Notes from the Field

Inaugural LankaCorps Alumni Share Experiences with Sri Lankan Diaspora

March 27, 2013

In July 2012, five strangers – Ann Selvadurai, Sabina Martyn, Seshma Kumararatne, Sahani Chandraratna, and Sivashankar Krishnakumar – boarded a plane to Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, under the auspices of a unique Asia Foundation fellowship program. All they shared was a Sri Lankan heritage and a common desire to reconnect with the country that their parents once called home. Some six months later, the group returned to North America as best friends, each with an enhanced understanding of contemporary Sri Lanka and a tangible contribution to the country’s recovery efforts. They had become the first alumni of The Asia Foundation’s “LankaCorps” program.

LankaCorpsFellows

The 2012 LankaCorps Fellows, left to right: Sabina Martyn; Seshma Kumararatne; Sahani Anne Chandraratna; Sivashankar Krishnakumar; and Ann Selvadurai.

The fellowship was designed with two main goals in mind: to provide young adults of Sri Lankan heritage the opportunity to professionally and personally engage with the development of post-conflict Sri Lanka, and to bridge the gap between the diaspora and Sri Lanka. Speak with any of the five inaugural alumni and they will tell you with great enthusiasm that the program was a success on both counts.

To bring greater attention and awareness to the fellowship program, The Asia Foundation’s Asian America Exchange Unit (the San Francisco-based team responsible for the promotion and joint-administration of the program) asked the fellows to share their experiences on a 48-hour “reunion tour” in San Francisco and Los Angeles from March 22-23. Having been apart since the conclusion of the program in December 2012, the fellows were excited about the prospect of reuniting, especially to help promote the program that brought them together. Their first stop was the Foundation’s headquarters in San Francisco, where they reflected on their time in Sri Lanka and engaged with staff and outside guests in a lively discussion on the country’s transition. In addition to giving the audience a flavor for their work with their various placements, the fellows shared anecdotes and observations about everything from harrowing experiences with Sri Lankan public transportation to reconciliation efforts in the northern regions of the country.

LankaCorps fellow, Sivashankar Krishnakumar (above), worked with the Northern Development Initiative, the Murali Cup, the Seenigama project in the South and with projects at the Foundation for Goodness head office in Colombo.

The next morning, the alumni, escorted by three Foundation staff including myself, made their way to the home of Naj and Gwen Nagendran in Los Angeles. The Nagendrans are longtime active members of the Sri Lankan overseas community and helped to make the first ever LankaCorps program possible. They generously hosted an event that brought together some 40 members of the Sri Lankan community to learn about LankaCorps and how to support the program. Those in the audience, particularly second generation Sri Lankans, seemed visibly moved by the presentation. After over 30 minutes of lively discussion, the fellows broke off into smaller groups, answering further questions about how to get involved with the program as applicants or donors.

Watching the diaspora community react to the fellows’ presentation, it became clear that the vision of LankaCorps had been realized: These young, second-generation Sri Lankans, having had only limited exposure to their country of origin, were now engaging with the Sri Lankan community about contemporary Sri Lanka on a personal level. By giving them the opportunity to take ownership of part of Sri Lanka’s post-conflict development, the fellows formed lifetime connections with their ancestral home and each other. In just a few months, another even larger group of strangers will depart to Colombo. A lasting relationship with Sri Lanka awaits them.

Read more about LankaCorps and learn how to support the program.

James Grant is a program assistant for The Asia Foundation’s Asian American Exchange unit in San Francisco. He can be reached at jgrant@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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