When Dreams Turn Out Differently

Gayan Perera (in pink shirt) chats to IOM project officer Ajith Gamage at his sawmills outside Colombo. Photo by Joe Lowry 2013

by Joe Lowry

Some migrants make a huge success of their lives. Most don’t. Most are happy to quietly blend in to their host communities, keeping their heads down and doing the work the citizens don’t want to do. It’s their kids who adapt, fit in, do well. Some migrants never make it. They get stuck in transit, in a limbo between home and destination, at the mercy of criminal gangs. 

But here's the thing: Once they start the journey, once they invest all the savings of their extended family for the chance of a new life, it’s hard for them to give up in the dream.

The dream. That’s what keeps migrants going, in detention centres, on boats, walking across borders by night, living in a land of shadows and whispers. For some, eventually, the dream dies. The awful truth sinks in: I am going to have to return to the life of poverty I tried to leave behind. I will be scorned and ridiculed for not making it, and I will go back to less than nothing, less than the squalor I left. With no chance of ever, ever getting out again.

Gayan Perera is living proof that dreams can turn sour, but he’s also the poster boy for an IOM programme that keeps dreams alive, that gives hope to those like him, who ran but finally got caught.

Gayan went to London on a student visa in 2004 to take a course in drug rehabilitation counseling. He was unable to finish his studies as the cash ran out, so he started working in a succession of casual jobs in fast-food restaurants and 24-hour shops. One night in 2009, in a garage outside Cambridge, his luck ran out and plain-clothes police caught up with him. He tried various avenues, but realized he had no claim for asylum and he was finally deported last June.

“I was shocked and very sad to be leaving the UK probably for the last time,” he says. “My parents were telling me to come back but I didn’t want to, but eventually I saw it would be for the best. When I came back I had nothing and I only wanted to be back in the UK. That was my thought every day.”

IOM staff met Gayan at Colombo airport, and kept in contact. They eventually got him to draw up a formal reintegration plan, which led to him joining his cousin’s timber workshop in his home town of Boralasgamuwa, in the edge of Colombo. A grant of Euro 1,120 allowed them to buy some multi-functional wood working machines and they have together developed the Nirash Saw Mills into a busy timber workshop specializing in teak and jack wood. They have six employees and some seasonal staff.

But it doesn’t stop there. Gayan is a ducker and a diver, a bobber and a weaver, as they’d say back in London. He’s realized that the woodchips that the sawmills create are the perfect breeding ground for mushrooms. The next plan is to start a mushroom farm and break into the tourist catering trade.

Gayan still misses the way of life, the excitement of living in London. But then he remembers the bad times, the double life, the hiding. “In the UK you can feel stressed all the time, the boss will shout at you and push you to work hard all the time. Here you get none of that. I am my own boss and I’m feeling good right now.”

Ajith Gamage coordinated the programe for IOM, which set out to assist up to 250 Sri Lankans readmitted to Sri Lanka from EU countries. “Our project included referral to legal advice, medical and psychosocial support, and provision of community reintegration for re-establishing livelihood opportunities. We also linked up returnees with existing programmes, like vocational training, business development support, micro-credit or loans and community-based projects.”


The European Union and the British High Commission to Sri Lanka made this project possible with a €2 million grant. The project is entitled: "Support to the Governments of Pakistan and Sri Lanka for the Implementation of Readmission Agreements with the European Union”

Joe Lowry is an IOM Senior Media and Communications Specialist based in Bangkok.