Sri Lanka

What We Learned

A Look At 2017

2017 was  a learning experience for all of us at Sunayra. We came to Sri Lanka with the best of intentions and some misconceptions. We initially assumed that we had to tackle post-war trauma, and that our students would be living in a past that exists vividly in the global imagination.  

Instead, we learned that our students were looking forward. They wanted good jobs, meaningful lives, equality, and hopeful futures. It is true that their lives have been deeply affected by war and natural disaster. They have lost family, homes, ties to the past. Yet, these young people are more than just what has happened to their families and communities. They are interested in being drivers of change in their own lives. They are also apprehensive because many of them do not have a family member who has pursued higher education or has a professional job. But these students want something more. They want careers they love, strong communities, and to feel like they have a voice. 


Because of this, we decided to change our logo, website, and outlook to reflect this new, hopeful, forward-looking, way of thinking. Some of you may have noticed that our website became brighter, our pictures more optimistic, and our tagline changed from "Art. Healing" to "Moving Forward". Young people want resources, opportunities, and support to follow their dreams and we realized it was important that Sunayra's programming and outlook reflected this. We went from looking backwards to moving forward.

Once we recognized this, we were able to create an even more tailored curriculum. We addressed the issues that these students faced, many of which are the direct outcomes of war and trauma - alcoholism, depression, abandonment. Unpacking these issues allowed students to put a voice to their fears, and develop the personal and communal tools to collectively lay the foundation for a better future. 


One of our key takeaways from last year was that substance abuse is a much larger issue than we had previously anticipated. The students discussed just how much substance abuse affects their lives—from the financial aspects, to violence, leaving education, and much more. As a way to engage in this issue, the students designed a banner that outlined the many unfortunate outcomes of substance abuse. We were so proud to see them work to identify the problem and determine what they wanted to communicate, and how to go about doing that. When we finally got to present them with their banner, they were overjoyed to see their hard work displayed for the community to see. In fact, our partner, St. John's Church, asked to keep the banner in order to discuss substance abuse with the young people and adults who come to them for other classes. 


We also realized the importance of discussing mental health, exam anxiety, and how much young people need each other’s support. We expanded our group activities and discussion activities, which helped students listen to each other’s experiences and become more empathetic towards each other.

Additionally, we put more emphasis on Social Media, which is becoming the regular mode of communication between young people. While it is a great tool, it also poses a unique set of problems. We have built a Social Media and Media Literacy lesson into our 2018 curriculum in order to help young people understand the media they come across, and to act responsibly on social media.

One of the most gratifying things for us was seeing just how capable these students were - in both traditional education, but also in creative problem solving and critical thinking. During the course of the pilot year, we introduced students to art analysis, film analysis, complex social and civic issues, and Rubik's cubes. The students not only engaged with all of these activities, but genuinely blew us away with their deep insights, their ability to pick up soft skills, communicate nuanced ideas, and even solve a Rubik's cube! 


If we were to name our biggest lesson from 2017, it would be realizing that this type of creative curriculum is necessary and sought after in Sri Lanka. That is why we are putting down the foundation to scale our programming to other regions of the country over the next few years, and build Sunayra Lanka into a sustainable organization. We hope that you continue with us on this journey! 

To find out more about our amazing first year, and to read some of our success stories, check out our Annual Report HERE.

Who Owns a Narrative?

When translating my field notes for a research report, I noticed something - there was staleness in how I was writing. I was referring to people by numbers, not names. Of course anonymity is required to protect sources, but even after instituting pseudonyms, the way I described people who had been interviewed for our research was robotic. The complicated stories detailing how they survived through war, dealt with the death & disappearances of loved ones, and continued to grapple with issues in the post-war aftermath became evidentiary support for our report’s claims. One person’s story illustrated how the upending of gender roles resulted in tension between men and women, while another’s highlighted the problems of debt in a context of unstable livelihoods. While these are important points to make, there is a danger in divorcing people from their stories and using them instrumentally. Part of this had to do with my novice as a researcher. I had, until then, never written about people I sat down with, had tea with; people who told me their story first-hand.

I don’t mean to speak for all researchers but I think it can be easy to fall into this trap - creating distance between your work and the real people who you have studied. Part of it may be because when you’re in the throes of writing, you focus on certain goals for the sake of efficiency: getting this section out of the way and moving onto the next; making sure you have evidence; trying to find the exact quote from the woman discussing corruption; worrying about the peer review; trying not to ‘be political’ but ‘objective’ (though it’s highly doubtful if that is even possible). Part of this may be inexperience, as in my case. Another factor may be using what is necessary to further your own agenda. Do you want to emphasize sexual violence in a post-war setting because you think that will obtain interest and funding? Ambika Satkunanathan, a researcher and lawyer in Sri Lanka, wrote an excellent piece[1] about how various actors will often utilize women’s harrowing experiences with violence, and spin them to reveal what they want them to reveal.

This all sounds incredibly cynical. Of course, not all research and writing is like this. But it happens. And at what cost? Women and young people, specifically, are often the targets of research and development interventions on conflict and poverty. Studies and reports on gender-based sexual violence, encouraging entrepreneurism amongst women and youth, and getting women ‘more’ involved in development are published regularly. The problem is that these are not homogenous groups. Yet the tendency to use these studies to perpetuate certain narratives about ‘victimisation’ or ‘empowerment’ persists. What does this mean for those who do not 'fit' easily into one of these categories? What do we gloss over when we view people from a single lens?

As Satkunanathan argues, the effectiveness of transitional justice processes for groups such as women depends on them being able to decide what they want to share and how they want to share it. My desire for Sunayra is exactly this: to give traditionally "disenfranchised" groups the opportunity to become, as Satkunanathan says, “change agents.” Sunayra hopes to eventually foster the skills in expressive writing and storytelling amongst youth in post-war areas of Sri Lanka, so they can work through their experiences without the pressure of discussing one particular thing, fitting into a certain narrative, and without the constraints of a set of questions that the researcher needs to get through in an hour.

This level of agency is inherently important, but in terms of how we, as outsiders, make sense of other people’s lives, it enables us to see just how nuanced, complicated and unique the human experience is. This is sometimes forgotten in contexts such as war and poverty, where research and news stories tend to propagate one simple image. Sunayra aims to be part of a larger movement to foster a deeper understanding of how young people negotiate their lives in times of trauma, and move past the tendency to utilise a ‘single lens.’

[1] Ambika Satkunanathan, “What is Represented and what is made invisible: Women and Transitional Justice Processes in Sri Lanka.” Groundviews 6 March 2015.



Mira Philips heads up Sunayra's Research & Operations, and is currently pursuing her MSc at London School of Economics. Mira, and Sunayra, believe that critical analysis of current research attitudes is necessary to create long-lasting and sustainable change.