government remains “the same.” He says “in Sri Lanka it’s continue the violence against journalists and human rights defenders.” His new life is difficult at times; he misses the sunshine, and adapting to a new culture has been a challenge: “We are adapted this society, but outsider.” It hasn’t been a completely negative experience. “I take a lot of experience here. I have a lot of friends here. I have learned more things, especially art.” Today his dream is to “continue journalism and photography, and I want to find another skills also… not related to journalism or art. Any other work, say, like cook or baker.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

So hello Athul.
Yes, ok.

Thank you very much for having this interview. Can you tell us your first and last name- If you want to- and where do you live? What kind of accommodation do you live in? Yeah, basically introduce yourself.
Yes I am Athul. Now I am living in (city name removed). Before I lived near (city name removed), I came here to find another job, I…I find some jobs and I work there, but since COVID come in France and all the lockdown and everything, it’s difficult to work with them.All the restaurants and other things are closed. I stay at small room- apartment like this. And I am now… I’m reading and writing and something work with some website, and I continue my journalism career. Because we are stuck here. Now…now I can I have free time to write something.

So today you spend your days writing?
Yes. With a computer.

And do you have… Not in the context of COVID, but do you have any, any passion, anything that you do outside of your work that brings you joy?
Yes, I take photographs and visit some cities and some other places. And also I am working. And reading also go to the theaters, cinema and exhibition, lot of things, but now is everything closed.

Because of the COVID?
COVID yes.

Are you happy with your living conditions here?
Yes, it’s…it’s good. I feel free but… I am living here and everybody don’t ask anything. “What are you doing like? Like this?” Not searching everyone. Before, in Sri Lanka is a big problem, because they are too many things: “Why you are not working? Why you are say this? Why are you doing like this?” I think it is a… Privacy, it’s very, very important here. Because I can work, I can read. It’s free. So not any interfere anyone.

So you’re happy to be free?

You feel free?

And can you tell us a bit where you come from? How did you… How did you arrive in Europe?
Yes I’m not come… Came here for  alone, because we left the country to India. Seven journalists with… Two times. Three, four like this two times in the… With airplane. With airplane, and then after we stay at India five months, but they don’t accept our visa. After we went to Nepal, Kathmandu, stayed there for four months. After some… Amnesty International, like this, association they offer us to go another country. Some go to Germany, some Switzerland, some UK, two of us come here, with my friend. And we… We stayed three months in (city name removed). No, six months. At the (name removed). After they told “you can now apply for the asylum”. It’s better, after we ask… “Réfugiés politiques”, it’s a ten years…Like, this residence.

So you, you fled your country with a group of journalists?
Yes. A group of journalists and we left the country.

How was your life in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is… at that time it’s a very difficult situation because one of our friends, the editor, it’s one English paper editor, he killed in the road. When he go to the… his office. it’s a blame to government.

Can you maybe speak a little bit louder?
It’s…. that’s the editor killed. After we organized the mass protest. After that, we have some threats from the telephone and something… And after, we decide all of them to… little bit time, to left the country, stay in like nearby India. But after we heard about in Sri Lanka it’s continue the violence against journalists and human rights defenders and other activists, after we decided to go in other country or safe place. After, we organized some seminars in India, in Nepal to… About explain the Sri Lankan situation. After that, we have a lot of trouble. Yeah, and all the time Sri Lankan television, papers and the government-owned, controlled medias, they blame us. They showed the photos and they are like… A lot of… A lot of charges for that. And after that, we decided to go, stay at another country or something, change the government also and the system like this. But it’s not changing, it’s continuing. After we came here, a lot of people… Time to time, left the country. All of us gathered and we formed one association of ex-journalists. And after we create a website, and as an organization we share articles and other things… Doing… We continue our journalism.

So how did you feel- that’s the question I will ask you often- when when you saw your face you see on the media, charging you, threatening you. You… I mean, the government. How did you feel?
We think we have no, no… no safe place there. Because a lot of people, political journalism media workers were killed, last two, three years, and we have a lot of friends, they killed, disappears, lot of things happening because we think another time, next time they come with us.

So did you feel scared or angry?
Yes. Angry, scared, the fear also. Because we are gathering in a safe house in all of them, sitting there in the daytime, nighttime, daytime, we are working… Our work, and only gathering in the night, same place. And after that, we came here, little bit, “ok, free”.

And so how do you feel through the… The travel when you had to move to India and then to Nepal, and here?
We have no idea what to do because we spend our time all the time sleeping, eating, drinking, and sometimes travelling. We have not a lot of money, but we can manage. After, two people they want to go back. What happened then… So after one month one people, they kidnap and they hit and break his leg, after you decide you don’t go back now, the situation is very dangerous. Now it’s, after he break the leg, and now he’s in America, it’s safe. And we explained to them, we explained to him: “don’t go back, it’s not a good situation there”.

You didn’t think of going back yourself?

No because we think it’s a… the government change and everything’s changed, you can go there… But no: the same system there. They have impunity because there are a lot of attacks to media and killed media workers and journalists, but no investigation, proper investigation and no justice. How can I go there?

How… Sorry to go back, but how did you decide to become a journalist? Is it because you saw this injustice and it made you angry or…? I don’t know.
Yes. And because no any justice there, because they don’t want to do a justice, because they ignore everything. Every government they have someone involved for… Some… Any case. It’s the reason they don’t want to talk withumany investigation or anything. No justice.

How old were you when you decided to become a journalist?
After the school, I join the journalism, all the time is writing writing writing.

And you were writing before that. Did you like writing as a child?
Yes. Yes, childhood. I like writing. Reading.

What did you read mostly?
Mostly… Lot of Russian literature, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, like this. Because a lot of… a lot of Russian literature translated to the Sri Lankan language. A lot! Because they’re very close to Russia and Sri Lanka, because Romania, Czechoslovakia, they give the gift to Sri Lanka, some one steel corporation, one tire corporation… The gift, former USSR…

And… This… These books and reading and stuff. Did it help you throughout your journey. Did you read a lot while you were in India and Nepal?
Yes, India and Nepal. They have a literature. They have a reading culture. They were… Because we are, we are close with working closely with Indian journalist and Nepal journalist. The Nepal Journalist Association they help us to live in Katmandu, Nepal.

But when you moved out of Sri Lanka, did you only work on journalism or did you find also some… Some things that helped you to overcome what happened?
Yes, we are working only journalism work, so we are preparing, reporting something about human rights violation like this. And after I came here, I want to find another job. Yes, I work with a restaurant, hotel, like this.

Why did you want to find another job?
Because it’s… Here, I think I am zero. I came here because the language is another language. I don’t know any, any word French, when I came here. I know only one: “Bonjour”, because it’s in Sri Lanka one television program. “Bonjour” is a courtesy by the French embassy, in Colombo… Anyway. But after I want to learn and I want to find a job. But it is very difficult. After I went to… Not in (city name removed), my friend also he went to Annecy. I went to nearby (city name removed). Not (city name removed), nearby (city name removed). And I found another journal there as a photographer. It’s a journal, it’s different but it’s agriculture. All the time I take pictures with farmers, tractors and cattle field like this.

So at first you wanted to do something else, but then you ended up doing still like, journalism work, photography…
Yes, I am continue but I have not the perfect, perfect permanent things… I can’t find. But I continue this journalism and photography and also I try to now video documentary. And also I want to find another part time or any other kind of job because (not audible).

Because I…I follow the one small course like boulangerie. How to make a cake or doing bread like this, because I think it is… Early morning I can work and after come back, I have the time, a little PC, I have the time to work.

To do your journalism. Yes. Interesting. And what what was the most difficult thing for you when you left Sri Lanka?
Because…if we in Sri Lanka we help journalists. Now we are… we are not a journalist. We are like… All the time, we are outsiders.

So that’s how you feel, like an outsider?
I think. Because… Because we are adapted this society, but outsider.

It’s interesting. Do you remember, so, when you came here, what you thoughts were about France? What were your first thoughts?
I feel free, it’s the important thing because I feel free. Now, I can build another life because I… One time I want to forget all the things and I want to build from zero.

So you want to start a new life?
Start it in another way. Because I try to continue journalism, but it’s… Sometimes it’s not… Not perfect. Because not success way. And after, I find another way. This is sometimes success, so I can get a job like this because… I have to have it to… I have experience because in other in other fields, because I don’t know anything other. Only journalism, because I left school and I continue this one, no other.

So you want to learn new skills?

Interesting. And I wanted to ask you, how do you feel when you think back of Sri Lanka because you said you want to start a new life, but do you think back of Sri Lanka?
No, I have no any other… Any idea for go back because still continue that… Situation. Also at that time we left the country, the same government is now.

Ok, not coming back but when you think of it, what do you feel? When you think of your… I don’t know your family, your cousins, if you have any?
Yes. I am happy, but it’s a dream, it’s a dream.

So what is a dream?
It’s a dream because you can’t go back. I think I never go back because the government now is very strong. It’s rac- racism. Racism is very established now because we we we… When we go back and we are not silent also, we want to work. We are speaking. We are writing. If I go back there, I am working like a farmer like this in the hiding with a low profile, it is OK. But we are working the same thing as an activist or journalism or human rights defenders, same problem.

And how do you feel today here. So you said free, right?

Is there anything else also?
Yes, I take a lot of experience here. I have a lot of friends here. I have learned more things, especially art. You can see I draw after that here (Editor’s Note: points at a drawing he made).


I’ll take a picture of it.
Also I am learning cooking also. Yeah, yeah, boulangerie, restaurant. Because it’s a… New, new for me.

So you’re interested in learning? Yes. Is it is it something that helps you?

And do you go to any classes or… how have you learned?
I went there some… some institute for following courses. But after I took YouTube. I saw, I tried. Myself.

Interesting. And now as a refugee here, do you think that there’s any kind of discrimination or anything? Did you feel any… anytime bad at all here? And because you were a refugee?
No, no. Of course, I haven’t had any experience like this. Because, a lot of people say like this, but I haven’t had discrimination about the refugee or any other. Because I have no experience to tell you.

Yeah, how long have you been here?
Now? Seven years. Because I… I live I live in (city name removed). I have… I, I found a lot of different different types of friends, from different cultures. Because I have a lot of experience about (name removed), the different countries, different people there. All of them, they like respect for all of this. Yes. Yes.

And do you we meet often with journalists. I mean, not now because of COVID, but usually?
Yes yes.

You meet. About Sri Lanka? Or about human rights in general?
Yes. Sri Lankans journalists, ex-journalists here. We support to them, to their people and now they are OK.

So… it’s interesting because you’re starting a new life, as you said, but still you have this link with Sri Lanka and this work you’re doing. So you still have a link with your country of origin. Do you miss your country, not the government but just the country, the people?
Yes, I miss the country.

Very much?
Yes. Yes. I miss the country. Because it’s like a not like this, because 24 hours with “soleil” (sun).

So you miss the sun?

How does it make you feel, here when it’s… Ok today is fine, but when it’s like a rainy day or something, does it make you feel sad?
Very sad. Because very cold here. Cold is… I don’t like.

Interesting, ok, well, great Athul. I just had a question, so, about your dreams. You were mentioning a dream, but before you came here, what was your dream? And if you say, the way I told you “before I came here, my dream was…”
I think we want to continue something else, not journalism. There’s something another job for work.

But before, before the… Let’s say before the events, that led to your arrival here, what was your dream? Because you were working as a journalist? I mean, you can say, I don’t know I’m just saying, “before I came here my dream was to be a journalist and do my work”.
Yes. Yes. I want to continue journalism and photographer.

So can you say just a sentence, “before I came here…”?
Yes, before I came here. I want to continue my journalism and photography.

“My dream was”.
My dream was… Yeah. My dream was photography and journalism also or writing else, after I want to learn French also. Continue.

Is it your dream today?

OK, so can you say “my dream today…”?
Today it is also the same: continue journalism and photography, and I want to find another skills also. So like another, another task, not related to journalism or art. Any other. Any other work say like cuisinier (cook) or boulanger (baker).

And just to go back, can you tell us maybe what were the most difficult things you found when you came, when you had to flee the country in general? What was the most difficult? Was it, for example, some people say “it was leaving my family behind”. Some people say the most difficult was coming to a new country where I didn’t know the language or some people didn’t know anyone. So I don’t know what was… What could you say was the most difficult?
Yes… Difficult… I think, we want firstly understand the culture, people, and also the… Little bit, we were… I want to find some… Someone to guide, to the… Real guidelines. “You can go this way, you can success, like this”. Lot of people is not guide “you do like this, do like…” it’s complicated.

So you’re saying, because you’re free, here, but you miss a little bit someone to explain to you. Interesting, so that was difficult for you?
Yeah, not a real guide. It’s a very important, for…llike this. A guide.

So where did you find the guide, someone to explain to you?
Yes, someone. I don’t know… Association or any other. It’s a good guide, say “So you can do like this. You can do like this.” Explain to him, explain her or him. “You can success, go this way”.

But did you find someone actually?
No, not… Before I found one assistante sociale, she gave me the job because she told me you have someone designing skills. He would… he put the job for me, the one enterprise, for three years. I’m continued three years work, it’s craftwork, it’s gift items. I’m designing and they craft, it’s boite de bijoux comme ça (like this).

So this social worker gave you this recommendation for the job?

Making jewelry boxes.
That’s gift items. Fancy items.

So someone helped you. And it was… It was good.
Because I’m very very happy at that time. Because all the time I am thinking new creative, new design, new colors, using other tools and everything.


So would you say that creativity, and also this hard working and wanting to learn skills, that’s your strength?

I think it is hard that… Here, I think here everybody’s working. Hard work. I, I learned one thing because they are working, everybody working, not some others but it’s a working time they work. They work like this. But free time, they are free. But we have the experience, we have no working time, no free time in Sri Lanka.

All the time it’s work?
All the time. No specific time to work. It’s a working working. But here, specific time work, and after? “Fini”. Go back home. You happy yes, I’m happy because eight to five is work. Lunch time, tea time. Okay. It’s a good way, I think, one week: five days or six days working, and other one month, or three weeks, four weeks, three weeks, it’s vacation, is better.

Yeah. And also, I, I learned one thing. The organize. All the year or month or three months, they have it organized, not like this thing, after do tomorrow. No… They have a plan.

And it’s different than in Sri Lanka.
Yes, yeah yeah. They plan.

And was it difficult for you to understand how the things were organized in France and the plans and stuff?
Yes. Now it’s OK.

With the help of … you said a social worker, but are there any other people who helped you?
Because… because of some of the people I met, I went to the… Some, some exhibition or seminars, workshops. They went to some, some people I meet, now they are good friend with me, some university teachers, lectures, like this.

You like to meet people?
Yes. Because a different kind of people they have a lot of experience. The life experience, learning with you. Yes. I think you have a lot of experience in Bosnia, the same thing in Sri Lanka.

Great. Thank you very much Athul. Do you have anything else to say for refugees? If you want to say something about the status of refugees in Europe or anything important you would say regarding refugees?
Yes, I think the… If they…. if they came here, some problem in the political world, I think they can continue. They must continue for other people in their country because some are coming here after they get refugee status or something, they forgot. They forgot their country, their people but they’re facing problem, they will work there and earn money and other things.

But you think it’s important to keep fighting?
Yeah, yeah, to keep fighting because… Because they have left the country because there’s problem, that they must try to solve the problem or they must continue to solve the problem in their country. Yes, because… Not gathering, working… Example: one country people, a different kind of people come in, different times, but not they are collective to their country. Collective for the economy: drinking, eating and some festival. Not like this. Continue their work about their political or any other problems, the human rights. Because it’s useful for their country… Persons, and the persons.

And the people who live there.

Great. Thank you very much, Athul. And we’re done.

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.