Challenging stereotypes, promoting reconciliation

On Wednesday 16 March in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo, International Alert in partnership with the British Council hosted a public screening of three episodes from its six-episode film series ‘Diaspora Diaries’. The series aims to show how Sri Lankan diaspora engage with their country of heritage, and was produced and edited by film-maker Kannan Arunasalam.

The screening was followed by a panel discussion moderated by journalist Smriti Daniels and featuring Johann Rebert, Deputy Country Director of the Asia Foundation, and Amjad Mohamed-Saleem, Country Manager for Sri Lanka at International Alert. The discussion between the panel and the audience explored the complex question of diaspora engagement as well as the broader themes of home, identity and belonging that were raised in the series.

The 'Diaspora Diaries' series explores the array of identities and opinions within diaspora communities, aiming to stimulate dialogue amongst people of Sri Lankan heritage on the nature of their identities, connections and interactions with the country.

The first portrait screened was that of Amjad Mohamed-Saleem, who was born in Nigeria to Sri Lankan parents. At the time of filming, Amjad lived in the UK, but previously worked in Sri Lanka as the country director for Muslim Aid, and continues to work on interfaith matters. Amjad currently resides in Sri Lanka.

He said: “Having been featured in this series, it is humbling to share the space with others who are equally committed to trying to do things for the benefit of the country and facing greater challenges. These stories remind us all of our own personal responsibilities to effect some change for the better”.

The second portrait followed the story of Nikini Jayatunga, a member of Voices for Reconciliation - a cross-ethnic group of second generation British Sri Lankans. She uses culture as a way of bringing people together and talking about conflict.

The third portrait was that of Paul Sathianesan, who arrived in the UK as a refugee and is now a Newham councillor. He discussed his feeling of responsibility to the youth of Sri Lanka to make sure they have a peaceful future.

Speaking after the event, Smriti Daniels said:

In their portrayal of individual members of the diaspora, these films present a deeply felt and genuine challenge to the stereotypes that continue to divide Sri Lankan communities both here and abroad. It is clear the issue remains relevant seven years after the end of the war, and judging by the questions the panelists were peppered with by the audience, it remains one that we as a society long to debate and engage with”.

British Council Country Director for Sri Lanka Keith Davis said:

The British Council works to connect people around the world with the UK and we are keen to strengthen the links between Sri Lanka and UK. Sri Lankans living overseas and especially those in UK are an important part of this equation and so we were delighted to host in the British Council library the first public screening of the films ‘Diaspora Diaries’.The films, featuring Sri Lankans from all communities, also supported the theme of reconciliation, which is critically important for a successful future for Sri Lanka, and something else that British Council strongly endorses.

Amjad Mohamed-Saleem concluded:

‘Diaspora Diaries’ is part of an ongoing project by International Alert to push for a proposition that diaspora or overseas Sri Lankans are important stakeholders in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process. These stories humanise the diaspora who have been maligned previously, and also show real struggles (personally, emotionally and socially) that they go through in terms of wanting to engage with Sri Lanka. The hope is that they can pave the way for real discussions about the values that are brought by such engagements”.