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Boston-Based Suba Suntharalingam Overcomes Challenges As An Immigrant To Start Non-Profit Providing Opportunities For The Wounded, Widows and Orphans of War In Sri Lanka
"At the end of the war, there were more than 90,000 young war-widows. There simply didn’t exist any opportunity for them for earning a living. And, then, far outnumbering these widows were the number of young orphans who couldn’t visualize a normal future for themselves at all."
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host
Canada
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"At the end of the war, there were more than 90,000 young war-widows. There simply didn’t exist any opportunity for them for earning a living.  And, then, far outnumbering these widows were the number of young orphans who couldn’t visualize a normal future for themselves at all. The school facilities were lacking in every which way. The lack of school supplies, no doubt due to their systemic poverty, was eating away the meager opportunities that existed for these kids to grow up like any other normal kid with at least a basic foundation in education. Needless to say that the nuclear family having evaporated in most cases, prevention of semi-starvation rather than ensuring nutritional adequacy became the preoccupation in everyone’s minds. It was obvious that a whole new generation was going to grow up away from the rudiments of civilized life without ever knowing or feeling the need to interact on par with the rest of the world."

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Tell us more about “NOW-WOW”(http://www.nowwow.org/), why you started the organization and the impact that it has had.

When I got involved in the post-2009 Tamil Diaspora political activities, I had the opportunity to mingle with many other like minded individuals from all over the world who were likewise committed to serve our homeland at a time when there was a lot of need. One common thread amongst the various organizations arose: “Something needed to be done here and now about our people whose family lives and livelihood has been thrown into shambles”. 

At the end of the war, there were more than 90,000 young war-widows. There simply didn’t exist any opportunity for them for earning a living.  And, then, far outnumbering these widows were the number of young orphans who couldn’t visualize a normal future for themselves at all. The school facilities were lacking in every which way. The lack of school supplies, no doubt due to their systemic poverty, was eating away the meager opportunities that existed for these kids to grow up like any other normal kid with at least a basic foundation in education. Needless to say that the nuclear family having evaporated in most cases, prevention of semi-starvation rather than ensuring nutritional adequacy became the preoccupation in everyone’s minds. It was obvious that a whole new generation was going to grow up away from the rudiments of civilized life without ever knowing or feeling the need to interact on par with the rest of the world.

The case of the wounded and permanently disabled who needed medical care presented itself there in astounding numbers too. There were many who needed help with medication. Many others needed help with their prosthetics and orthotics. There were many more that would need advanced kinds of treatments. Increasing frequency of suicide reports from there underlined the fact that the number of clienteles in need of psychiatric care and psychological counseling would be very daunting to handle.

On the social side, theft and robbery were slowly replacing respect for private property as the new norms of Vanni existence. Murder and violence were increasingly becoming the new mechanism for dispute settlement there. Incidences of sexual violence that was once an infrequent occurance due to fears of harsh punishments became more prevalent. Despite foreign aid for reconstruction sent by the international community, meaningful impact on the local economy and improvement of these societal challenges did not change. It was obvious that despite the good intentions of the international community, family life was disintegrating before everyones’ eyes. It had been subjected to social, psychological and financial stress beyond the point of endurance. The social fabric that held a community together was coming apart in bits and pieces.

The dire situation did make us despondent even though some of it was expected as the inevitable consequence of the brutal war. But it gave some of us food for thought also. Have we got our priorities set right? Would there be a land to rescue if we stick to our agenda as agreed now and the people are all gone? We understood clearly that the problem was so immense that no matter whatever we did, we couldn’t make a big enough dent on it.  Cluelessness would be an appropriate term here to discuss our dilemma, because most were lay people, who had neither the political experience nor a societal vision. So when NOWWOW was formulated with enthusiasm, eagerness and dedication – these would form the only avenue that we were prepared to bring into this new, challenging yet unfamiliar venture. We could never become an adequate substitute or something complementary to what the international organizations were already doing.  Yet, we were committed to do whatever it takes to make a dent in the status quo, even if the impact was going to be a minuscule one. I have to stress here that we had one advantage over all of these international NGO’s. 

NOW WOW is a 501(3)C registered organization in the United States. For a start, we worked with a targeted group of the worst affected young mothers with children. We would help them to find self-sustenance, one woman at a time. Our service, which started in small has made a difference in the lives of hundreds of people over the years. We focus on 4 elements of activities and made a difference on the war affected Tamil people in North and East of Sri lanka.

1. Education

2. Empowerment

3. Employment 

4. Emergency Relief

Tell us about what life was like for you to go from Sri Lanka and your journey here to Boston.

I was born in a village called Annaicottai, where I grew up with my brothers. My father was an accountant with a small hardware shop and my mother was a housewife. Our house had no electricity and I grew up studying in a kerosene lamp. I started my education at Annaicottai Bala Subramaniya Vidyasaalai, studied at Manipay Ladies College and completed my bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at University of Jaffna. 

During my lifetime in Sri Lanka, the occupation of Sri Lankan Army and Indian Army were high.  The days of hiding in our ‘L’ shape bunker, when the fighter jet arrives, the early morning dog-barking noises and my parents’ daily struggle to save my brothers and me from the Sri Lankan armies are unforgettable. When the Indian Army arrived in Kallundai – கல்லுண்டாய் வெளி, the sound of artillery shells passing through our house, the sound of gunfire and falling the artillery shells on our house were terrifying. We were living in a makeshift refugee camp – the Muthanayanar hindu temple for 3 months with limited meals and toilet facilities. 

As soon as I completed my bachelor’s degree, my parents had arranged my marriage aboard and sent me to Boston, USA. I came to Boston, leaving my entire family and the only world I knew behind in hopes of restarting a new path in my life. Even though I completed my university studies in English, I did not have practise speaking in English - a very common struggle for many of us educated in the British Commonwealth. I remember my first work interview at a department store. The manager asked me “tell me about yourself”, I did not understand what he said and was not able to respond to him. The accent, culture and environments were not familiar to me. So, I just smiled,  and of course did not get the job. So to get familiar with English, I started to watch TV and prepared a little bit so I can attend the next interview at a bank. I finally landed a clerical position for 3 months, and while working there I started looking for positions in the field of chemistry.

I started a post bachelor certificate course at Northeastern University, Boston and got a job at a teaching hospital as a Lab Assistant. I worked hard to get my license as Clinical Laboratory Scientist in chemistry and was promoted to Medical technologist, pathology team leader, and chemistry lab supervisor. At the same time my daughters were growing up and I faced many challenges in my personal life which I battled with. Now that I think back, although Tamil culture and community are great at many things - we have a long way to go in truly looking at women as equal to men and providing support mechanisms and a community to help Tamil women move passed the struggles of their personal lives. I was very fortunate to have my parents and brothers who stood by me - not every woman is that lucky. 

How do you manage your time between running “NOW-WOW”, being a single mother of 2 kids while having a full-time job as a Chemistry Lab supervisor at one of Boston’s most prestigious hospitals?

When my daughters were younger, I worked part-time so I can focus on my family. As my children got older, I was able to return to the workforce full-time. When we founded NOW-WOW, my daughters were teenagers so it was a different type of time management. I believe time management is important to be successful, but at the same times I had to give 100% to my daughters, my job and NOW-WOW, so I worked many long hours. In financial tough times, I remember taking really difficult 16 hour shifts then coming home and cooking food for my kids or helping with activities in the Boston Tamil community.

When  I commit to something, I get it done even if it means I need to sacrifice my sleep to get it completed. I believe I was able to achieve a lot because I forced myself to be organized and disciplined. Knowing what I was doing had an positive impact on widows and children just gave me is sense of purpose and energy to push past tough times.

What’s one goal that, if you were to accomplish it over the next three months, would feel like a big win for you?

The school girls and young women living in rural villages can’t afford to use hygienic sanitary pads. We want to distribute it to them ideally for free or at a very lower cost. For that we have put forward a few ideas to start a small factory. This small factory will also create job opportunities for many underprivileged women. It will be a big win, if I can help these girls and women. If this initiative is something that readers are interested in helping with, NOW-WOW would appreciate your support.  

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I personally view social media in a positive light.  I see it as a tool that can be used for good or bad (similar to a car).  Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Do you allow your kids to spend time on social media?  Why or why not? 

I view social media in a positive light, with social media we have the chance to have global impact. We can give voice to those that are impacted and raise awareness all around the world. Many of the recent movements would not have been possible without social media. 

Yes, social media can be used in negative ways by those with malintent, but it's important for parents just like they take time to teach their kids to drive safely, to teach their children responsible social media use. 

How have your family and friends supported you through your journey?

When I started NOW-WOW, I did not have much support. Many people had doubts, and it was very difficult to get NOW-WOW off the ground. Our first project was donating 50 bicycles in Kilinochchi for war-affected students to travel to school. At the time, slowly we started to get $100 - $150 donations to support this cause. I remember getting the first $2000 check in the mail, I was shocked and turned the check over multiple times to make sure the donor didn’t make a mistake. Even after all these years, my daughter calls it imposter syndrome as I double check the donations to ensure that they didn’t make a mistake. 

Only once, we started getting some recognition that I started getting support from my local community. I am very thankful to all my wellwishers across the USA who believed in this cause and supported me without even knowing who I was, as this was a big boost to my confidence and helped me carry on. 

Do you have any mentors that have helped you in the progression of your career?  If not, who would be somebody that you would want as a mentor now?

Learning to help others and serving those who are unable to help themselves, is something I learned from my father. When we were stuck in the refugee camp, my father would leave early in the morning so he could get food and rations for all the refugees stuck in the temple. It was such a risky situation and we used to be very scared when he used to leave in the mornings as some days he didn't return until the next day. We would fight with him not to go out. But, if he didn’t go and come back with food, dahl, sugar and other rations, the families in the temple had nothing to cook and eat. He did everything he can to help every family, stuck in the temple with us. He was such an inspiration to me. 

My chemistry professor Mr. S.Maheswaran from University of Jaffna peaked my interest in Chemistry with his teaching, today I am successful in my profession because of him, and I am thankful for that.  

Where do you see yourself in the next 3-5 years? 

I really want to grow NOW-WOW and provide work opportunities to all of Tamil widows and wounded people in Sri Lanka. My goal is that in the next 10 years, with help from the Tamil diaspora we can eradicate the difficult times that our siblings are going through back home, and I want to do my part to solve this. 

To start with I am considering ideas to bring small scale manufacturing opportunities, as well as providing courses and certifications in different trades to help turn talented individuals into entrepreneurs. My goal is to help educate and provide those impacted by war with confidence and skills, so they can provide for their own lives moving forward.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” We provide the fish and the teaching so the man does not have to go hungry while learning to fish. 

In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?

I hope that I have helped others during my lifetime. The greatest achievement for me is to inspire the younger generation to care about our Tamil community and undertake projects that will benefit our community. 

What is a failure you’ve experienced in the last 5-10 years that you’ve learned the most from? 

We started a farming project in 2015, and we were not as established with volunteers on the ground in the NorthEast of Sri Lanka. Hence, we depended and relied on local NGOs who was not based in Mullaithivu where we were doing the project. We ran into several hurdles, such as the land not suitable for farming, water supply, etc. Finally, when one of our volunteers from Montreal moved to Kilinochchi permanently, we were able to successfully relaunch this project. We learned to establish our own personnel for our projects, and ensure that our local NGO partners are directly located within the area of the project if a joint project is being conducted.

Who is one person from the global Tamil community and one person that isn’t Tamil that you admire and why?

The Tamil person who I admire is Thalaivar Prabahaharan who demonstrates a dedication to our Tamil people, community and culture. 

Scientist Marie Curie who became the first female scientist to be awarded the Nobel prize. I admire her humility and lack of desire for fame as she gave away her awards and prize money.

What do you think you would tell 16-year Suba looking back?

Don’t be shy. Women do not have to be housewives. They should focus on their education, become leaders in their chosen fields, and make positive changes in the world.

What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?

The very hungry caterpillar - for my nephew. Watching him learn to read with excitement was a heartwarming experience.

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

Reflecting on direct actions I have taken each day to make a positive impact in those around me. This makes me actively focus on how I can make positive changes to the world around me for the following day. 

If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?

I will allocate money to education. It is the most powerful tool to change the world.

How would you describe the impact that the US Tamil community had on you both personally and professionally?

The US Tamil community has been a source of support and strength personally and professionally. I have raised my children within the US Tamil community, where they were able to further learn about our culture despite not living near other Tamil children. When I need help personally or professionally, the community is full of caring and generous friends and extended family that I can always reach out to for support. 

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

Koththu roti – கொத்து ரொட்டி

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

NaNpan – நண்பன் – It is a comedy movie.

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

Tamil culture is my heart. It lives in me until I die.

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Ara Ehamparam
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