Celebrating Role Models – Day 24

SULAKSHINI PERERA, External Relation’s Officer at the UNHCR, former TV News Anchor.

For me, independence was never a choice; it was a reality that was forced upon me by life. I also believe that strength in the face of adversity is inherent in all of us.

In my life, the turning point came in my late-teens when, within a period of two years I went from being a typical ‘only child’, doted on and spoilt by loving parents, to being an orphan who had little choice but to depend on the generosity of family and friends. Needless to say, those few years and the immediate aftermath can be easily defined as the most challenging period of my life. It also helped define who I am today. Through all the bizarre experiences, both good and bad, I stumbled upon the path that I firmly believe I was meant to take in life.

I became a part time newsreader for MTV/MBC to help put me through graduate school. A month later I moved on to become a producer/line up sub-editor/anchor on television. During a span of three years there, I can confidently say that I learned much more ‘on the job’, than I would ever have learned sitting in a classroom, listening to someone teach me about becoming a TV journalist. But the most significant change, both personally and professionally, came when I joined the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Sri Lanka.

When I look back, I am amazed at how my six years with UNHCR has helped mold me into the person I am today. Especially in my line of work, I have the good fortune of regularly traveling to the areas where we work and meeting with the people we help, both in Sri Lanka and overseas. Each time I am reminded that, in the midst of all the criticism about the UN and its bureaucracy, we do make a difference in people’s lives, be it through something simple like giving a pack of essential household items and cash grant to a single-mother of five who has lost everything in the conflict, to helping an old lady who has been living in a camp in India for decades return home to meet her grand children for the first time or by providing protection to a young boy forced to flee his own country for fear of being persecuted for his religious beliefs.

Despite the intense personal losses I have experienced, individuals like these have helped bring a sense of perspective into my life. In the midst of everything that’s wrong with the world, there are people who have picked themselves up and wake up in each morning ready to battle it out with whatever life throws at them.

To me, these are the true role models.


Reaching Out In Delhi

Reach Out members in Delhi (India), both Sri Lankan and Indian, joined hands many months ago to start regular lessons with children in a small slum in Janakpuri, New Delhi. The slum is situated opposite a university and right in the midst of upper middle class affluence; although there are schools available nearby that offer free education – the children, for either lack of motive or encouragement, do not attend anymore. One of the teachers here gives an account of her teaching and her thoughts on poverty in Asia. All opinions here are her own. 

From left to right: Rani, a volunteer Shreya, Meera and little Bharthi

There are nearly 15 students in our class – every now and then a few join, from a new ‘slum house’ added to the neighborhood or one or two leave as the family migrates elsewhere. Their mothers usually stay at home and their fathers are usually rickshaw drivers, earning a measly 100 rupees or so a day. They live in small 5×5 make-shift homes, mostly made of tin, wood scraps and lots of plastic sheets – which are obviously ill-suited for a family of minimum four, especially during Delhi’s harsh winter and during rainstorms. Although they are poorer than most people here – they are so much the same; the parents speak in the same way as my parents would, and the children laugh and play and talk in the same way as my cousins do. They are exactly the same except in that they have been completely neglected – by the Government, and more importantly and criminally – by us, by society.

The teachers are just five of us – we are university students and the slum is on the same block as our college. We teach the children in two batches – one for children between 6 and 9 and the other for the ones between 10 and 16. Most of the older kids have been to school to some extent, and know the alphabet, numbers and how to write Hindi more or less. They are now being taught complex sentence writing and Math, according to their varying levels of understanding. Right now I’m teaching the younger children the English alphabet – how to read and write; they’re getting pretty damn good at it. It’s a challenge for us because frankly none of us have any teaching experience – our method of teaching basically involves a lot of love for the children, and we get discipline and attention in class in return. We don’t just teach, we try to take care of them, to feed them, teach them good manners, make them laugh; whenever they see us they scream ‘Dheedhee!’ (big sister) and wave. Our funds are the collection of our own money and the money of other students in college. People who teach impoverished children are not heroes or some extraordinary saints – it is not an extraordinary act in any way, it is only an act of compassion and some consciousness about the ugly unjustness of our class system. And it is that very attitude – that showing compassion to people who deserve it is only an ‘extraordinary’ act, let’s leave it to the extraordinary people – that leaves so many people in our own communities alone and ignored in their problems.

In South Asia and elsewhere poverty is growing shamelessly with the increase in population, and as the saying goes, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Although Sri Lanka seems not to facilitate the contrast between rich and poor on such a massive scale as in India, the sinister contrast still exists. Take a drive through Mabole and you will find the same plastic homes and the same painful unashamed produce of neglect. The only difference is that, unlike in India, a lot of the privileged Colombo 7 crowd is completely ignorant about the extent of poverty in Sri Lanka. While the streets of India are teeming with random slums – you will see a child with only 2 t-shirts in his entire wardrobe living right next to a giant corporation, on the island they are more often tucked away quietly to certain parts of the city to be forgotten.

Either way – whose fault is it? I’m not an expert on educational or government affairs but I’m going to just speculate now on what little I know. Most people blame the Government. India and Sri Lanka both offer free education to its people – but there is a vast disconnect between the education system and the employment sector. Thousands will go to school and university and get a certificate, and only one hundred will get jobs. This is because of both, the disproportionate nature between the number of graduates and the number of jobs available – and the fact that many of the graduates lack the basic people skills for a job, such as English, communication skills and basic computer literacy. Unemployment rates have shot up; people without jobs equates to an upshot in poverty. How do we fix that mess?

I suppose one possible way is to make university entry more exclusive – like what they do in Sri Lanka’s medical faculty – saying ‘we can take in only this many students at a time’ which puts a control on how many doctors are produced, proportionate to the jobs available in hospitals in the country at the time. However this system is nonexistent in too many other faculties in both India and SL. Another important thing is for universities to train their graduates in people skills – to bridge the gap between getting a certificate and working in an office or under a boss or in a team. Also I think it would help to raise the level of dignity in manual jobs such as the job of the ‘baasunai’ (construction work), to bring equal respectability to all types of jobs perhaps through a leveling in salary and to conduct workshops or qualification-courses in those fields – so that people have more options in terms of employment. On a personal note, till these things begin to change, although there exists a taxing system – and some of the taxes of the more affluent are supposed to be going towards helping the poverty stricken – the results don’t show it to be so.  A responsible body of monitors need to be elected to be in charge of the specific purpose of transferring a percentage of our taxes to the well-being of the poor, to keep taxes from disappearing into some corporate suit’s pocket. But this again is full of complicated things to work out – primary of which is, who will monitor the monitors?

Anyway we can all sit and talk about this over some tea in our well furnished rooms in India or Sri Lanka, and say ‘yeah I hope the Government gets down to all that some time,’ then go to bed happily and forget about it the next day. But ask me whose fault it is and I will say I don’t believe it is the Government’s. I think it is our fault that some of us have more than enough of everything without doing much work and others have to skip their meals and work twice as hard. It is our fault that my brother has a comfortable bed and the boy in the slum I teach at sleeps outside on a cloth in 10 degree weather; the object of this blame is not to simply pull a Robin Hood – but rather to use our sense of responsibility to better their condition. Why? Because we can and we should on the basis of being humane. Who is the Government? The Government is our creation and we are the people who have voted for their power and it is us that they serve. Also it is us few who are the upper middle class and the upper class – the not-just-literate but educated few, the privileged few – who actually have the resources, and the power, and the possible social contacts, to actually convey to the leaders in power our proposals and our demands for tangible change. The poor cannot do it themselves.

This could have been a happy little piece about our teaching at the slum and how all the kids are happy now and how love conquers all. But what good will that do? People will read it and feel warm and fuzzy inside and then get on with their lives. And people will keep on living in plastic 5×5 houses. The internet is a start; use your resources and discuss poverty – not about how sad it is, but about what we can do to slowly undo it. Talk real life solutions for at least community-level poverty. Project proposals begin with ideas. It is the least that we can do – that you can do – for helping sustain an unfair system with our silent consent, for facilitating starvation and deprivation with our complacency. Meanwhile reach out to people in your community who are impoverished, find out if there are any where you live.

We may live in a highly competitive industrialized setting but let us not let that strip us of our basic humanity.


Celebrating Role Models – Day 23

Garbage Collector, R. M. DHAMMIKA.

I grew up in a thatched hut in Mattakuliya with one brother and two sisters. My father was from India. He died when I was three and my mother worked in homes to feed us. I was a bread winner at ten years. I did a variety of jobs; packing tea, turning animal bones in to manure, building houses – you name it, I did it. My mother put me in to a home as I was impossible to control. I worked there too. I got married at seventeen to a gambler. I worked while he gambled. We were married for five years. He beat me. I bore a child and he took the baby away to be raised by his family. So I left him. I remarried a garbage collector at twenty two and we settled in Nugegoda taking care of a home. When the owners reclaimed it, we were homeless. We relocated to the pavement in front of the Kotte church. We were accused of raising stray animals and were asked to leave by church authorities. I raised hell. The police beat my husband and broke his arm. We had nowhere to go. We went straight to the municipal council and complained. We were given a letter to take to the head of the police against the eviction and the beating. There was one time when we bathed from the nearby public well and sat down to eat. A car came and a man in black glasses got down and tried to kidnap my husband. I was held at gunpoint, but I didn’t allow them to take away my man. I pleaded with them and hung on to him. They accused him of theft. I raised so much noise that people from the nearby and houses came out. When we went to the police, the police asked ‘you really love your man, don’t you?’. I turned around and asked them, ‘doesn’t your wife love you? I am the same.’ They gave me a police report told me to return if problems persist. We stayed there for many years and then shifted close to Pita Kotte.

We’ve been garbage collectors for more than 20 years. I went and spoke to Abans. I asked for a job and told them we were hardworking people. They employed both of us and we worked very well. Abans trained me to do my job well – I am proud of my job and do it right wherever I am. There is severe competition between municipality and company workers and we often have problems related to work politics. I get beaten by co workers of the municipality. I used to be the first to report to work, even before the company officials arrived. But I was told by the municipality workers to report to work after them. After physical intimidations, I now report to work after the company officials arrive.

If I’m asked to sweep a road, I want to finish it within an hour. I’m used to getting beaten for working well. I make people jealous with my efficiency. But I don’t care – my priority is speed and competency. Once, I was asked to strike by the municipality workers if salaries weren’t paid in two days. I refused. I told them that my job is different to yours. I won’t halt work just because I’m not paid in two days. I will continue to work because I know my salary will come someday. Life on the road is good.

We are jolly – we have lesser problems than those who live in houses. We have more freedom living on the road. I’m up even at 1am, keeping an eye out for nearby proprietors. Our social lives are centered on our Kovils. I am Tamil and my partner is Sinhala. There is no difference between Tamils and Sinhalese – the same blood courses through our veins. I speak better Sinhala than Tamil! Our valuables were stolen by a person known to us. But in a way its good as my life was spared. We never recovered from those losses. So now, we just make do with what we have. We have no problems between the two of us. We are all we have. My husband is a good man. We must be there for each other. But often when someone comes to strike me, he’s too scared to intervene. But it’s rare for someone to attack me – I’m a fighter. Survival is hard on day wages. In sun or rain I do my job. We save my husband’s salary and survive on mine. But we must think of the future. We won’t be able to work this hard every day. My desire is to have a small haven for us to live in peace in our old age – that’s all I want.

 

Compiled by: Sulochana Dissanayake

Photograph by: Dinuka Liyanawatte


Celebrating Role Models – Day 22

Founder and Director of Mantra Moods,  HAADIA GALELY

 

Music is one of the driving forces in my life as we draw energy from many things. It’s the FAITH and the right intention with which we do it, that counts and that which the gravitational force towards its success is finally. To me Music is a medium that I believe helps us to ‘connect’, to expresses our experiences, thoughts, it also can be a moderator to unite people. It acts as a frequency to nurture spiritual understanding, healing and comfort which is as close to prayer as we can get.  Religions have all made music part of their worship. A clichéd term but is also ‘food of the soul’. This is true and therefore it is no exaggeration to say that music is the language of beauty that every living soul has loved. And if one can understand, realize and recognize the perfection of music, by seeing, feeling and experiencing its harmony it can be treated as ‘Devine’. It will then be natural that in music we see an art and through it we can see the whole universe as a divine art form.

I gave up further studies for music being a lover of the arts to follow my dream of becoming a professional musician. This also met the approval of my parents when going into formally studying oriental music, playing Sitar; My interest in performing arts kept me yearning to remain close to anything connected with it, even after my marriage at the age of 20, which led me to stay connected to areas related to it. From putting together shows associated to music, fashion, beauty pageants & charity events, all of which were a learning curve which gradually spurred my interest to move into more serious lines of work from in 1986, I became more involved in the field of arts that inspired my mission that led me to plan and direct events here at home and overseas, which over time has evolved into my role as a promoter of Music / Musicians & Destinations Weddings as a planner that compliments that above involvements as it helps promote my country.

The climb has been gradual and I have been in no rush as I believe everything comes in time rather than with a price and if it’s destined to be. I have worked towards drawing strength from those who are willing to take that chance with me in spite of being told that it’s a tough road ahead! I don’t believe one should give up on a dream. Perusing it really hard is the key and if it does not come to pass then it was not meant to be and that reason will unfold at some point. None of us are perfect we need to realize that and aspire to make changes if we are to move forward.

My Family encompasses my own, my extended, my close friends who all make up the meaning of the word ‘Family’. Without them I would not have been able to get this far. Their love, support and encouragement has urged me to this day. Thanks to our parents my sister and I were always supported in whatever they felt made us happy and I continue to receive this support or I would never have been able to do what I do. My Husband, Daughter and Son in Law, Son and Granddaughter are my greatest fans, my inspiration and silent thinkers who help me with decisions when I am at cross roads in my life and career. A saying by Angela Schwindt comes to my mind in which she quotes “While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about”.

My advice to all young people is to DREAM, have FAITH in their dreams; BELIEVE in themselves and NEVER GIVE up! When the world says, “Give up,” Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.”As there is no telling how many miles we will have to run while chasing a dream.


Celebrating Role Models – Day 21

Owner of Haven – Hotel for Dogs, ASHWINI AIYAR


I have said it before and I’ll say it again- I have the best job in the world! Running Sri Lanka’s only dog hotel has been so much more than I ever thought it could be. Sure, it’s a lot of hard work and of course, a tremendous responsibility but being someone who is completely nuts about all things furry, it’s a perfect fit!
If you asked me whether I always knew that this was what I wanted to do, the answer would be no. One and a half years ago I was just as hopeful and as unsure of my future as the next person. And then I lost my mother to a road accident in 2009, and it made me really think about what her death was supposed to mean. I realized then, that I had depended on her for so long and I was not really pushing myself. If there was any reason at all that she was taken from me so harshly, it was probably because I had to become more independent. Two days after she died I decided I wanted to open up a dog hotel. And that’s exactly what I did.
There were times when I really did think I would fail, but I didn’t and I learned that sometimes, it’s the thought of sticking your neck out there and taking a chance that’s the hardest. Once you’ve done it, it comes naturally, and you don’t really have time to think, you only have time to do.
I am in no way perfect. I have far too many insecurities to ever be comfortable in my own skin. I am riddled with self doubt and I brood over the many mistakes I have made. But all that doesn’t matter to a dog. They teach me that forgiveness is not as hard as you think it is. That the purest of love is when you expect nothing in return. They would die for you without a moment’s hesitation if it meant that you would live.
I learn something from my dogs every day. They are my world. And if you asked another dog lover why they love dogs, they would probably tell you the same. And because I understand my customers, I am able to become better at what I do.
I have no wise words of wisdom. I am no extraordinary person. I am just a regular girl who does what she loves, tries to do it as well as she can and does it with a whole lot of heart. And when you think about it, that’s really all there is to it.
Photograph by Shakir Jamaldeen

Haven : hotel for Dogs – https://www.facebook.com/havendoghotel


Celebrating Role Models – Day 20

Photographer, Journalist and  Creative Consultant , NATALIE SOYSA

I have and still continue to wear too many hats at any given time in my life. The ones you see next to my name are merely the ones I get paid for. I firmly believe that you’re allowed to chase as many dreams as you are capable of having as long as you learn the fine art of balance in all things. A woman isn’t referred to as a multi-tasker merely by chance, we dream so many dreams because we inherently have it in us to chase them. I spent 13 years of my life in advertising and then upped and quit my job to become a photographer just two years ago. In those 2 short years, I have photographed for print media journalism, web journalism, social documentary, travel, fashion, advertising and so much more, having also been exhibited 5 times in both Colombo & Delhi. I presently work fulltime in advertising as a creative consultant, take on photography assignments and write freeIance for the media when I can. In addition I am also involved in local theater as an actress, assistant director and make-up artist. I chronicle the Sri Lankan Rock & Roll and Electronic Dance Music scenes, am an event lighting designer, blogger, graphic artist, human & animal rights’ activist, singer, voiceover artist, marcom consultant, incurable Star Wars geek, mythology buff, have been published in an anthology of Sri Lankan erotica, run away from Colombo as often as I can, run my own household, raise 2 giant canines, am involved in an exciting new visual arts project with designer Jayani de Alwis and am also looking forward to taking on my most challenging job ever when I become a mum later this year. As colourful as each of these paths have been, the journey has taught me similar lessons – there is magic in all things we just haven’t found it yet, let go off your ego, be nice, be honest, plan less, let things happen to you and most importantly – don’t expect to live outside the box while you’re working in a cubicle.

For more of Natalie’s work, please visit www.facebook.com/nataliesoysa.creative

Photograph by Sharni Jayawardena


Celebrating Role Models – Day 19

Soprano, SAFRA DEEN

A question that many people have always asked me and continue to do so to this day, is “ how does a Sri Lankan muslim girl from a conservative background continue to sing?”. Though it was a question I usually brushed off with a laugh when I was a teenager, today I think deeply about it. I can’t think of the ideal answer because my parents are in fact very conservative and live within the parameters of general Islamic teachings. However, the liberalism always stemmed through the openness to different values inculcated in me as a toddler. I’m yet to figure out the answer but I guess time will always tell me – why and how?

Performing has always been my passion. Although I was never a star as a child, I enjoyed every minute singing in the back row during my earliest performances. It was not until the age of 11,when I first tried my luck at an inter house solo singing competition at my alma mater Bishop’s College, that realized I really wanted to excel in singing. Though I never ended up the winner at that competition, it propelled me into the beautiful world of solo singing. I then began my training in classical singing and brought into my life, my inspiration and mentor Ms.Ruwani Seimon. This amazing chapter of my life sadly ended soon when she lost her short battle against cancer. Determined to finish what Ms. Ruwani and I began together, I took up the challenge and worked tirelessly completing all my singing exams and I went on to receive the ultimate honour of becoming a Fellow of the Trinity College of Music London in Voice Performance at the age of 19.

Looking back at my life as a soloist I have had the privilege of winning a number of awards, performing at many major events and even meeting greats like A.R Rahman which were far beyond my expectations. None of it came easy though, especially in a field which involves favouritism, prejudice and subjective opinions. However, I have learned that if you truly believe in yourself, nothing and no one can stand in the way of achieving your dreams.

Instead of using my talents to simply become another Prima Donna, I have focused more on working with children and young adults from diverse backgrounds, including the differently abled and teaching the magic of music. As a medium of communication, singing is like no other. It brings out the best in people and spreads joy and a sense of togetherness which is indescribable.

Having completed my degree in Law from the University of London I am currently at the early stages of my legal career, something I pursue in conjunction with my singing. Juggling two different interests have moulded my spirit to accept challenges I would have passed off as impossible before and it has taught me to view life with an attitude that says never give up. I have many more hills to climb and challenges to face as I am only 23, but I know I have all the strength I need to get there. It lies in my family, in my friends but most importantly within me.

Photograph by Gerald Pereira


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