Discovering her Sri Lankan roots inspired Melissa Day, from Ipswich, and set her on a mission to help impoverished workers
- Credit: Archant
Finding her Sri Lankan birth family after almost three decades allowed Melissa Day to fill in the gaps in her own life and set her on a mission to help improve the lives of some of the most impoverished workers on the planet. Sheena Grant reports.
For most of her life, the only link Melissa Day had with the mother who gave birth to her in a Sri Lankan convent was a photograph.
It shows them together, before Melissa was given up for adoption at just a few weeks old and before her mother returned to a life of poverty on a tea plantation.
Melissa was adopted by a British couple and grew up in East Anglia, little knowing that her birth mother cherished a copy of the very same photograph that meant so much to her. She never imagined the two of them would ever meet. But they did, and in a way so strange it is almost as if it was destiny.
A friend of Melissa’s was visiting Sri Lanka and volunteered to go to the home where Melissa was born to try to track down her family.
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“I never imagined anything would come of it,” says Melissa, 29, who has lived in Ipswich since she was 18. “I knew from a young age that I was adopted and have always wanted to find my roots. I had written to the home but made no progress. It was only when this friend volunteered to go there in 2009 that things began to move. Although it was now a home for women escaping domestic violence, some of the same nuns still worked there and remembered me because I was adopted by a white family.”
The friend got Melissa’s grandmother’s name and address from a visitors’ book at the centre. Incredibly, a maid who worked for his Sri Lankan cousin had an aunt who lived on the same tea plantation and, what’s more, the aunt knew of someone with Melissa’s mother’s name, Vijayalakshmi Kandasamy.
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A journey from the capital, Colombo, to the tea plantation in “hill country” followed. Once there, it looked like the trail had gone cold when the person with Melissa’s mother’s name turned out to be someone else who just shared the same name. Luckily, however, they tracked down Melissa’s grandmother and then the rest of her birth family, including her mother, two brothers, aunt and cousins.
Melissa visited soon afterwards. Poverty, as she had always suspected, played a role in the story of her adoption. Her grandmother, aunt and brothers lived in a shack with a leaking roof on the tea plantation, while her mother worked in the capital, earning money to send back to the rest of the family.
Her brothers were in their early 20s but had limited access to education and little hope of ever escaping the cycle of poverty.
“It was fantastic to meet my birth family and they were incredibly welcoming,” says Melissa. “I always thought that if I ever found my family I would be able to support them in some way. It wasn’t that easy, though, and since first going to Sri Lanka and meeting them at Christmas 2009 I have felt pretty helpless. I haven’t even been able to communicate properly with them. They don’t speak English and I don’t speak Tamil. We sing down the phone to each other. It’s all we can do.”
In the last few months, however, Melissa has hatched a plan to help not just her own family but the wider community.
A charity called Tea Leaf Vision, set up by a honeymooning couple shocked by the conditions on tea plantations, has offered her brothers, Ashok, 24, and Arun, 21, places on one of its education programmes. Melissa, a complementary therapist and cosmetic acupuncturist, is also in the early stages of setting up a business to market a family Ayurvedic healing skincare remedy based on locally-grown plants. She hopes that by growing plants for this product commercially in Sri Lanka she can give jobs to people during the tea “off” season and that profits from its sale can be used to provide meaningful education to young people there. “That part of my plan is at an early stage,” she says. “I am looking for a like-minded investor on the next step of product sampling and trials.”
She has also given some talks in Suffolk to highlight the tea workers’ plight and, heartened by the response, hopes to organise events locally to raise £12,000 for a school bus for Tea Leaf Vision.
“Tea is such a big part of British life and many people would be shocked if they knew the poverty people endure on many of the tea plantations,” she says. “People earn less than a dollar a day, which is below the UN poverty threshold. Work is seasonal. Men spray chemicals on the tea and are not aware of the dangers of breathing in these chemicals. Women pick the leaves. It is back-breaking work.”
Finding her birth family provided answers to many questions but it also brought a sense of powerlessness. “I have felt so helpless since first meeting my family,” says Melissa. “It is only since I have made contact with Tea Leaf Vision that I have felt I can actually make a positive impact on their lives. I knew, before I met them, that they would have modest living conditions. My initial gut reaction was to sweep in there and try to ‘save’ them. I had to learn quite quickly that I was not actually part of their reality and they were not part of mine. I had to take a step back and find a way of supporting them through education.”
Melissa always thought the reason for her adoption was connected to poverty but, even so, she was shocked when she learned the detail of her parents’ lives.
“My parents were in a loving relationship when they had me,” she says. “My mother was 26 and engaged to my father when she fell pregnant. My father left when he found out; so my grandmother thought, living in those impoverished conditions, it would be best if my mother went to Colombo and gave me up for adoption. To have a child out of wedlock and to bring a child up without a father figure in Sri Lanka was shaming, so my mum travelled to Colombo on her own and gave birth. She had me with her for eight weeks and then had to give me up and go back to the tea plantation. She said she felt like she was a crazy woman. She had all these emotions and breasts full of milk but no baby.
“Five years later my dad returned. He was upset and angry when he found out what had happened, and humiliated her in front of the community until she agreed to marry him. They had two more children ? my brothers. By this time my dad had developed an alcohol issue, which is common amongst men on tea plantations ? 85% of them are affected in this way. When my youngest brother was two my dad committed suicide. That is very common in tea plantations too.”
Melissa’s mother found work in a Colombo clothes factory, leaving her young sons in the care of Melissa’s grandmother and aunt.
“Mum was working long hours there and sent money back to support them,” says Melissa. Sadly, Melissa’s grandmother died last year. Her mother has now returned to the tea plantation to help care for the family.
Ashok, her elder brother, was academic and the family pinned their hopes on him succeeding at a government school as his passport out of poverty. “When I was visiting he was about to take his A Levels,” says Melissa. “He failed. It turned out the school staff were not qualified and had been teaching the wrong curriculum.”
The setback plunged Ashok into despair but Melissa is hopeful the 11-month Tea Leaf Vision course, due to start on January 11, will change all that.
“Children and young people are taught English, IT skills, personal development and how to write a CV,” says Melissa. “Tea Leaf Vision have said they will accept my younger brother on a course as well. They took a photo of Ashok when he first visited. He looks depressed and worse for wear ? a typical tea plantation young man who has given up. Tim (one of the charity founders) suggested they take his picture each week to see how he changes. That will be lovely to see. This is a journey for me as well. I am grateful I have had access to education: the greatest gift. I feel there must be a reason why I am here; that I am meant to make a positive impact.”
The 52-seat bus Melissa hopes to buy for Tea Leaf Vision would be used to transport students and available for private hire at weekends and holidays. To contribute, visit www.virginmoneygiving.com/Melissa-Day. Or to donate £10 through a Text Giving Service: text ABCD15 to 70070.