Five Cana­di­ans share their ex­pe­ri­ences help­ing young peo­ple build lead­er­ship skills in war-af­fected vil­lages in Sri Lanka’s East­ern Prov­ince

NOW Magazine - - TAMIL DIASPORA - By RADHEYAN SIMONPILLAI news@nowtoronto.com | @JustSayRad

After a quar­ter-cen­tury of civil war that is es­ti­mated to have claimed the lives of over 100,000 civil­ians – and cul­mi­nated in an un­easy peace in 2009 – vol­un­teers from the Tamil com­mu­nity headed to war-af­fected re­gions in north and east­ern Sri Lanka last year. The young pro­fes­sion­als, most of them from the GTA, worked as part of Comdu.it, a rel­a­tively new not-for-profit carv­ing out its own space among the var­i­ous ef­forts in the Tamil di­as­pora.

Five Cana­di­ans whose fam­i­lies were lucky enough to escape the civil war shared their in­sights on their time spent at the Church of Amer­i­can Cey­lon Mis­sion in Bat­ticaloa, one of Comdu.it’s part­ners run­ning lead­er­ship pro­grams for un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren, in­clud­ing boys’ homes in re­mote vil­lages in Sri Lanka’s East­ern Prov­ince.

Sumu Sathi

A so­cial as­sis­tance worker in York Re­gion (as well as host of the Blun­tTRUTH pod­cast), Sathi spent months as a lead­er­ship fa­cil­i­ta­tor. She planned and de­liv­ered work­shops for lo­cal youth work­ers and pro­ba­tion of­fice staff work­ing with marginal­ized chil­dren.

She also be­gan work­shops pro­vid­ing emo­tional sup­port and en­gag­ing in sen­si­tive dis­cus­sions like sex­ual bound­aries.

“Their wants and needs are very different from what I ex­pected them to be. There are a lot of ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties that are be­ing ne­glected by some of us in the di­as­pora be­cause we are stuck in 2009 and we are un­able to un­der­stand or let go of this im­age we have of the North and East prov­inces of Sri Lanka.

“In re­al­ity, they want skills. They want job op­por­tu­ni­ties and better ed­u­ca­tion for their kids. Al­most an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of Tamils haven’t been schooled. Many are strug­gling to have de­cent meals. So there’s a heavy shift in pri­or­i­ties right now. Times have changed and the strug­gle has taken a different form for the peo­ple liv­ing there.”

Sunny Vykun­than

Vykun­than, who works in com­mu­ni­ca­tions and mar­ket­ing at RBC, trav­elled around Sri Lanka learn­ing and shar­ing the sto­ries and im­pact of the vol­un­teers in war-af­fected com­mu­ni­ties.

In Man­nar, he worked along­side civil en­gi­neers de­ployed to pro­tect the area’s ku­lums (ponds that help al­le­vi­ate flood­ing). “Be­cause of the war, there’s al­ways been a guilt trip about how we en­gage and how we give. And there’s al­ways been money thrown at peo­ple. [But] how do we do this in a way where they feel their own sense of pride and there’s ac­tual value in the work that’s be­ing done?

“It’s not just go­ing in and build­ing some­thing. It’s com­mu­nity en­gage­ment; part­ner­ing with lo­cal ex­per­tise; talk­ing to com­mu­nity mem­bers; learn­ing what the com­mu­nity ac­tu­ally needs; en­gag­ing them in the ac­tual work; hav­ing them help plan and build. It re­ally adds to the sus­tain­abil­ity be­cause there’s col­lec­tive own­er­ship.”

Anoshinie Muhun­dara­jah

Muhun­dara­jah is a dancer with an ed­u­ca­tion in so­cial work. She com­bines those two el­e­ments in her work at X Move­ment, a pro­gram de­liv­ered to schools where dance work­shops give way to dis­cus­sions about di­ver­sity, in­clu­sion and ac­cep­tance. She took the same idea to Sri Lanka.

“I am a huge be­liever of us­ing the arts for heal­ing and mak­ing con­nec­tions through sto­ries. Th­ese kids re­ally opened up through po­etry, dance and other art forms.

“They don’t have a chance to talk about how they feel. It’s not of­ten that some­one goes to them and asks, ‘How are you to­day?’ It seems like such a sim­ple ques­tion, but that con­ver­sa­tion doesn’t hap­pen there. And when you do ask, they ac­tu­ally don’t hold back. Kids will open up about what’s go­ing on at home.

“As much as there’s the po­lit­i­cal as­pect in Sri Lanka, and ev­ery­thing to do with the war trauma, I feel like the kids are be­ing for­got­ten: their ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties, their ba­sic needs and what they’re suf­fer­ing through, whether its al­co­holism or abuse at home. Through th­ese artis­tic plat­forms, they’re able to open up about it.”

Sai Ravin­dranathan

A project man­age­ment pro­fes­sional who has worked with MaRS Stu­dio Y and CAMH, Ravin­dranathan spent his time in Sri Lanka work­ing with im­pov­er­ished youth in re­mote lo­ca­tions af­fected by poverty, caste is­sues and iso­la­tion.

In one vil­lage called Karaina­gar, se­vere drought meant that lo­cals only had ac­cess to wa­ter de­liv­ered on trucks. In an­other, the chil­dren didn’t show up for lessons one day due to warn­ings of rogue ele­phants nearby.

“One day, I wanted the kids to do an ex­er­cise where they would write as their future selves, de­scrib­ing what they’ve learned and what ad­vice they would give them­selves. [But] there weren’t enough pens. The staff there didn’t ex­pect me to need pens for that many kids. I didn’t think to pur­chase pens be­cause it’s at a school. I as­sumed they would have pens. That’s an as­sump­tion I made be­cause of my priv­i­lege.”

Su­pen­dra Chan­draku­mar

An in­ter­nal mer­chan­dise co­or­di­na­tor at Maple Leaf Sports & En­ter­tain­ment, Chan­draku­mar was sta­tioned at the Church of Amer­i­can Cey­lon Mis­sion in Bat­ticaloa. Work­ing to build the on­line pres­ence of the church’s pro­grams and pro­mote com­mu­nity en­gage­ment, he learned a valu­able les­son.

“They con­sider you priv­i­leged if you come from over­seas. I was born in an­other coun­try. My par­ents fled Sri Lanka be­cause of the war. But at the same time, we could re­late in so many ways.”


Anoshinie Muhun­dara­jah

Su­pen­dra Chan­draku­mar

Sai Ravin­dranathan

Sunny Vykun­than

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