Sajeenthiran Kanagaratnam was born in 1978 in the northern part of Sri Lanka amidst the violent civil war between the Tamils and the Singhalese. Sajeen was a Tamil, which was the minority group throughout the country.
Growing up he was discriminated against, denied civil liberties, and even had trouble getting to and from school, biking approximately 24 miles in the scorching Sri Lankan heat every day. Sajeen said, “The military, working for the government, beat me up and asked me ‘are you LTTE?’ LTTE means Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam. They were the ones who would go and start to fight the government.” He had witnessed the murders of his close neighbors and the disappearance of his best friends. “I used to bury bodies and stuff. You get used to it.” Sajeen had been through more than most people can imagine at 16 years of age. He lacked things many Americans take for granted every day such as water, electricity, and even ice cream. His family soon realized that it was no longer safe for them to stay in Sri Lanka, the place they had called ‘home’ for their whole lives.
Desperately, his father finally said it was time to move and begin a life elsewhere. His mother applied for the Diversity Visa Lottery, and luckily, by a slim chance, they won. They were finally leaving war-torn Sri Lanka and headed for the ‘dream land,’ the United States of America. Although they were filled with doubts and insecurities–they had a new hope in life. Sajeen, at the young age of 18, was overcome with anxiety and sadness about leaving Sri Lanka, but he knew that it was the best decision for his family at that time and ultimately for the rest of their lives.
His family chose to settle in Rhode Island because they had family friends who had come earlier when the war first broke out in Sri Lanka. Even with a small network of support life was difficult while transitioning and acclimating to the new culture and language. Thankfully, Sajeen, 18 at the time, was able to apply for a job at a textiles factory with the help of his uncle. Sajeen came to terms with one quite difficult challenge: he didn’t speak a word of English. He recalls his boss saying, “This guy doesn’t even understand anything. How is he going to work?“
After the boss gave him a chance, his coworkers became committed to helping him. One coworker said, “I am going to buy you a dictionary. You will learn; I will teach you.” Sajeen recalls that “every day he [taught me]. It helped a lot.” Shortly after, Sajeen found the International Institute of Rhode Island, where he enrolled in English classes, and was encouraged to go to college by his teacher Bill Shuey. Sajeen followed his advice and found a way to balance work and school. Eventually, after taking one class at a time, Sajeen graduated from Rhode Island College with a degree in mathematics.
While the language barrier and culture as a whole were difficult to adjust to, things were looking up for Sajeen and his family. His sisters grew fond of the western culture; while his father had a harder time forgetting about the entire life he had built in Sri Lanka.
“He lived almost forty-nine-fifty years over there; [imagine] I take you and put you in some country where you don’t know the language and you don’t have friends or you don’t know the culture, how’re you going to feel?“
Not only did their memories belong to Sri Lanka, but also two of Sajeen’s older brothers were still in their home country, unable to take part in the lottery visa. They were hopeful that one day they would be able to live with them in America.
Throughout the years Sajeen was able to travel to his home country and spend time with his brother, as well as his fiancée. As years passed, Sajeen saved up money and managed to open his own business, something he never thought was possible.
“If I was living over there, my life would be different, you know. I might achieve like one-tenth of what I have done over here. I feel like, you know, this country is the land of opportunity.“
Currently Sajeen works at TD Bank. He and his wife are happy living in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and are expecting a child in the near future. With his spectacular optimism and whole-hearted nature Sajeen is now living the life he has always dreamed of. “I’m like a free bird now.”
Compiled and written by Andy Bouffard & Sarah Paterson