A Promising Young Healer

This article was originally published by the European Professional Women's Network, in August 2007. (see original here)

Tamil émigré, Jeyanthy Siva has been working toward improving communication between the different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka and civil society at large with the aim of providing skills for resolving conflict without resorting to violence. Natasha Gunn reports.

Jeyanthy Siva

When she was twelve, Jeyanthy made a promise on bidding farewell to the empty rooms of the home she was leaving in Jaffna, Sri Lanka; to return one day to help her homeland find peace.

She emigrated with her family to the US in the 80s to escape the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists, which erupted into war in 1983.

Now Jeyanthy is well on the way to fulfilling that childhood promise.

The importance of idealism “For a while I felt as if I had nothing to offer. I even judged my dream – to help shift people’s thinking and feeling from the paradigm of mistrust and fear to the one of trust and love, as idealistic,” she says.

When Jeyanthy came across the language of non-violent communication during her studies in America she realised that she had found the means to help. It reminded her of the words of a spiritual teacher: “At base, we have two choices to make, whether to live from love or fear.”

In 2002, Jeyanthy set out for Sri Lanka.

“Don’t trust anyone,” warned her Tamil family as well as her Sinhalese friends. She found that deep mistrust of everyone and everything was a common theme among all Sri Lankans regardless of their ethnic identity, both within Sri Lanka and abroad. This rampant lack of trust amongst people in Sri Lanka is reflected by division at every level of society.

Twenty years of fighting down the line, the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) agreed to a cease-fire in February 2002. However, violence between the LTTE and government forces intensified in 2006, although neither side has officially backed out from the cease-fire.

Human right’s violations are commonplace and the UN and human rights groups say abductions and disappearances between January and June of 2007 come close to a thousand.

Working from the inside out

In the face of such conflict, Jeyanthy decided not to work with either the government or the Tamil Tigers. Instead, she is working to facilitate communications among religious leaders, a group of people who, unlike in the western world, still have great influence over the people, along with community leaders, University students and others.

“Because the situation in Sri Lanka is so polarised and people tend to automatically assume you are for one side or the other, it’s very difficult to be understood as standing not for one side or the other but for all sides and all people,” she says.

Through instilling trust in the meetings she facilitates and supports, Jeyanthy hopes that diverse language and ethnic groups can gain a sense that their perspective matters. “I hope to create a container to help people feel safe,” she says. “A breakdown of trust means creativity breaks down.”

Speaking from fear or trust

Jeyanthy gives two paradigms for communication based on Marshall Rosenberg’s language of non-violent communication: the fear/ distrust-based model and the trust-based model.

The fear-based model uses punishment and reward as a means to motivate people. Such societies are characterised through having a few people in strong positions at the top and money and power matter considerably.

In the trust-based society, people want to care and are motivated via interconnectedness, compassion, empathy and vulnerability. In this kind of society everyone matters.

Jeyanthy Siva in Amsterdam *

Finding the person behind the ‘label’

Communication without violence is based on the trust model. We need to understand our own needs and the needs of those we are dealing with – without judging them as the ones in the wrong or the ‘bad’ ones, the terrorists. It means seeing the opposition as people rather than dehumanising them. From here we can find a way to meet everyone’s needs.

“The biggest contribution I can give is through being who I am, modelling empathic listening and vulnerable expression, not being the all-knowing person or giving solutions,” says Jeyanthy, who strongly agrees with Rosenberg’s view that the quickest way to get some one to adopt a new behaviour is to show respect for the life in them which led to the old behaviour.

Although Jeyanthy sees herself as “some one who brings skills to help resolve conflict” rather than a healer, if being trustworthy is healing – then this courageous young woman, in keeping her promise to her land, is bringing healing to where it is sorely needed.

Natasha Gunn is the editor of Expatica Netherlands and Expatica HR

*Photo of Jeyanthy Siva taken by Antowi Wibbelink

This article is based on a presentation given by Jeyanthy Siva on 21st August at the West-Indisch Pakhuis in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, an event organised by Mirella Visser.

For more information about Jeyanthy Siva's organisation visit http://www.sandhi.org/
(Note: Sandhi is from Sanskrit meaning, "point where two or more paths cross") 

An interview on Sri Lankan televsion with Jeyanthy Siva: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlm1GjYn394 

Launching ‘Women's voices over the internet' for Sri Lanka

Jeyanthy Siva acknowledges that her ability to sustain herself in her work is through all the support she has received and continues to receive from people in Europe and the US, such as her bi-weekly mentoring meetings on Skype with her mentor Mirella Visser. In view of this, Mirella and Jeyanthy have launched mentoring programme ‘Women's voices over the internet' to enable more women living in Europe to connect with remarkable women in Sri Lanka. If you are interested in becoming a ‘mentee', send an email to: jeyanthy.sandhi@gmail.com. Potential ‘mentors' may contact mirella.visser@mv-imc.com.