Sunethra Bandaranaike was born into Sri Lanka’s most high profile political family. Unlike her family members, all of whom were politicians, she chose to walk the path less traveled. The Sunera Foundation, which she set up 15 years ago, is committed to playing a pivotal role in enhancing the lives of persons living with disabilities, and integrating them into communities of their peers and into broader society.
Sunethra greets us at the entrance to the Sunera Foundation with a smile. Much like its matriarch, the understated elegance of the workspace does not betray the magnitude of its achievements. We sit across from Sunethra in her spacious office as she begins to tell us her story.
Sunethra and her sister Chandrika were brought up in the Victorian era, two feisty young ladies coming of age during a time of traditionally strict upbringing and rigid gender stereotypes. After her schooling at St. Bridget’s Convent in Colombo, she entered Oxford University where she obtained a BA Honors Degree in PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics). “It was during my three years at Oxford that I was able to grow wings and fly”, laughs Sunethra. She adds that her interest in the performing arts began there, spending time with those of her friends who were involved with the University theatre scene.
In 1996, having finally decided to settle in Sri Lanka, Sunethra set up a trust by the name of The Sunethra Bandaranaike Trust which provides financial support to the performing arts. It was during this time that she met Wolfgang Stange, a German thespian who visited Sri Lanka annually to work with elderly and disabled individuals. One day she was persuaded by him to attend one of his workshops. The impact of this experience, she says, was profound. She was hooked; the outcome of which was the creation of a number of groundbreaking shows that engaged the talents and energies of disabled soldiers, displaced people and prominent Sri Lankan artists. These performances garnered international acclaim, as they not only nurtured and developed the confidence and skills of its participants, but also addressed sensitive and timely issues such as conflict, ethnicity, alienation, disability and displacement. From this success, The Sunera Foundation was born. For 15 years, the foundation has been conducting training, workshops and performances around the island, enhancing the lives of disabled people and promoting their integration and acceptance into society.
What are some of the enduring challenges faced by the Foundation?
Although we, and other organizations like us, are playing an active role in focusing on disability issues, much more needs to be done, not only to ensure better quality of life for the disabled but also to shift the social mindset away from hostility into accepting them as an integral part of their community. In some cases, even siblings of disabled people are affected because a negative stigma is cast on the entire family. In other cases, disabled family members are left to languish without the stimulation they need to develop and grow. We are seeing progress for sure, but much more needs to be done to eradicate the negative social stigma that surrounds the disabled community in our country.
Tell us about some of the help you have received on this journey
I am so fortunate in having friends and well-wishers who have supported us on our long journey. From the beginning, prominent Sri Lankan artists like Upeka and Khema have joined hands with us to create some unbelievably impactful and beautiful theatre. International sponsors such as The Commonwealth Foundation and The British Council have given us invaluable assistance in terms of funding and international exposure. Institutions around Sri Lanka have also been truly understanding in facilitating our access to displaced and disabled individuals around the island. Corporates have also been very generous with their support. I should also mention the substantial support we receive from local government organizations, community centers, religious institutions, families and civil society in general around the country. We would not be where we are without this sincere and generous support.
How can we help?
Please help us in any way you know how. This could be as simple as coming out and watching and supporting our performers when they take the stage. All you need to do is contact us to find out more details. I especially encourage young people to give us new ideas and help us by contributing their thoughts to our workshops, social media strategy or performances.
Your website is filled with inspirational success stories. Can you tell us about one that has remained in your memory?
There have been so many wonderful success stories over the years. Let me tell you one such story. Some years ago, we were conducting a workshop in Badulla and a mother brought in her disabled son, probably in his mid to late teens. He was carried into the hall and laid down on a mat as he was unable to use his legs. Two years later, at the same workshop, I was approached by a young man with a walking stick who I did not recognize. He was quickly followed by his mother, whom I did recognize from my previous visit to this workshop. Interestingly, her story was couched as a complaint. Her son, she said, was now walking everywhere. All about town. Making friends and getting up to god knows what. He had become too independent, she said. I remember this story well, not just because of the wonderful development of this young man but also because it because it highlighted something else. In many cases, mothers find it difficult to handle the increasing independence of their disabled children perhaps because it leaves a large vacuum in their own lives as full time carers. Still, it was clear that she was immensely supportive and happy at his progress.
What is it that inspires you about your work?
From the first time that I watched my friend Wolfgang conduct a workshop, I was inspired. I didn’t expect to be, but I was. I was so struck by how much the participants were enjoying themselves using such simple props. Then later, as we brought together disabled military personnel with displaced people from war torn areas, I was amazed at how smoothly they integrated, bonded and made friends. It seemed that here, in this safe and happy environment, the hate of ethnic conflict had no place. Even now, I am so awed by our brilliant trainers and incredible performers. They revel in the opportunity to showcase their skills and be extroverts – perhaps because this is so different to what has been expected of them and what they have experienced throughout their lives. It is uplifting and humbling to witness their success.
How have you overcome your own challenges in life?
It is fair to say that I have lived a protected life. During the most critical periods and challenges, my mother was always there for me. I probably did not truly appreciate the value of her support during that time, I realize now that she stood by me through everything and supported me no matter what. In that sense, perhaps she was my best friend!
What is your favorite Sri Lankan food?
I absolutely relish a hot crab curry with murunga leaves. I also love fresh fruit juices, especially Soursop, Woodapple and Beli.
Do you like Sri Lanka?
I love Sri Lanka. I cannot see myself ever leaving.
What do you want for the future of this country?
I would like to see all our communities prosper in harmony. I want to see them share with each other their cultures, their traditions, their food and their language. I want to see each individual enriched just as he or she enriches the whole.
Where do you like to spend your time relaxing?
At Horagola, which is my country house, and at Lunuganga, I can relax and feel at home.