For our final edition of ‘Notes on Resilience’ Amalini De Sayrah speaks about the generosity of Sri Lankans in times of need, burnout and 2020 as a year to acknowledge and reflect on privilege. Amalini works in research and communications on human rights; documenting, creating awareness and carrying out advocacy on various issues. How did [...]


The generosity of our people is amazing

Concluding ‘Notes on Resilience’ with Amalini De Sayrah who works in research and communications on human rights

For our final edition of ‘Notes on Resilience’ Amalini De Sayrah speaks about the generosity of Sri Lankans in times of need, burnout and 2020 as a year to acknowledge and reflect on privilege. Amalini works in research and communications on human rights; documenting, creating awareness and carrying out advocacy on various issues.

How did the pandemic affect the work you do? In what ways did you have to adjust?

In terms of work that couldn’t be done this year, it was mostly the travel and being able to discuss things in-person. But the work that I do adapts to the situation. You’re responding to issues that are happening – so there was still work, there were issues to engage with and to create awareness around. So in that sense, while there were elements that couldn’t be done, there was a whole other section that came up as a consequence of 2020 being what it was.

I do various work that’s broadly related to human rights issues so research and going and speaking to people and documenting stories is a key part of it. This year there was a short window in between where we were able to do some research outside of Colombo. It was really nice to be among people and just chatting and talking during a very brief period in-between. But in general, I feel like some of us were physically disconnected from the communities that we would usually spend time with. We tried by way of relief to help as best as we could and to respond to the situation that they are facing without incomes and due to movement restrictions.

Amalini at a recent protest

What has brought you  joy this year?

I thought about this question a lot. I asked it out aloud a bunch of times because this whole year has felt like it was very tiring, like it was one terrible news update after another. You wake up to bad news and then there’s worse news within the day. Something that has brought joy and even to this day, to this minute, something that keeps me going is how generous people are. How generous Sri Lankans seem to be even in the worst circumstances.

I’ve been involved in sorting out relief through various avenues this year and I will never not be completely overwhelmed at how much people are willing to give to help other people pull through. Someone you’ve never spoken to on the internet will be like “hey I want to help out”, and two minutes later would DM (direct message) you a deposit slip to assist someone. It constantly brings a lot of joy.

On the very critical end of things, we are backstopping so much of what the state should be giving people but at the same time it is really overwhelming and it moves me so much whenever people are so open, and so generous.

Earlier this year we started collecting funds – and I’m saying ‘we’ because there are so many people involved in making calls and following up on things to make this happen – to be able to provide relief to people in places around the country.  We started collections based on very specific needs that we were given from people on the ground and because we have these connections because of the work we do.

And at the same time, there are collections that are ongoing to sponsor Sri Lankan migrant workers stuck in Dubai to return home. People have been generous on both fronts and it means so much in this moment in time, because even a little goes far. I fully understand that people are anxious and they’re probably experiencing job losses and pay cuts but still in the midst of all of that, people are still being so generous. It’s really, really humbling.

The work and relief efforts you’re engaged in often involves you to stay plugged in all the time. How do you
avoid or manage burnout?

I don’t think I’ve been very good at avoiding or managing it, but I try to make sense of it internally, explaining to myself the following things:

1.  There are so many people we have to be accountable to when taking donations, and I want to be able to make sure people know where their donations are going.

2.  The people we’re arranging relief for or people affected by issues we’re engaged in are in far worse situations than we could know. Personally it has felt indulgent to focus on my burnout when their reality is such.

3.  There’s this sense of urgency that if we disengage or dial it down that a lot of terrible things will be done in the guise of ‘pandemic response’, as they already have, and that our silence or disengagement will just legitimise those things. I’m not saying that my engagement or work is going to keep this from happening because I know terrible decisions will be taken even with the work we do to oppose them, but it’s just a worry for me personally that if we’re not engaged and putting issues on the record, so much will slip by unnoticed.

One tiny way in which I manage burnout, tiny because it’s only for short periods of time and not regularly enough, is to stay offline. You do find yourself coming back to catch up on a bigger backlog of terrible news, but the short time off, just a breather, can feel like relief given how the information cycles have been this year.

Is there a memory or an experience from 2020 which stands out?

Maybe I’m just processing too many things right now and I couldn’t think of a single memory but I do remember in-between the two waves I did a lot of travelling with friends and family, and almost everywhere we went there were various people who would have various stories of struggling with the impact of this year. And it’s not like we weren’t aware of this but hearing it at a time when Colombo was calming down or going back to its usual, it was a reality check of how it (the pandemic) was playing out for people. And everywhere we went, everyone had a different story; of how the lack of tourists was impacting their business, how to pay loans back and things like that.

It was a really important reminder that for some people, the impact of this year has been worse than some of us can even kind of imagine. Even though it has been a terrible year all around, for everyone in many ways, we are definitely not experiencing the pandemic and responses to it equally, and there are people who are feeling the brunt even more.

What are the key learnings you are taking away from the year?

I don’t know if I come across as bitter but if there was a year to acknowledge your privilege, it was this one. A curfew for three months means different things to different people. Even though this year has done a number on everybody, it feels indulgent to complain about some of the things that we faced when we know the impacts have been so outsized across the board.

And another learning has been that because of the way the pandemic is, people are very quick to be like, “okay, we are facing a pandemic, now is not the time to bring up other stuff”. I feel like something that we’ve learned throughout this year is that it’s never not the time to bring up issues that are not necessarily directly related to the pandemic either, because there’s so many things that have happened as a result of the health regulations. If you really wanted to you could say it’s not a big deal and we need to stay safe and now is not the time to get into the nuances and nitty-gritties. But I feel like this year has given us incident after incident in Sri Lanka where now is the time you have to talk about these difficult topics, especially in the pandemic context because of how it exacerbates things.

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