Desh’s family fled Sri Lanka when he was 13. “It’s a beautiful paradise but it had this very horrific ongoing conflict which was a big part of my childhood,” he says. After more than two years of displacement within the country and outside of it, Desh’s family was eventually able to move to Hamilton in New Zealand. “My parents said, ‘Here’s your high school.’ It was very much a shock because it was a country town and I was used to growing up on a beach, with tropical weather.”
Desh, who had barely any English language skills when he arrived, eventually went on to graduate from law and business school. He spent time after uni travelling through New Zealand, Australia and Asia, working as a labourer, a steel fixer on a train line, a fruit picker and a cleaner. “I was confused,” Desh tells me. “I wasn’t quite sure who I was. You know: am I a Tamil, a Sri Lankan, a Kiwi or am I something else?” Somewhere along the way, Desh realised that his identity was not Tamil, Sri Lankan or Kiwi. “It’s just uniquely me. Desh.”
He ended up in Melbourne, where he founded Ondru in 2009. One of the reasons Voiceless Journeys was an important project for him was because his parents had never told their stories. “I’ve never really spoken and I felt like my parents have never spoken, because they never had the time to because they had to survive,” he explains. The project took more than a year, but Desh was determined that these stories be heard. “If you don’t stand up, no one else is going to,” he says.