I’M COMMITTED TO MAKING POSITIVE CHANGE
Dee Gibson’s life has changed forever since the Sri Lankan terrorist attacks.
Until Sunday 21st April I was a British interior designer who, after a career change, was quietly thinking about an easy life. Having bought a plot of land in Sri Lanka and built a large and beautiful villa there, Kalukanda House, it had quickly become a popular destination for girls’ holidays and retreat weeks. My new venture had enjoyed a wonderful few months of success because of the rising tide of interest in Sri Lanka and word getting around about the island.
I had spent my early childhood in Sri Lanka, living with my beloved grandparents, before moving over to England. The small island nation then endured a long civil war and after it ended in 2009, the country had spent a decade rebuilding itself and seen a huge growth in visitors. In the last three years alone it saw a massive influx of tourists and new hotels and villas alike. Sri Lanka became The Lonely Planet Place to visit in 2019, and the economy and locals were enjoying the benefits.
It wasn’t until 2016 that I visited Sri Lanka again, my first visit for over a decade. My childhood memory of the sights and sounds and scents of the island had never left me, and being back there I’d fallen in love all over again. I got the idea of building a beautiful house there for family holidays but also as a villa to let to holiday makers.
Kalukanda House was a huge success and we had exciting plans for its future.
Then on Easter Sunday 2109 the world woke up to the terrible news of the terrorist attacks on hotels and churches. At least 500 people were injured and 258 killed. Hearing about families who had been ripped apart was mind blowing. Not just the poor tourists affected but all the innocent locals who had gone to church to pray on Easter Sunday. I was numb with shock.
“I had this deep desire to stand in front of Sri Lanka, the isle of my birth, and shout about her.”
As the days went on and events sank in, I inwardly felt that somehow this brave island would just pick itself up and slowly life would get back to normal. But then the UK FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) put a travel ban in place. This was the single most devastating they could have done for the tourism industry on which a vast number of Sri Lankans depend for their livelihood.
Of course I was worried about my own business, but far more about the impact on the country at large. I ended up writing weekly emails to everybody I know. I felt this need to represent my country. Bizarre I know, given I’ve always seen myself as a Brit, but I suddenly had this deep desire to stand in front of Sri Lanka, the isle of my birth, and shout about her.
As the weeks wore on and the ban stayed in place, the fallout on the local economy really hit hard. A few of us Sri Lanka villa owners and hoteliers lobbied the FCO. In my letter to Jeremy Hunt I told him that this ban was like watching the little kid at school being thumped by bullies and walking away. It was easy to prove that Sri Lankans would not let something like this ever happen again. School children were being sent to school with see-through school bags, curfews were in place, there were house to house searches, and churches, mosques and temples were checked high and low. Every tiny detail of life was about transparency and flushing out the dark element. Somehow, the collective message got through to the FCO and the ban was lifted.
Nobody will ever forget the awful events of Easter Sunday but it is so important to stand together and remember that this awful thing that is now a part of our lives does not belong to any particular country or religion. The monsters who committed the attack do not represent anybody but themselves. Sri Lanka is a stunning island full of beautiful people who want nothing more than to be included in the world community.
“This has made me realise that you can only make change by speaking up.”
A couple of months before the attack I’d joined the trustees of a charity called TFT which works to improve and develop the lives of disadvantaged children in Sri Lanka. I had originally joined it in order to contribute to the country and to close the circle with a social conscience I could not ignore, while running a villa that we could all enjoy. Since the attacks and hearing about the annihilation of whole Sri Lankan families and the fear instilled in communities, I am determined to help re-build confidence in the country.
After something like this when there is total chaos it’s the small charities who get direct appeals for help from individuals who have to step up to the plate. As the only Sri Lankan on the board I am a huge supporter of any action that empowers others. I joined this charity because I don’t just believe in firefighting, but in changing mindsets and giving the disenfranchised the means to support themselves through education and skilling – and TFT is all about that.
So many kids have been left parentless or families have lost the breadwinners and TFT have been trying to deal with housing impoverished kids and families and paying medical bills for blast injuries.
There is no unemployment protection and the large informal work sector – the tuk tuk drivers, the staff of many restaurants and hotels – is not covered by any form of social security scheme. We are innovating ideas around education and empowerment for disadvantaged locals. After all, how can we in the West spend thousands each year travelling to beautiful places like this and not share our wealth of knowledge with them, so that they can be the masters of their own destiny and not remain lifelong victims? Sri Lanka has a long history of colonial ownership by Western Countries. She may have her independence but that needs to be given with power and love and not with roughly cut apron strings and no protection.
The events of April 21st have changed me because I have realised exactly how protective I am not just of Sri Lanka but of our freedom as women and people on the planet. This is about us as a global community. The time for partisan thinking between countries is over.
This has made me realise that you can only make change by speaking up, taking action, being brave on social media, in public… and saying this is NOT OK. Until Sunday 21st April I was happily contemplating an easy life. For a long time, it seems, my life was wrapped up in the success of my company and the wellbeing of my family, but since reconnecting with Sri Lanka, I have to do all I can to help.