Supun Thilina Kellapatha and Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis smiled as they watched their kids fling themselves in the freshly fallen snow last week.
“There is no snow in Sri Lanka or Hong Kong,” Kellapatha said.
It’s been four months since the family that helped shelter whistleblower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong arrived in Montreal after Canada granted them asylum. Now, they’re embracing the frosty weather and their new life.
“My kids have good future in Montreal and it’s a peaceful city,” Kellapatha said.
Their journey, though, has been anything but easy.
Before their kids were born, Kellapatha and Nonis left Sri Lanka, seeking asylum in Hong Kong.
It was there that they met Snowden, a former contractor with the U.S. National Security Agency who had fled to Hong Kong after leaking classified documents. The documents exposed the scope of massive government surveillance operations.
Group of asylum seekers sheltered Snowden
The couple were among a group of asylum seekers who sheltered Snowden in 2013. Kellapatha said he believes it was destiny that brought Snowden to his door.
“I was born in Sri Lanka. I also have trouble, I want to leave out my country. I don’t know why I chose Hong Kong,” Kellapatha said from a park near their apartment in Montreal’s St-Laurent borough.
“When [Snowden] wanted to get out, there are many countries in the world. He chose Hong Kong.”
Kellapatha and his family joined Vanessa Rodel in Montreal. Rodel was another asylum seeker who helped shelter Snowden in Hong Kong. She has a daughter with Kellapatha, and has been in Montreal since 2019.
The last of the group, Ajith Pushpakumara, remains in Hong Kong awaiting his immigration approval from Canada.
Adjusting to their new life
“Je parle un petit francais et anglais,” said Sethumdi Kellapatha, 10.
She has taken little time to adjust to her new Montreal life, already learning French with gusto. When the family got the news they’d be coming to Montreal, Sethumdi immediately downloaded the language app Duolingo to have a step up in school.
Her brother Dinath, 5, is also learning the language, but prefers to play outside in the snow and go on adventures with “Aunty Sammy.”
That’s Samya Lemrini, an immigration lawyer and a board member of For the Refugees, the group that sponsored the Kellapatha family. Since their arrival, Lemrini has been by their side, giving the family a crash course on Quebecois culture, including visits to an apple orchard and a sugar shack.
“I feel so humbled to be able to meet them and to spend time with them,” Lemrini said.
” … They’ve taught me so much.”
Spending time with Lemrini and knowing their own history may have rubbed off on the kids. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, they didn’t hesitate.
“I want to be a lawyer!” Sethumdi said.
“I also want to be a lawyer! A soldier lawyer!” Dinath echoed.
Securing a future for their children
But the adjustment hasn’t been as easy for their parents. With support from For the Refugees, the family has been able to settle down, but Nonis and Kellapatha worry about finding a job.
“We really need to find a job. Staying in Hong Kong, we cannot work, so we don’t save anything for our kids’ future,” said Nonis.
“We need to build up their future now.”
“I told my lawyers before I came here, I said ‘When I land in Canada, I don’t want to rest, I want to work,'” said Kellapatha.
He worries his lack of experience won’t play in his favour. He spent 17 years in Hong Kong, and as a refugee, he was not allowed to work.
Not only do Nonis and Kellapatha want to provide for their family, but they are also bored.
“It’s similar to Hong Kong, the life that we have. Wake up, eat and sleep,” said Kellapatha.
“I want to start my career.”