She is the daughter of two prime ministers, one of whom was the world’s first female premier. Here she tells the Magazine how she turned away from politics towards humanitarian goals – and how Somerville and the lifelong friendships she made here shaped her path.
It’s London in 2001 and, on a stage over 5,000 miles from home, 45 young and (for the most part) disabled people bow to rapturous applause. They have just performed Flowers Will Always Bloom, a moving portrayal of the Sri Lankan civil war which they and their families have lived through. They represent the full ethnic and religious diversity of my people. They represent hope.
As the applause continues, there is just enough time to reflect that these young people and this moment also represent the fulfilment of a long personal journey for me, towards meaning and my own purpose.
It was my father who inspired me to come to Oxford. He studied Classics at Christ Church, and often regaled us with enthralling stories of his time there and the brilliant friends he made.
When I came up to Somerville myself, in 1964, the first thing I noticed was the liberal attitude. Having had a very conventional Sri Lankan upbringing, the creativity and freedom of the place hugely changed the way I saw the world. I went from a timid, quiet person to someone who could hold her own in situations and discuss issues in a broad-minded manner. What’s more, to my surprise, I developed leadership qualities which I had not recognised in myself before. This has stood me in good stead throughout my life.
Creating harmony between communities is just as important as the harmony within them.
The other thing that stood out to me was the Principal, Dame Janet Vaughan. Dame Janet was a remarkable person. She was intellectually brilliant – but she was also kind, caring and considerate. Aware I had come from a different cultural background, she paid extra attention to my wellbeing at all times, and helped me to integrate. I could reach out to her whenever I needed, and she became a very special part of my life at Somerville.
I read PPE. You could say that was inevitable as politics is, to some extent, in my DNA. Both of my parents, as well as my sister and brother, were deeply involved in Sri Lankan politics, three of them as Prime Minister. From this vantage point, however, I also observed the negative aspects of politicians (which were often far more numerous than the positives). Active politics can bring out the good in a politician but it more often than not simply reveals the bad. After my father was assassinated by his political enemies when I was still in my teens, I knew that politics would never be part of my answer to serving the people of my country.
I found my calling elsewhere. A dear friend of mine, Wolfgang Stange, Founder of the AMICI Dance Theatre Company, had been working with differently-abled young people in England. He called me one day to try and persuade me to get involved in the work he was doing in Sri Lanka. He knew that, in addition to my knowledge of the region, I have a passion for the performing arts, especially drama.
Disabled people are among the most vulnerable in our society, but they are so often marginalised and turned away from in a way I find deeply disturbing, both in Sri Lanka and around the world. It hadn’t occurred to me until speaking to Wolfgang how the performing arts could help to develop these young people, enhance their lives, and give them joy and hope. In 1988, with Wolfgang’s support, I raised funds to begin to set up workshops, which helped lead eventually to four major theatre productions – including Flowers Will Always Bloom.
We formed the Sunera Foundation in 1998 to continue our work. Sunera now runs many workshops island-wide, mostly in poor rural areas, providing a free-of-charge service to over one thousand disabled young persons. The decisions on setting up workshops are taken on the basis of the need in a particular area.
Creating harmony between communities is just as important as the harmony within them. Sunera plays a reconciliatory, apolitical role in bringing together communities who have been torn apart by 30 years of civil war in Sri Lanka. Our workshops are established in areas where Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities live, and have a mix of all ethnic groups, all of whom work together to tell the story. We perform narratives which deal with unity, harmony, and extending support to all those who need it. In this way, we convey a message of a united Sri Lanka where there is peace and community.
We have faced many challenges along our journey, but with determination, dedication and the support of all our friends we have overcome them. I have seen time and time again how these youngsters flourish, developing their self-confidence and self-esteem in a way which brings joy not just to themselves but to their families, as well and enabling them to integrate into society.
Irrespective of our individual or collective problems and frustrations, we must, at all times, stand with those who are most vulnerable and most in need of help in whatever way. At a time like this, I believe Sunera has a very special role to play.
THE FRIENDS OF SUNERA FOUNDATION
Seeing the work of our Somerville friend Sunethra inspired us in 2006 to start a small UK charity, the Friends of Sunera Foundation (FSF), to raise funds to support this important cause.
On our numerous visits to Sri Lanka to support Sunera, we saw firsthand how our old friend’s vision and commitment continue to steer the organisation, while her charismatic presence, good humour and determination inspire all who work there. Sunethra is more than just a figurehead. She is actively tackling the profound stigma carried by disability in Sri Lankan society, where disabled children can still be seen as a source of shame to be hidden away from the local community.
Perhaps most importantly, the Sunera Foundation is – like Somerville – a radically inclusive space. In a country riven for decades by sectarian disputes and civil war, all ethnic and religious groups are welcomed in Sunera workshops. Families who have often had no contact outside their ethnic or religious circle see their children working together and enjoying each other’s company, and this has helped them to move away from fear and suspicion towards greater mutual understanding and trust.
It is this kind of radical compassion which the world so urgently needs today.
Sue Griffin 1964 PPE
Susan Hoyle 1964 PPE
Alison Skilbeck 1964 Modern Languages
Founders of the Friends Of Sunera Foundation