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From empathy to activism: Creating ‘Visions’ in Sri Lanka

By Meera Pathmarajah

“The apocalyptic future is tempered by the possibility of survival, of continuing to live through things that were previously unimaginable: enduring is a condition of possibility” (Das, as cited in Choi, 2012, p. 25). 

To ponder the above quote is to reflect on the fleeting nature of survival and endurance during times of war and crisis.   Despite the civil war ending four years ago, minority communities in Sri Lanka confront an existence fraught with uncertainties, including whether their disappeared loved ones are still alive, where home will be (and whether displaced families will ever return there), and how to eke out a living amidst devastation.  It is one thing to try to understand living in a state of uncertainty due to poverty; but to compound economic hardship with fear of death, torture and abuse, is to sink deep into spaces of survival that exist outside the realm of my imagination.

I used to pin down my motivation for educational activism in war-affected areas of Sri Lanka to feelings of guilt and empathy.  My father, who grew up in Jaffna, left Sri Lanka professionally in the late 1960s, well over a decade before the war erupted in 1983.  After their marriage (my mother is also from Jaffna), my parents moved to Southern California where my sisters and I grew up living ‘the good life’, immersed in cultural and educational activities.  Activism among diaspora Tamils was relatively sparse during my childhood; and it is only in the last fifteen years or so that numerous Sri Lanka-focused humanitarian and activist organizations abroad have emerged.

I grew up in the age of print and television media in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when news coverage of Sri Lanka was rarer than it is today.  Hence my exposure to the conflict was limited.  But on occasions, the ‘uncles’ in my community would gather the Tamil youth to describe horrific events taking place in our homeland, such as the rape and murder of a 16-year-old schoolgirl at an army checkpoint in Jaffna in 1996.  Most narratives of loss, death, and suffering remained buried in a silenced Jaffna society, but this one leaked out and became a high profile case. It was at this point that I remember thinking, “If my parents had not left Jaffna, that girl could have been me, or one of my sisters.”  I felt overwhelmed by a mix of anger, disbelief, and guilt: that I was fortunate to escape the war because my parents had the means to leave Sri Lanka, but what about those who were not so lucky?

This initial sensitivity continued to be fueled by stories of injustice that prompted me to question my own status and position of privilege.  I began to identify with the youth living in Sri Lanka, who seemed so similar to me, yet were denied the stability and most of the opportunities I had been afforded.  Beginning in 2001, soon after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in psychology and South Asian studies, I began what would be nearly a decade long cycle of regular travel to and across Asia.  I spent time studying Tamil in India, and visited refugee camps and orphanages in Sri Lanka.  I worked for four years as Asia Regional Program Manager for the educational non-profit, Room to Read, where I supported girls’ education programs in seven countries.  I completed a Masters degree at Harvard University in International Education Policy, and put my degree to work by planning and organizing youth leadership camps for the youth I had met in Sri Lankan orphanages.  By recruiting international volunteers to staff the leadership camps, I grew a network of youth activists and fundraisers, who helped fundraise and spread awareness about educational development in South Asia.  Early along the way, I was mentored by my uncle, W. Harichandran, and also met Gregory T. Buie, a passionate humanitarian worker who has worked tirelessly with me over the years to establish and develop the non-profit organization called Visions Global Empowerment (Visions).

Through Visions, I found a mechanism to replace my feelings of guilt with action, hope, and conviction, while still being driven by a sense of empathy.  My travels across Asia brought me face to face with countless people and populations enduring unacceptable injustice and inequality. I have seen that activism comes in different shapes and forms, is found in small gestures and large notions alike; but that all forms of it require perseverance.

Of all the places I have worked, post-war Sri Lanka has been the most challenging and frustrating.

Social activism is a dangerous line of work in Sri Lanka today.  NGOs must tread carefully in a clamped and obscure civil society, controlled by the Ministry of Defense, which is in charge of all humanitarian activities. Political opposition is almost non-existent and carefully calibrated. A war-weary population remains haunted by suppressed memories of suffering, while trauma counseling and mental health services are unavailable.  The Sri Lankan government seems convinced that the only way forward is to rewrite history from the perspective of the state, and this is unlikely to be challenged, given that freedom of expression is a well-known casualty of the war in Sri Lanka.

Nevertheless, resilience and hope spring in unexpected ways, signaling new beginnings and possibilities. Visions see our partner organizations, teachers, and leadership-oriented students as agents of change in their communities.  Our approach is to invest in individuals and civil society institutions, with the ultimate aim of empowering a generation of students and teachers with the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to lead themselves and their communities into futures marked by justice, equality, and dignity.

We believe that activism can be taught, but as a process that starts with building self-confidence, self-awareness, and principles of integrity. We strive to base our program efforts on values of social justice, democratic participation, and equal treatment with respect to gender, caste, class, religion, and language.  We are committed to enabling students with opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities that develop skills and perspectives that foster social harmony, respect for diversity, patience, and tolerance.  At the same time, we recognize that we have much work ahead to meet our vision of empowering a generation of youth who believe in and uphold these principles.

Our flagship Visions youth leadership program focuses on the teaching of skills that can prepare youth to plan, organize, network, delegate tasks, communicate effectively, and work collaboratively with other youth.  Since 2003, Visions has conducted thirty-three week long leadership trainings in Sri Lanka and India, directly training over fifteen hundred youth.  Nearly two-hundred and fifty international and local volunteers have helped staff our leadership trainings, and many have returned to their home communities and universities to establish Visions Chapters.  In collaboration with eleven Visions Chapters across North America, Visions has, to date, supported more than 7,000 individuals with nearly half a million dollars worth of ongoing educational programs in both Sri Lanka and India.  These include after-school tutoring programs, scholarships, leadership trainings, teacher support programs, and the construction of a four-story learning center at a girls’ school in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

This is generational work; quiet, demanding, and slow.  We know we sometimes take one step forward and two steps backward.  But if we are to bring about change in society, then we need to engage in an inquiry of injustice.  By undergoing processes of self-reflection, we begin to undertake our own journey of understanding not only who we are, but also what our role and contribution to society could be.  In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Please visit www.visionsglobalempowerment.org to learn about Visions and how you can contribute or get involved. 

[Meera Pathmarajah is a doctoral candidate in International Educational Development at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York.  Her dissertation research is on understandings of learner-centered pedagogy in the pre-service teacher education context in Tamil Nadu, India.  She completed her Ed.M. at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education in 2004, and spent four years working for Room to Read as the Asia Regional Program Manager for Girls Education based in New Delhi, India.  Meera is also the founder and CEO of Visions Global Empowerment.  She can be reached at mpathmar@gmail.com.]

References:

Choi, V. Y. (2012).  After disasters: The persistence of insecurity in Sri Lanka.  (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).  University of California, Davis.

Das, V. (2007).  Life and words: Violence and the descent into the ordinary.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

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