By Dasanti Wimalaratne
Soraya Dean, born in Sri Lankan and currently residing in America, founded the Muslim Women Speakers Movement and cofounded Peacemoms in her resident area of Los Angeles, California. Peacemoms is an interfaith organisation designed to bring together people of differing faiths in order to learn about each other and live in harmony. She is a firm believer in open discourse and importance of empowering children with impressive plans for the future. Soraya kindly granted International Alert an interview with her to discuss Peacemoms, the status of Muslims in Sri Lanka and her personal beliefs as to what Sri Lanka needs for the country's forward journey in peace and reconciliation.
Q: Could you tell us about what inspired the Peacemoms initiative - the moment at which you and Nadyne decided to start a movement?
A: Peacemoms began with a deep vision. A mother's heart they say is a child's classroom. I would like to see interfaith dialogue as a childhood norm. The conversations we have across the dinner table are crucial. What are we teaching and sharing with our children? That what they hear shapes their outlook and relationships in the future. We began with an example – a Christian mother and Muslim mother coming together to address tensions between communities proved to be hugely powerful.
My son was only seven when he was told that he was a terrorist; it is then that I realised evil prevails when good people do nothing. That was one of the grounding reasons for the Peacemoms initiative: our youth can transform the world. We can't always mend broken adults, but we can raise strong children.
I am a firm believer of personal responsibility. I founded the Muslim Women Speakers Movement to make our voices heard. Every year we have a mega conference where I bring together hundreds of women and teach them to become powerful communicators. We have a panel discussion and share stories of activism and courage. My philosophy is simple, "There are two ways to tell your story. Either you tell it yourself or wait for someone else to do it for you." This is the dangerous predicament we Muslims are in today. People are interpreting Islam (never even seen the Quran) and telling the stories of Muslims. I would like to hold such conferences in Sri Lanka as well.
Q: What do you think are the most important steps towards peace and understanding between people of differing faiths and backgrounds?
A: For 6000 years the world has worked towards promoting peace, ending wars and eradicating violence and promoting love. Where are we today? Worse than when we pledged. There are more wars, more violence, more hate and more of everything that tears us apart. Minutes after we are born we are given a name, a nationality and a religion and all our life we fight to preserve and defend it. Why? We all need to be awakened and observe ourselves. An attitude adjustment is the greatest step towards promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding.
No one has a monopoly on the truth.
Q: Have you had any defining moments during your talks or conversations that especially touched you?
A: I remember one day I was speaking at a church. My children were also in the audience. A group of about five people walked up to the podium and threw the Quran (Muslim's Holy book) at me. They screamed, "This book is violent." My children were scared. Most people stood up in protest. But I stayed calm. I was able to see them as people who had fear and were looking for answers. I was able to take their questions and offer answers to their questions.
Q: What challenges have you faced in dealing with Sri Lanka because of your gender or religion?
A: I left Sri Lanka as a lawyer. Today I am a social activist, promoting civic engagement and social activism amongst all women and particularly Muslim women. My religion and gender has been a great asset and sometimes a liability. I have not worked in this capacity in Sri Lanka but given the right support I don't anticipate major challenges in dealing with Sri Lanka.
Q: How do you think being a Muslim female member of the diaspora has affected how you interact with Sri Lanka?
A: I am so grateful for my upbringing and childhood in Sri Lanka. .A deep love for Sri Lanka, being Sri Lankan, was inculcated growing up. I see no divide. I feel no divide. How can I, when my mother is a Buddhist and father a Muslim?
Q: What do you think of the status of Muslims in Sri Lanka?
A: Even though the Sri Lankan Muslim has always shown impeccable restraint in their responses when attacked, I think we must be more civic minded and support social activism. I see an urgent need to educate, engage and empower Muslim women and youth today. I see a steady decline of the Muslim political power across Sri Lanka. We must express our loyalty to Sri Lanka, our faith must be a private matter. The Muslims must take responsibility not just for themselves or their community but for Sri Lanka. What happens to one affects us all. Unless we take personal responsibility to make the changes we desire, the future of Muslims I think will continue to be threatened by our rigid outlook, traditional dogma and religious orthodoxy.
We must also remember that the state of the Muslims in Sri Lanka are intertwined with that of the Buddhist in Sri Lanka. If the majority Buddhist acted more like the Buddha, the minority Muslims would have less to fear. I have a grand vision where I see an eagle in flight, both its wings majestically spread. One wing represents the Buddhist and the other represents the Muslims.
Q: What do you think could draw more diaspora members to engage with Sri Lanka?
A: Opportunity, a path to social activism without political manoeuvring. I think every Sri Lankan embassy must compile a list of services and expertise that is needed. This list must be widely circulated to the diaspora. Incentives and opportunities must be provided to the qualified to engage and contribute to Sri Lanka.
Q: How could the diaspora constructively support Sri Lanka ongoing reconciliation process?
A: The most practically helpful thing to do would-be to take personal responsibility to put Sri Lanka back on the world map. We must preserve the Buddhist heritage, create an inclusive culture and share her deep history. Where funds are needed the diaspora members should come together to support great causes in Sri Lanka.
Q: Would you ever consider coming back to live in Sri Lanka?
A: Absolutely. My heart is in Sri Lanka. There are defining moments in one's life. I left during such and now I feel it is time for me to get back to Sri Lanka. You travel, you see the world, you learn and grow and one day you search for home, and realise that you never did leave. I miss Sri Lanka. The question is will she have me?
(This interview is one in a series commissioned for the Forum for Overseas Sri Lankans (FOSL), to highlight Overseas Sri Lankans, their achievements in their respective fields and how they connect with Sri Lanka. FOSL is a project run by International Alert (Sri Lanka Office) focussing on working with Overseas Sri Lankans through an online platform. Find out more at www.fosl.lk)