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LankaCorps: A Conversation with Dr. Naj Nagendran

July 22, 2015

Last week in Washington DC, The Asia Foundation held a fund-raising event to present its LankaCorps Fellowship Program, a unique opportunity for young leaders of Sri Lankan heritage to engage in social, cultural, and economic development activities in post-conflict Sri Lanka. Each year since 2012, the Foundation has selected an outstanding group of young people to live and work for six months in Sri Lanka, placing them with government departments, NGOs, think tanks, and private sector companies. The six current fellows have just begun their fellowships and are currently in Sri Lanka. Dr. Naj Nagendran, a Los Angeles area physician with a long history of philanthropy in his homeland, is a founding donor to LankaCorps. He spoke to us about why he supports the program, and the importance of a new generation to Sri Lanka’s future.

Dr. Nagendran (center) with the 2013 LankaCorps Fellows.

Dr. Nagendran (center) with the 2013 LankaCorps Fellows.

You left Sri Lanka almost 40 years ago, before the terrible civil war began. It must have been very painful to watch your country go through that extremely destructive conflict.

Oh, yes. And although the conflict has ended, I think the root causes of the conflict have not been settled. The rebellion has been put down, but I don’t think the causes of the rebellion have been adequately addressed.

Now that the war is over, is there a more general yearning among the expatriate community to send something back to Sri Lanka, to contribute to the rebuilding?

Yes there is, but the divisions in the community are still there. Although there are moderate elements on both sides that work together, there is still a chasm, because the root causes of the problem have not been addressed. With the changes that are happening politically in Sri Lanka, there is hope, but still a lot of work needs to be done.

You have been a generous supporter of LankaCorps from the beginning. What is the mission of LankaCorps?

LankaCorps promotes the exchange of ideas and expertise between skilled Sri Lankan expatriates and local organizations working to improve infrastructure and development in the country. Sri Lanka benefits from the education, experience, and continuing, long-term involvement of the fellows, and the fellows reconnect with their roots and identity and feel gratified that they can contribute to the development of the country.

The LankaCorps fellowship was the brainchild of The Asia Foundation’s Sri Lanka country representative at the time, Nilan Fernando, who came to the United States himself when he was five or six, grew up as an American, but still had roots in Sri Lanka. When he was young and wanted to do volunteer work in Sri Lanka, he found that there were no organizations that were equipped to handle that, and he felt a lot of people were getting left out. So he’s the one who first persuaded me to support LankaCorps.

It’s a great opportunity for young people: The Asia Foundation arranges the necessary visas, the logistics are all taken care of, and the fellows are placed with organizations that match their skills and interests. Their accommodations are arranged, they get a little stipend, and the Foundation provides local knowledge and transportation, so the fellows have a very rich experience of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka Deputy Country Representative Johann Rebert (right) with the 2015 LankaCorps Fellows.

Sri Lanka Deputy Country Representative Johann Rebert (right) with the 2015 LankaCorps Fellows.

What is the value to Sri Lanka of sending young Americans and Canadians of Sri Lankan heritage to do development work there? Do you think it’s something that can contribute to rebuilding the country?

I think two things. First, anytime somebody comes from here with better skills in their field of expertise, there is a benefit from that. The second thing is that when the younger generation goes to Sri Lanka, they form their own opinions. The previous generation has its own biases; they’ve had experiences that may be different from the younger generation. If you are from the diaspora and your parents have been driven away from the country, they’re obviously going to have certain biases and opinions. But when the younger generation, the fellows, go there and participate and interact, they form their own ideas about Sri Lanka.

You know, I work with a local NGO in Sri Lanka called Foundation of Goodness, and LankaCorps has placed at least three fellows with them, so I’ve worked closely with some of the fellows, and they have great enthusiasm for helping their country of origin.

At this moment in Sri Lanka’s history, is there a message that you would like the Sri Lankan community abroad to hear, a message perhaps represented by LankaCorps?

Sri Lanka is at a historical inflection point in their development after the long civil war. If there is any contribution to be made to Sri Lanka by the expatriate community in North America, it has to be from the next generation. LankaCorps gives the next generation of Sri Lankan Americans an opportunity to participate in the development of the country and to form their own opinions, rather than getting pre-packaged information from others.

For meaningful lasting contribution by the expatriate community, we have to involve our next generation, and the LankaCorps fellowship program is a worthwhile project to support.

LankaCorps is a project of the Sri Lanka office of The Asia Foundation, in collaboration with the Foundation’s Asian American Exchange program. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee, not those of The Asia Foundation. For more information, and to learn how you can support the LankaCorps program, please contact Oliver Petzold at [email protected].

Related locations: Sri Lanka
Related programs: LankaCorps Fellowship Program, Leadership & Exchanges

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