Lavan Tharmarajah: From Tamil Refugee to Major in Australian Army

Kresant Mahilal, 16 October 2016, whose title stressesSix Life Lessons in Self Leadership” … see

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 a lot 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 have learned from Lavan, and now Major Tharmarajah stick with me because of its simplicity and his walking the talk on his life philosophy.

alavan-1  Major Seralaadan Tharmarajah alavan-2 alavan-3

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

A. 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 who’s only job prior to coming to Australia was 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 we were. We were BECOMING something more and we grabbed it with both hands.

B. 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 dialup internet of the ninetees, 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 where 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 your 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 Computers Science in Coffs Harbour because he didn’t get the grades to do it in Sydney. Then he transferred to Sydney a year later. Then he transferred degrees to 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 to 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.

C. The Journey Comes with Sacrifice – but It’s a Labour of Love.

So Lavan is happier than ever to finally have his childhood dreams of being in the Army playing out. But even still 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 approx 2 years in length. Sometimes he could take the family – other times he couldn’t. During this time he has 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 is has not been an easy one! But it’s been a worthwhile one and one i’m sure he would never trade.


D. You Need A Team.

For 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 house – 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 achieve what he has so far. She has been instrumental in their success. And has really showed 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 is stationed away from home, ensuring the children know that their dad is away serving the country and that “Appa” (Dad in Tamil) always loves them. She even helps co-ordinate boy’s nights so that we can catch Lavan when he is in town.

alavan-7She 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.

E. 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.  Lavan, like Usain Bolt 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.


F. Respect Your Roots. Honour What Allows You to Bear Fruit.

He 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 Lanka and raised as 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 always has fired back  that this  (Australia) is the country that has given him opportunity for him and his family. And if its good enough for you  to  live  in then surely its  good enough for  you  defend its traditions because it is that that has brought you  to his shores.


Australia has given him opportunity 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 !

When 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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