Jeremy Liyanage is the Executive Director of Bridging Lanka and moved the audience to tears with his passion and authenticity at the Diasporas in Action conference, September 2016.
“My overwhelming passion is to contribute to the land of my birth”
How one man’s determination has built a diaspora-led organisation designed to connect Sri Lankans abroad with development projects in their home country.
Jeremy Liyanage said he had a tough childhood in the rural Queensland town of Crows Nest, just outside of Toowoomba. His family arrived from Sri Lanka in 1967; his uncle was the parish priest.
“My parents could see trouble coming for Sri Lanka. Things were brewing, darkness was gathering. It was a huge move — we had a good life in Sri Lanka.”
“I always knew I would go back. My overwhelming passion is to contribute to the land of my birth.”
It took him years — Jeremy could not work in Sri Lanka during the war — but now he is doing just that. In 2010 he set up Bridging Lanka, a small community-led organisation kick-started with his super funds.
Jeremy started to work in Mannar, in the country’s north, and was able to draw on his experience in local government in Australia to develop a participatory ten-year community development plan for the town.
Jeremy said he was quite surprised by the results. “People wanted very practical things. The number-one priority was urban planning. Fixing the roads, addressing flooding. We thought it would be something more basic, like food or housing, but they wanted a larger vision.
“Most of the priorities we had no expertise or background in, but we’ve learnt those disciplines and have been able to work through those priorities. We had no recipes or agenda, but have tried to build on what we’ve learned on the ground.”
Bridging Lanka now has seven local staff and more than 30 programs ranging from social enterprise development, sustainable tourism, livelihood for widows, animal welfare, peace-building and reconciliation, and of course, improving the local infrastructure.
Liyange said proudly that his team is nimble and innovative, and by working locally can deliver projects at a fraction of the cost of the government or larger NGOs.
Jeremy added that the conference has helped him build networks and connect with government, NGOs and the academic world. “Making these connections will be very helpful to us. There’s a lot of things that we are doing, but there’s also things that we can improve and change and be fertilized by these new connections.
The conference, he said is a great first step. “We are hoping that this diaspora movement will grow and gain more prominence particularly in the eyes of the Australian government.”
Words and pictures by Lara McKinley