Refugee child survived harrowing journey across 20 countries to become UK bank manager

When Nilany Vasantharasan, as a refugee child, climbed through the back of a truck tarpaulin, she was almost starving.

Eight-year-old Nilany, her seven-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother fled the war in Sri Lanka with their mother two years ago and have since found themselves in the clutches of a secret human trafficking operation.

The desperate family had taken on a huge debt to escape and were left with just £20.

They went to a motorway service station near Birmingham for their first British meal and were chased away by police shortly afterwards.

Like so many others fleeing conflict, there has never been a safe, legal option – which Priti Patel cited this week as justification for deporting similar refugees to Rwanda.

Nilany was a refugee child from Sri Lanka, pictured with her siblings in the 1990s


©Stan Kujawa)

As the Interior Ministry finalizes plans for the controversial first flight to the Rwandan capital of Kigali this week, Nilany, now 32, stands for a success story the government would prefer not to mention.

A manager at Metro Bank in Aylesbury, Bucks, she earned two degrees after working part-time jobs to support her studies.

Since her family was granted asylum, she’s worked hard, learned English from scratch – and is proud that she’s never claimed a dime on welfare.

“I was really disappointed when I heard that,” she says of the interior minister’s much-criticized deterrence program. “We didn’t come here because we wanted the free money.

The 32-year-old has two different degrees and now works at a bank


©Stan Kujawa)

“We came here to have a good education and to contribute to society, to actually stand on our own two feet and be proud of our heritage and how far we’ve come.

“Britain has long been the country where we came to safety. It’s a sanctuary. I’m truly grateful for all the opportunities we’ve had and at no point in our lives have we received welfare benefits since we’ve been here.

“We have never abused the system.

“To say that people from other countries will not contribute is really disheartening. I would like to believe that I have contributed to British society since I have been here, as have my brother, sister and mother. We’ve paid our taxes. We are proud people.”

Here Nilany is pictured with her sister Panjua


©Stan Kujawa)

Nilany volunteers with a charity to give talks about what she’s been through and her experiences


©Stan Kujawa)

As well as rising at work, Nilany volunteers with the charity World Vision, speaking about her experiences to inspire others.

“I was fortunate to escape the horror of becoming a refugee and am grateful that the UK has allowed this to be my home,” Nilany continues.

“Having made that journey and knowing there is a kid who might be from Africa or Afghanistan and might not have the opportunity that I had is really hard to process.

“What about her future, her life and her education? where will you go Will they just travel from country to country, always displaced, or stuck in a camp?

Nilany and her family photographed in Jafna, Sri Lanka in the 1990s, left to right: mother, Nirmala, sister Panjua on her lap and brother Mohan


©Stan Kujawa)

“These policies, put in place without understanding the people who are at the center, are being made by people who haven’t experienced them. Children are our future; Politicians come and go.”

Nilany’s circumstances are a far cry from what she remembers growing up amidst the chaos of Sri Lanka’s civil war before coming to the UK in 1999.

“There were often bomb attacks,” she recalls. “Everywhere in the north, where the serious conflict took place, there were soldiers. The schools would not open.

“We often stayed in bunkers. We couldn’t go into the bunkers during the monsoon season, so we just found a shed behind the trees or some other place to spend the night.

Nilany and her family left their home in Sri Lanka during the exodus from Jaffna in 1995


©Stan Kujawa)

“Growing up was difficult. My mother was a teacher. She used to ride her bike to school. We grew up with our grandparents because my father was abroad.

“We moved away from Jaffna during the 1995 exodus. The army came to our town when I was at school. Our teachers finished class and told us to go home.

“The soldiers said we had a few hours to evacuate. We could either leave or be killed. We packed what we could.

“I was five years old, my sister was four and my brother was eight. We weren’t old enough to help, but we carried what we could.”

Nilany’s family fled the Tamil-run enclave in a boat as bombs exploded around them.

They spent a night under a palm tree waiting for a dinghy to come back and take them across the bay.

Forced into the capital, Colombo, they ended up in an overcrowded hostel full of refugees.

It was there that Nilany’s mother first encountered people smugglers known only as “The Agency” – a mysterious network that promised a route to those who could pay.

“After two years without training and work, it was decided to go abroad,” explains Nilany.

She opened up about her harrowing journey from her homeland to Britain, including escaping by boat at one point when bombs were raining around her


©Stan Kujawa)

“They took us after we paid them. The Agency then smuggled us into countries. We had Sri Lankan passports. When we landed in Singapore, another guy met us there. He was also part of The Agency.

“From there he took us to a hotel where we stayed for two weeks. I got sick because I had asthma and they didn’t want to take me to the hospital because they were afraid of being exposed.

“But eventually they and I were put on life support and had to stay in the hospital for 12 days.”

Seemingly endless, traumatic journeys in search of a place to stay followed.

They were taken to Indonesia, where they were detained and not allowed to contact anyone.

In Egypt, they were caught by the authorities and forced to sleep at the airport. The four family members survived for seven days on a packet of biscuits bought by a kind stranger.

Nilany said they spent time in 20 different countries on three continents during their escape


©Stan Kujawa)

In total, according to Nilany, they spent time in 20 different countries on three continents, always on the run, looking for a safe place.

“We were dropped off at the edge of the Swiss border. It was night in February,” she recalls of a dangerous night.

“It was the first time I saw snow, so I didn’t understand why it was so slippery and everything so white.

“We fell so many times, but we just kept running. We couldn’t go back because the guy who dropped us off was gone.”

“We never knew their names; we didn’t know who they were,” she recalls of her years on the run.

“They didn’t want any tracks. The less we knew about them, the better it was for us and for them.

“Sometimes my mother would be told over the phone how the person we were going to meet would be dressed.”

Nilany’s family was betrayed by the people who dropped them off at the Swiss border and finally forced them to leave the same way they came.

“We were held in a block of flats in France,” she says, her voice cracking with emotion at the painful memory. “The people who kept us there only gave us food once a day. They would never let us out.

“After a few days they took us to Calais at midnight. They hid us in concrete cylinders. One of them would control the trucks going to England.

“They loaded us into the back of a lorry that was supposed to be going to London. We were the only children there.

She first encountered snow when she was dropped in Switzerland


©Stan Kujawa)

“The rest were all adults. They told us to stay calm and that the truck would be leaving in the morning. But nothing happened.

“We just walked the streets. It was really cold and tiring and we had no way of going back to the agency so we sat outside on the street.

“This couple got out of their car and gave us some baguettes and food. That was really nice; it was the first meal we had in two days.”

Shivering in the freezing temperatures, they went to bed in the lobby of a block of flats, where they met the same French couple.

They let her sleep in their apartment and enabled Nilany’s mother to call a secret emergency number for The Agency hidden in the hem of her bag.

She set foot in Britain at a petrol station in Birmingham


©Stan Kujawa)

“The second time, they put us in the middle of a truck,” says Nilany. “We couldn’t sit down. We had to stop between pallets. I had bad asthma and coughed a lot, so they kept giving me Haribos to keep me from coughing. When the truck moved, everyone was happy, but there was a silent celebration.

“One of the ladies with us said we shouldn’t get off at Dover when we reached England. We ended up getting off at the service station in Birmingham because of her.”

The troubles of yesteryear are far away now, but Nilany is all too aware that those trying to cross the Channel now are there for the same reasons.

World Vision raises money to help children survive in war zones. To donate go to Click here for the World Vision website.

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