From Sri Lanka to Avondale—Grace Paulson shares her story
She’s a familiar, friendly face on the Lake Macquarie campus, always impeccably dressed and smiling. In her role as Project Manager and Assistant Academic Registrar, Grace Paulson manages project implementation and assists in the Academic Office. Though not the path she originally saw for herself—as a teenager and straight-A student she dreamt of becoming a doctor—Grace feels it’s the one God has led her down over the years.
“God made it clear to me that medicine was not my calling,” she says. “I know that wherever I am is where He wants me to be.”
The journey that brought Grace, her husband, David, and their three children to Australia has seen them call a number of different countries home. Grace and David met in India, while both leading a Pathfinder group. After their marriage they moved to Singapore, where their children—son Dan, 22, and daughters Debbie and Dorcas, 20 and 17—were born. From there they moved to New Zealand, and when David was interviewed for a position at Avondale as lecturer in business, Grace felt certain the move was an answer to their prayers.
But though there was no indication of a job for her, Grace wasn’t concerned. After a lifetime of seeing God’s goodness when she needed it most, there was no doubt in her mind that God would provide once again.
“One day I will talk of Your goodness through these dark days,” she promised God. Now, with a memoir on her mind, she feels the time has come.
Born in Negombo, Sri Lanka into a pastor’s family, Grace grew up comfortable with change. Her father, an ethnic Indian born and raised in Sri Lanka, came from a Hindu background and was disowned by his family when he became a Seventh-day Adventist. Her mother was raised Anglican, and the two met at the Lakpahana Adventist College and Seminary, the school Grace would later attend.
With an older sister, two younger brothers and more than 20 cousins on her mother’s side who were “like siblings,” there were plenty of happy early memories in Sri Lanka. In her grandmother’s home tucked away from the main road in a quiet little village, there were also plenty of opportunities for mischief.
“We were rascals,” Grace says. “We had no toys, so we learned to climb every tree in the neighbourhood, even the coconut trees!”
But her carefree surroundings were changing. Grace’s parents had accepted a scholarship to undertake further study in the Philippines, leaving Sri Lanka in 1983. Now 14, Grace was in an awkward position: too young to move out on her own and pursue higher education, like her older sister; too old to change schools and accompany their parents, like her younger brothers. So Lakpahana became her home.
Kandy, the country’s second-largest city, joined the infamous Black July riots on July 23, 1983. Gangs of Sinhalese rebels looted and burnt homes and businesses owned by those of Tamil ethnicity, and violence soon turned deadly. For the children at Lakpahana, it was a nightmare.
Until the riots came I hadn’t had a practical faith. What God did for me in those two years taught me to lean on Him, and it made my faith unshakable. I never once felt like He was not there.Grace Paulson
“We’d just come back to the dorms from our Wednesday night prayer meeting, and we knew something was not right,” Grace recalls. “Our lights went off early; we were told to hide.”
The rebels had come onto campus. Armed with crude, makeshift weapons, they made their way to the dormitories, planning to slaughter any Tamil students they came across. A quick-thinking dean switched off the lights and a male Tamil student stood guard at the door.
“He said, ‘Girls, they’re here. I’ll give my life for you, but that’s all I can do,’” Grace recalls. “That was the last thing I heard him say.”
But in the darkness, confused and frustrated, the rebels fought among themselves, unable to tell the ethnicity of the students they had intended to kill. Eventually they left, deciding to come back when it was light.
The students were quickly divided into groups and hidden away in different parts of the campus overnight, some in classrooms or science laboratories, in case the rebels returned. After a fitful night they were loaded onto buses and taken to a hastily-assembled refugee camp, guarded by police. But daylight revealed the terrors of the night before—clouds of smoke billowed from torched buildings, and massacred bodies lay in the streets.
“The horrors of that journey,” Grace recalls. “I wish I had not looked out of the bus.”
From the refugee camp, the students were moved north to Jaffna, Tamil-occupied land, where it was assumed they would be safer. Grace took refuge with relatives, moving from house to house until her parents were able to return more than a year later. For a few months after the massacre they’d had no way of knowing she was even alive.
Although the riots of Black July had ended, the civil war was far from over—it would continue for another 25 years, ending in 2009—and those caught up in the turmoil continued with their lives as best they could. Journeys to work or school could be interrupted at any moment, and no one went anywhere alone. People were frequently kidnapped from the roadsides and never heard from again; mass graves were discovered many years later.
“The worst was not knowing if you’d return safely,” Grace says. “You’d walk outside and hear gunshots, and if they were in the direction you were heading, you’d have to turn around and go home. Sometimes you’d get all the way to school and see smoke, and have to go back. Every day we survived was a blessing.”
But still she attended church, often by herself, riding her bike when taking the bus wasn’t safe.
“I just felt like I had to go. As a pastor’s child, we were always told about God, but until the riots came I hadn’t had a practical faith. What God did for me in those two years taught me to lean on Him, and it made my faith unshakable. I never once felt like He was not there. We prayed constantly. Relying on God was the only way.”
Life in Australia has been kind. Now closer to Grace’s parents and siblings, also living in Australia, the family has enjoyed reconnecting with those they love more frequently, and have even been able to travel back to Singapore. But Sri Lanka isn’t yet on the travel plans, though Grace says she’d like to revisit her birth country “some day.”
As for the refugee crisis, Grace says she takes a tough stance—”but I’m sure you can understand how that developed in me,” she says. “After becoming a refugee, I realised there was so much I had taken for granted—fresh air to breathe, clothes to wear. When you go through life-threatening events and experience that displacement, you learn to appreciate every little opportunity that comes your way. True refugees, not opportunistic ones, are looking only for the chance to start again.
“In terms of actual refugees, though, I think we need to be more understanding of them. I can’t even imagine what some others may have been through. It’s abuse on a corporate scale. I think it’s our role to be understanding, not to judge.”
And although the years since have healed some wounds, the memories of those dark days—and the God who got her through them—will always remain.
“Each day I am reminded of God’s goodness to my family and me,” Grace says. “Home has become wherever I am, and ultimately wherever God wants me to be.”