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How a Sri Lankan Refugee Became an Australian Army Major

I couldn’t be happier and prouder of one of my best mates Major Seralaadan Tharmarajah aka Lavan.  This week, he became a Major in the Australian Army.


19 years ago we both landed on Australian soil to call this land home. Both from single parent households, both from developing countries with a history of racial tensions and violence and both of us looking to find our place in multicultural Australia. We had alot in common as we sat next to each other in our Homebush Boys, Year 10 ESL class!

Lavan is not one who usually talks about his journey. However his journey has taught me many lessons and I believe it’s important to share it.  At a time when many question the value of letting refugees into a country, when racial tensions everywhere are high and when people give up hope on their dreams and following their passions because of a fast changing world and an uncertain future– the lessons I’ve learned from Lavan, and now Major Tharmarajah stick with me because of its simplicity and his walking the talk on his life philosophy.

Today, I’m proud of my brother as he takes yet another step on his journey and I’m writing this to all those people who make excuses in life and let things hold them back . Lavan’s journey inspires me and many who know his story – for many close to him, he is somewhat of a superhero.

Below is what I’ve learned from watching Lavan’s story.

  1. Its Not Where You Start, Its Where You’re Going.
Lavan came to Australia as a refugee from Sri Lanka when he was 15 years old with his mom and sister. His dad had passed away a few years earlier and his mom's only job, prior to coming to Australia, was as a traditional Bharatanatyam dance teacher. Coming to Australia she had to learn a new role and re-skill. I remember, while most kids were getting part-time jobs to fund dating habits, go to the movies and buy the latest designer clothes, Lavan was working at Franklins and Flemington Markets helping out his mom and sister with the bills.

The responsibility of being the “man of the house” was thrust on him at an early age. The family pretty much started from ground zero, but knew that Australia provided them with not only security, but more importantly with opportunity.

It was an opportunity that Lavan did not take lightly. He knew that it was a turn of fate and destiny that allowed him to be here in Australia, while many of his friends and family languished back in Sri Lanka, suffering under a political regime which didn’t support the equality of all ethnic groups.

Lavan and I knew that in this country with free education and healthcare that we could be, do and have anything that we wanted to if we worked hard, persevered and took the opportunities presented to us.

WHERE we were, was not WHO were. We were BECOMING something more and we grabbed it with both hands.
  1. The Journey to Your Dreams can be a Winding Road
Looking back it seems easy to say that Lavan was ALWAYS going to join the army. He was a history, geography and army buff. They all went hand in hand. In the days of dial-up internet of the nineties, Lavan was our Wikipedia. He was faster than Altavista, Lycos and Excite! In fact, he would talk your ear off even if you asked him a simple question in those areas. He taught me all I needed to know about Sri Lankan and world history, politics, and culture.

But it wasn’t always that way. Despite coming fifth in the state of NSW for history, Lavan chose to do Computer Science, a subject he neither liked or was passionate about. Why you ask ? Because, just like me, he was told that he had to get a JOB that was safe and secure. People always tend to say do what makes you happy until it comes time to pay the bills. Then you better not be studying a Bachelor of Arts! Engineer, Doctor or Lawyer were the first round picks…Followed by Business, Computer Science and Accounting if you weren’t “good enough” for the aforementioned. Coming from a migrant community it’s easy to see why the catch cry “Follow your Passion” wasn’t something that was top of mind. When you're fleeing a country – you do what you do to survive. Passion and Purpose are not values that many have the privilege of.

To cut a long story short - Lavan did Computer Sciences in Coffs Harbour because he didn’t get the grades to do it in Sydney. Then he transferred to Sydney a year later. From there, he transferred degrees to a Bachelor of Arts. Then he joined the Army reserves. Then, when he was about to graduate, he didn’t apply for any graduate jobs!

He didn’t actually know what he was going to do after his degree was complete. In fact, the degree was just an obligation he was fulfilling for his mom. He had his heart set on gaining entry as an Officer at the Royal Military College in Duntroon. He planned this in silence. Not telling his wife. Not telling his best mates. Not telling his mom. Putting all his eggs in one basket.

And by a twist of fate and destiny (coupled with desire and hardwork) — his wish was granted! The rest as they say – is history.

  1. The Journey Comes with Sacrifice – but It’s a Labour of Love.
574570_3883924771251_1416392134_nSo Lavan is happier than ever to finally have his childhood dreams of being in the Army playing out. But even then, sacrifices needed to be made. He had to move to Canberra and leave the family. He has moved to Wagga Wagga, Darwin, Brisbane, and most recently Darwin again while all his roots have been in Sydney previously – each assignment being approximately 2 years in length. Sometimes he could take the family – other times he couldn’t. During this time he had a long distance relationship with friends and family. He has gotten married, had children, built a house and home. I’m sure he has questioned the sacrifice he was making, the impact it takes on family and the commitment he has made to this adopted country. He has missed important dates in the lives of family and friends and many nights out with the boys. His training has taken him away into many areas of Australia and postings overseas.  The road has not been an easy one! But its been a worthwhile one, and one I’m sure he would never trade.
  1. You Need A Team.
suba-pinning-badgeFor as long as I’ve known Lavan, although he has been fiercely independent, he has never been too proud to ask for help. From day one, if he was short on cash he’d ask me to spot him some money, which he would pay back. If he needed help moving – he’d ask. If he was having personal issues – he’d open up to close friends.

His biggest ally and best friend has been his wife. Without her – I’m not sure how Lavan would have achieved what he has. She has been instrumental in their success. And has really shown me what love, sacrifice and patience is all about. Military wives are often the unsung superheros. I really have come to respect and admire all that they do. She has played project manager - planning birthdays, moving houses, and building a home. She has played counsellor to Lavan.

She has played mother while Lavan was stationed away from home, ensuring the children know that their dad is away serving the country and that “Appa” always loves them.226840_6037603161_6048_n

She even helps co-ordinate boys nights so that we can catch Lavan when he is in town.

She is the rock and the glue upon which success is built on and which it continues to stick together.
If you have a dream you will need a team. It’s important to choose yours wisely! Success is never, ever just one person.
  1. Small Actions Repeated Daily.
imagesLavan demonstrates that life is a marathon and with many short intense sprint sessions. I remember this when we first started hitting the gym together.  I’ve seen him do this with his army career, his approach to health and fitness, and education. Lavan was always the consistent achiever. Like Usain Bolt, he was never the fastest out of the blocks of life. But once he had the habit in place and the decision made, he just kept putting one foot in front of the other. While many (including myself) were looking for quick fixes and sprint sessions Lavan did the 'ol Tortoise and the Hare. Slowly chipping away at the marble to reveal the masterpiece that lay within the rock.
  1. Respect Your Roots. Honour What Allows You to Bear Fruit.
lavanwedding2He is proudly Australian and he is proudly Tamil. They are both equally valued. This is a message I think is relevant to all refugees and migrants. Lavan was born in Sri Lankan and raised a Tamil. His family has seen the ravages of war in the northern part of the country. Lavan writes and speaks his mother tongue, Tamil, proudly.  He is fiercely proud of his culture, and history. When joining the Army, he was often questioned by other migrants, "why fight for a country that  isn’t yours?”, “isn’t there a lot of racism in the army?”, “what’s a Sri Lankan doing in the Army?”.  He has always fired back that this (Australia) is the country that has given him opportunity for him and his family. And if it's good enough for you to live in, then surely it's good enough for you to defend it's traditions, because it is that which has brought you to his shores.

Australia has given him opportunities when the country he was born in didn’t. So of course, his loyalty lies here.

He is as much Australian as any other person of this land and has defended its values and culture with his life.

He’ll enjoy a beer in the bar with thongs on as much as a masala dosai and kothu roti while wearing a lungi!
To me it’s what makes Australia a great place to live and I’m super happy that this perceived, apparent paradox, is defended by the people that defend it!
Remember your roots and never forget what feeds your fruits !
img-20160918-wa0013-1When Lavan first told me he was going to join the Army full-time, I had my reservations and doubts like everyone else. But I couldn’t see what he saw. I couldn’t see the vision that he had because it was HIS VISION. And today this vision has seen him become Major Tharmarajah before his  35th birthday. Quite an achievement for a little refugee boy from Jaffna hey!

Much love to you brother.  I was happy when you joined the Reserves, when you entered Duntroon, when you graduated RMC, when you became Captain and now as you become Major Tharmarajah – I know it’s just the beginning.

Key Takeaway :

You have a story… and often the people around you  cannot see what you see.  

Do not let their “box of life” become your reality. Live Your Life for You. 


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