Cathie, a retired art teacher and volunteer, was handing out ”welcome packs” to new asylum seekers, distributing food and toiletries, undies and socks, ”to give them some dignity”.
Leo was her helper at each house, unloading the car and interpreting. The 29-year-old had been on the Bellarine Peninsula for a few months and although barely settled in his new life, he wanted to help others. Cathie drove him home.
”On the way there – and this was typical of Leo – he rings ahead to his friends, ‘Get the tea ready, get the biscuits out!’,” Cathie said.
They didn’t stop talking until Leo took his life last weekend, pouring petrol over his body and setting himself on fire. He was taken to hospital on Saturday night and died Sunday morning with burns to 90 per cent of his body.
”Sometimes he would need to talk about his worries,” Cathie said, ”and we would go and sit in the park down at Eastern Beach and watch the ships go by.”
Cathie would translate his letters from Department of Immigration. (The seal never failed to ”terrorise” his heart.)
She did her best to assuage his fear and panic at the thought of being sent home. She took him to doctors and counsellors. Their friendship went both ways.
”He was such a caring, gentle person,” Cathie said. ”The first question he would always ask me is, ‘Mum, have you had lunch? Have you eaten?’ He was fastidious, and he always wanted to clean my car.”
Cathie came to know his story through delicately managed conversations. Strangers often bluntly ask asylum seekers to tell their story, but she knew not to barge into his biography uninvited.
Leo was born in the north-east of Sri Lanka in the midst of a civil war. His family were farmers. During the worst of the bombings, his father wrapped baby Leo in banana leaves and hid him in the jungle.
The family fled to India when Leo was around five, to a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu. It was a way of life he described as ”always cold, always hungry”.
He was there for more than 20 years.
He visited Sri Lanka once to see family, but was imprisoned and tortured for a short time before returning to the camp. He went home once more, but only to board a boat for the Cocos Islands, then Indonesia and finally to Darwin.
Four months of detention followed, and then resettlement in suburban Belmont.
Leo quickly joined the Tamil community, and although raised Catholic he developed deep friendships in the Lutheran and Baptist churches in Grovedale.
On a bridging visa and allowed to work, he found a part-time job two days a week at an asphalting company, cleaning greasy trucks.
He volunteered in an aged care home. He gave blood regularly. He sent money every month to an orphanage in the Indian refugee camp where his parents remain.
But in recent weeks Leo learnt that two men in a very similar situation had been taken back into detention. He also knew that more than 1000 Tamils have been returned to Sri Lanka, where they face persecution. And he was aware of the Sydney man who self-immolated in April.
”Such is the terror of being sent back,” said Cathie. ”They know they will be picked up within days. They’re totally vulnerable.”
Leo was an organ donor, and in his death he has given one lung and one eye, his kidneys and liver, to Australians who need them. More than 100 people attended a candlelight vigil on Sunday night at the Uniting Church in Queenscliff.
Cathie is now taking care of the friends Leo lived with in Newtown. They are too afraid to speak.
”People can cope with many things that are painful,” said Veronika Quinton, who also knew Leo. ”But if you take away their hope, you virtually wipe their soul.”
A memorial service will be held for Leo Seemanpillai at St Mary of the Angels in Yarra Street, Geelong, on Thursday.
For help or information call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114, or visit beyondblue.org.au