Longing and belonging series: Diaspora shorts

Editors note: Groundviews is very pleased to host the web premiere of Longing and belonging series: Diaspora shorts by Kannan Arunasalam. We’ve featured Kannan’s visually stunning and compelling work before in Koothu, kerosene and paper: portraits of resilience, part of the Moving Images series commissioned by Groundviews. Over the coming week we’ll progressively upload Kannan’s short videos, so check back often. Finally, if you have a good broadband connection, we highly recommend that in the trailer below, you turn on HD and view it full screen.

Please see From London to Jaffna for the first time, The science of planning in Jaffna and Returning lives, rebuilding limbs.

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August in Sri Lanka is a month of religious festivals in the north and also a chance for the diaspora to return and reconnect with their homeland. What better time I thought than to try and meet members of the diaspora returning to visit Sri Lanka.

My own journey started six years ago, and since then I’ve made Sri Lanka my home, putting down new roots in the country of my birth. It’s fascinating for me to observe others go through what I went through years ago.

I’m was now looking at ways in which the diaspora are engaging with development work in Sri Lanka, to find out what challenges they face and how their experiences might help others who are also thinking of returning.

I began my assignment for International Alert in Jaffna at the annual Nallur festival. Last August it drew thousands of devotees. This is my hometown and the sights, smells and tastes took me back to my own childhood, growing up here. Jaffna is also home to some Tamil Diaspora and I could understand why they return to experience these things that are still very much a part of their culture. It was nice to see they were back, tracing lost roots and reconnecting with family and friends.  I wanted to meet them, to understand what it was like being back.

One of these visitors was a young Tamil family from London. For the two daughters, it was their very first time in Sri Lanka, visiting what they called their mother’s “home country”.  The family had been helping a local charity from afar and were in Jaffna to visit the charity, as well as to take in the “carnival” atmosphere of the Nallur festival.

I also met Dr Narendran, an associate professor who had worked for many years in Saudi Arabia, but who was back in Sri Lanka with ambitious plans for agriculture and animal husbandry on the islands off the Jaffna peninsula. We talked over coffee at the famous Malayan Café about his plans and later he took me along to the arid environment of the islands, which he compared fondly to the deserts of Saudi Arabia.

From Jaffna I travelled to Mannar where I met Dr Panagamuwa, a Sinhala doctor from Birmingham and a specialist in rehabilitation medicine. He had set up a limb-fitting workshop at the Mannar Hospital, coming under his British based charity, the Metha Foundation. Together with his team of technicians, he attended to the needs of amputees and the disabled. The vast majority were victims of war, but there were also polio sufferers and injuries caused by everyday accidents.

The three individuals have very different stories to tell as were their connections to Sri Lanka. Meeting them underscored what Dr Naredran had told me, that the diaspora is not a homogenous entity – it is a diverse group, with myriad perspectives, motivations and experiences. There were others too, with very different views, and who were not willing to return.  Even the ones who are returning to visit seemed to have reservations. I met many who were engaging with projects here, but who were uncomfortable being open about their views, preferring instead to keep a low profile.

They ones that were prepared to be filmed, inspired me to capture their reflections on being back and engaging with the needs of the north of the country. The three short films under my Longing and Belonging series on the Sri Lankan diaspora aim to encourage constructive discussion on what is no doubt a complex and sensitive aspect of Sri Lankan politics. Tapping into the large resources of the diaspora would greatly benefit the people of Sri Lanka. Not all will be willing to come, but those that can be won over, need to feel more welcome.

  • Kenneth

    But… but… I thought the evil Sri Lankan government was trying to wipe out the Tamils and keep the Tamil diaspora out of the country? Could it be that the end of the LTTE has brought benefits to everyone?

  • http://yahoo Sandy

    Thank you Mr.Arunasalam..so wonderful to hear of all the good work done-keep it up(: don’t be disheartened by veiled comments.

  • http://yahoo Sandy

    Groundviews.I did not make the comment “there’s always the idiots..if you are in the diaspora” I only wrote -” Thank you Mr. Arunasalam..veiled comments.” Please correct this immediately.Please explain.

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    Dear Sandy, it appears that someone has submitted a comment under your name. We’ve deleted it.

    GV.

    • http://yahoo Sandy

      Thank you Groundviews.

  • http://anapayan.tumblr.com Anapayan

    “[Tamil] Diaspora…is not a homogenous, monolithic sort of entity”

    Very crucial and valuable contribution, Good work Kannan.

    It is a ‘vocal minority’ that is running the show in a grandiose scale. It has a particular shade of opinion in respect to the ethnic crisis, believes there is a systematic genocide of Tamils happening in Sri Lanka, unwillingness for a political negotiation with the Sinhalese, separate Tamil homeland is the only solution, a tendency to portray a ‘fairytale Tamil nationalism’ without any self criticism.

    “So what happened to the ‘silent majority’? Again the Sinhala nation does not want to ask this question. The silent majority of Tamil diaspora is well aware about the irrational and often ill-informed mob behavior of a section of diaspora, which is more prominent in media coverage. The ‘silent majority’ consists of political moderates – in this article I would call them sensible Tamils – anti-LTTE activists and the politically inactive, in any society we can see a politically inactive section.

    The sensible section of the Tamil diaspora has a particular reason for not challenging the ‘vocal minority’ despite the fact that latter’s irrational and unrealistic political demands. It is simply because, the sensible section of the Tamil diaspora does not have any reliable alternative political process which can bring about a political settlement to the Tamils with dignity and self-respect.”

    http://groundviews.org/2011/01/14/some-reflections-on-reading-dayan-jayatilleka-and-dharmeratnam-sivaram-taraki/

  • http://thecarthaginiansolution.wordpress.com Mango

    I want to add my congratulations and good wishes to Mr Arunasalam for his superb documentaries which showcase real lives. In particular, “Kerosene” which shows how tough life in Jaffna was and how the people there thrived and survived. Really looking forward to seeing the diaspora documentaries.

    http://vimeo.com/21642823

  • kadphises

    Dr. Panagamuwa is one of the true unsung heros of Sri Lanka. Shunning publicity and choosing to operate beneath the radar he has done more for Sri Lankans than many who merely wear the Meththa label and crow about their piety and patriotism. He will never receive any honours, Desha this or Desha that, but if there was ever an honour for someone who serves to his countrymen with humility, commitment and scrifice my vote would go to him. He is one of those few people around who makes me proud to be Sri Lankan.

  • kenneth chelian

    The war was a terrible thing. Expectations and demands of diaspora during and after the war is very unrealistic. We goto be on a practical real life expectations when dealing with an government. Governments in Canada, England or Sri Lanka or called it Sinhales government still is a government. Which is naturally slow, bureauractic, corrupted, lethagic and political without any scientific or economical sense.

    What we got to focus here is to uplift the life of the people in the north at least back to those glories day of pre-war. Get the agriculture, economic activities, family life to normal. This people who have gone through misery should have the chance to have a normal life as per standards of rest of sri lanka. These are the people who are going to live in this land for next generations to come.

    So the diaspora has a duty, responsiblity and guilty for dragging this misery for so long to do their minimum to get back life for normal in North. There is no point of finger pointing and having old enemies. Diaspora is never going to come back in large numbers to settle down here. It is not their future land here. It is only a tourist and vacation destination for you.

    So contribute whatever in a postive attitude for the people of North. Also keep in mind there many thousand and thousand of villages in south and rest of sri lanka which is poor like this. Dont compare only Colombo with Northern Villages. Do something for the poor villages in the south too. After all it is your birth country or the roots for your foreign born kids. There isn’t much different in Tamil and Sinhala culture. There was never a solid separation point in these two communities.