By Tarini Pilapitiya – The Sunday Times
We have just got started, says founder of Sri Lanka Unites, Prashan De Visser who was recently awarded the Commonwealth Point of Light in recognition of his work
How can I help? – The catchphrase made famous by customer service assistants has been put into practice by Prashan De Visser for most of his life. Prashan is the founder of Sri Lanka Unites (SLU), a youth movement which has in the past 11 years grown to around 20,000 young people from different ethnicities and religious backgrounds from 25 districts, all working to foster peace and reconciliation in the country.
At present SLU has six reconciliation centres in Monaragala, Nuwara Eliya, Kalmunai, Mullaitivu, Puttalam and Matara for young leaders to engage each other and have discussions on promoting peace. The organization also helps youth find employment and higher education opportunities bringing growth and prosperity to their communities.
On Monday, August 13, Prashan was recognized by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, the head of the Commonwealth, as a Commonwealth Point of Light. This prestigious award honours inspirational volunteers across the 53 Commonwealth nations for the differences they made to their communities and beyond. Prashan is Sri Lanka’s 2nd Commonwealth Point of Light and the 65th globally to receive the award.
Humbled and honoured to receive the award Prashan chuckles, “I was the one who took the picture when Kushil Gunasekera received the first Point of Light award.”
But he adds, “ none of us in the movement are doing our line of work to get recognized.”
Hailing from Gampaha, Prashan is a past pupil of Wesley College and credits his family and school for fuelling the flames of his passionate work. “My parents from a very young age always opened our home to anybody,” he shares. When he was young, his parents opened an orphanage so he had “many brothers and sisters” growing up. “They always made sure I didn’t ever look down on a person based on ethnicity, religion, financial status, their ability to speak English or not,” he says.
Receiving a scholarship to pursue his Bachelor of Arts in international affairs at Gordon College, Boston, Prashan was able to study urban communities and the indicators of what creates cycles of poverty and violence.
“When you go to a foreign university you sometimes feel like the outsider,” he states. Proactive by nature, Prashan counteracted the loneliness by thinking of those who suffered more than him. “How can I help them out?”he repeatedly states throughout our conversation.
Bridging barriers wasn’t easy. Not being invited to others’ homes, he invited friends into his dorm through his newly acquired skill of – cooking! “I hadn’t cooked a day in my life in Sri Lanka,” he chuckles “but I started by skyping my mother and watching her.” People got to know him better over a meal and during his four year stint at college “I felt like I had cooked for 500 people,” he laughs.
But Prashan has also been on the other side of discrimination. After the death of his friend’s father in the World Trade Centre bombing in ’97 he honestly proclaims “I remember feeling so frustrated.” Sixteen years old at the time, he recalls going through radical assumptions that everyone in the North was a terrorist.
However his new neighbour, a boy from Vavuniya changed his perspective. “He was a year older than I and was interested in joining the LTTE so his parents sent him to school in Colombo.” “I was very hostile to him as he was to me,” he states laughing“but we still played cricket together. I changed my thinking to, ‘everyone else is bad but this one is ok’.” Joining his new friend on a leadership training mission in the North, Prashan recalls seeing children as young as 13 being recruited in the war – some willingly, some forced.
His emotional experience coupled with the research he did for his final year bachelor’s thesis ‘reconciliation in a world of conflict’ made Prashan “really think”. Coming back to the country in 2008 he organized groups from the North and South to say 10 things about each other. “Nine out of the 10 were always negative although they had never met. At that time we found that 70% of Sri Lankan youth didn’t have a friend outside their ethnicity or religion but they had many opinions about them.”
Prashan comments that roughly 96% of students today study in their own medium of language making them unable to speak with a person from another ethnicity.
SLU emerged as a means to start a conversation. Conferences took place in Jaffna, Galle, Kalmunai, Kurunegala etc. Advertised as the Future Leaders Conference where the best and brightest in Sri Lanka come together, Prashan happily recalls the positive response to the programme.
SLU was able to strategically divide the young participants by ethnicity, race and religion engaging them in sports, discussion etc. By cheering for the same team and sharing grievances the young learnt quickly that “everyone suffered in the war” Prashan comments.
Back home, SLU picked a leader to represent their school urging others to join his/her club and partnering them with another school from a different ethnicity. The students stayed in touch, visiting each other and even staying at each other’s homes some even going on to change their parents prejudices.
But why young people? To this Prashan responds, “It’s very difficult to teach someone who has lived and breathed something for 20 to 30 years. Young people learn and absorb change better. They have built their opinions based on inherited opinions so you can give them a positive experience,” he feels. “If you want reconciliation and peace in Sri Lanka you need a generation to work at it.”
Women leaders were a big emphasis for Prashan. “Women need to be part of the negotiating table,” he states adding that they add more advantages to peace building.
Prashan has four indicators for success. Firstly breaking the cycle of violence which has dogged this country for over 30 years, resulting in a needless loss of life.
The second is creating a better understanding among communities. “At the moment we can’t even imagine a president, prime minister or parliamentarian getting voted by people predominantly outside their ethnicity or religion,” he states, “people will vote for their crook but we want people voting for the good.”
“I want my son to grow up in a country he can be proud of” Prashan smiles counting a success if conflict could be spoken about in the past tense. And lastly Prashan hopes that every Sri Lankan one day sees themselves as a “first class citizen regardless of their differences.”
With SLU “we’re building a proactive, independently thinking, engaging generation,” he shares. “Violence has been seen as a sign of manhood, as a sign or protection,” he explains adding that SLU projects “that violence is a lack of intelligence, a lack of capacity to think independently and a lack of maturity.” Steps taken towards reconciliation will also further benefit Sri Lanka to be seen as a country good for foreign investments.
SLU has been expanded to become Global Unites, including several countries from all around the world aimed at building peace and reconciliation among nations. The movement will also be hosting an investor ‘shark tank’ of sorts in Sri Lanka in the coming months where students from all over the country will be able to present their business proposals to investors who will help finance and mentor them.
Citing the case of a girl who has opened her own bicycle repair shop in Monaragala as one of the many bi-products of SLU, he says, “We make them employable and give them opportunities to let them know that they are supported.”
“We’ve done maybe 5% of what we’re supposed to do,” he shares hoping that his story will encourage others to help their community. “Community service isn’t about taking a selfie and posting it on social media saying ‘oh look at me I’m a nice person’, community service has to be strategic and have a long term effect. You don’t need to know my name. You don’t need to know who I am. But you need to know what we can do for this country.”
What continues to motivate his work? “The job’s not done,” he affirms, smiling “we’re just getting started.”