During her relatively short life, Britain’s Princess Diana was able to overcome many trials and tribulations and dedicate her time to helping others live better lives. Her many causes included a fight to ban landmines and beating the stigma of AIDS during the early days of the disease.
To celebrate her legacy, the Diana Award was established in 1999. One of this year’s winners of the award, which honours young people for their social action or humanitarian work, is Anojitha Sivaskaran, a youth and peace activist who has been working with grassroots civil societies for more than four years.
Like Princess Diana Anojitha, 25, has overcome many difficulties and traumas in her own life to go on to strive for a better world. She was in the north during the end of the civil war, unable to continue her education because of the fierce fighting going on around her. She had to live in a refugee camp before completing her studies and going on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in peace and conflict resolution from the University of Kelaniya.
Anojitha is currently working as a project officer at the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka and volunteers at Interfaith Colombo and the Global Refugee Education Council.
What was your early life like?
I was born and brought up in Mallavi in the Mullaitivu District. My mother is a teacher, working at a primary school in Jaffna. My father is a lab assistant in Mullaitivu. I have two sisters. We have always had the freedom to follow our passions and explore new things; my family has been a big support to me. In 2008 and 2009, I attended six different schools and couldn’t get a proper education because of the war. Sometimes I went to school only for two days. The next day we had to move because of the shelling. We spent few months in a welfare camp where we had to line up for a long time to get food and water and for ablutions. We later moved to my grandmother’s house in Jaffna because our house was destroyed.
How do you feel about winning the prize?
I am truly honoured and happy because I have received international recognition for what I am doing. It gives me confidence that I am going on the right path. I also realise the responsibilities I have to improve my work.
Do you feel your work is making a difference?
Yes. The work I do is changing the way young people think. Many young people in Sri Lanka are not aware of facts. They believe what they hear. As someone who interacts with diverse communities, I am trying bridge the gap among different communities by sharing my experiences. Through Interfaith Colombo and the National Peace Council, we create spaces for young people to speak about several critical issues related to reconciliation. Young people are given the opportunity make friends with others from different faiths and to understand their cultural practices and traditions.
Do you sometimes lose hope and feel your work is not achieving any results?
No but I feel that we, as country, are lacking in state policies and spaces for young people to engage in decision making and lead change. It sometimes affects our work. There’s also concern about the security of people who are involved in humanitarian work and social action. My mother tells me, “Do whatever you want but make sure that not only you but also people around you are safe”.
What motivates you to do the work that you do?
At a leadership session I facilitated, a young lady who had a stammer said, “I don’t normally speak since I have a complex because of my speech problem. Your speech and training has given me the confidence and motivation to speak out.” Such feedback motivates me to continue my work. My experiences and passion drive me to put more effort to give back to my community. I really don’t want others to experience what I have gone through.
How has living through the last days of the war affected you?
I lost my education for several months. At university, I sensed the difference in terms of the ability to speak English, record of achievements and other aspects where I was lacking. Fortunately, we as a family came through the war without physical injuries and overcame our financial struggles but many relatives and friends suffered. I have relatives who are living with disabilities, shrapnel inside their bodies and with heavy loans.
How have you managed not to feel hatred and bitterness for what you have suffered?
One major factor is my parents and family. My grandfather used to tell stories about his Muslim friend with whom he celebrated Ramazan and a Sinhala principal who saved his job. I never felt differences with other communities. My mentors are from the Sinhala community and they have always been supportive and inspired me with their examples.
What was it like, coming from the north, to study at a southern university?
At first, my family didn’t want to send me so far away. I couldn’t speak a single sentence in Sinhala so I struggled at the beginning. However, I made friends with people from different communities and learnt to communicate in Sinhala within six months. Now they are like my family. After the Easter attacks, our hostel was closed and I couldn’t find a place to live. One of my friends from Kalutara invited me to stay at her house and her mother used to wake up early to cook for me. There are many examples like that.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
My academic background and my professional and volunteer experiences have shaped my career goals and objectives. I prefer to work in the peace building field as I have a great passion and compassion for it. I specifically want to capacitate and empower young people to lead change.
How can young people influence the peace process? Are they an important contributor?
In our country, youth have been misled and misguided to take part in insurrections, the civil war and religious riots. Therefore it’s crucial to empower and transform young people as peace agents. This can be done through quality education and by creating opportunities for engagement. I believe that if young people work together, there’s nothing that cannot be achieved.