Shankar Kasynathan’s earliest memories are of his family being resettled by a generous neighbourhood after finding refuge in Australia. Over the last 15 years he has been dedicated to building more inclusive and welcoming neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces.
My father used to be a teacher. He taught philosophy at a university in the hill country of Sri Lanka. It was his dream job. He made friends easily with activists and students and loved being able to share his knowledge with them. After a long day at work, he would call his mother and sisters – who lived in a fishing village several hours away – from a payphone to check they were okay. Although he didn’t know it at the time, my father was being closely watched as he did these things. The Vice Chancellor of his university compiled a list of Tamil academics he felt were behaving suspiciously and gave it to the authorities. My father’s everyday activities were observed and reported to the police. Ultimately, his associations with Tamil students and activists made him a terror suspect. He was questioned on the notorious Fourth Floor of Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department – reputedly a torture facility, with rumours of people falling from windows. Thankfully my father survived. That was 30 years ago.
In 1987, my family and I fled Sri Lanka, leaving behind the arbitrary police searches and our sense of fear. We came to Australia in search of refuge. We weren’t forced to come by boat. Others have been. We weren’t re-routed to the hell that is Manus Island or Nauru. Others have been. We were sponsored. Others must be.
Community-led, neighbourhood-driven solutions are how my family and I escaped a life of persecution, cruel racism, and life-threatening situations. As a four-year-old, I remember the gifts we received from church groups at our home in Mount Waverley. Beds. A TV. The food we ate. The dining table we gathered around as over the Melway (Melbourne’s road map) which – back in 1987 – showed a cross at the location of our home.
The house we were renting was a social housing property managed by the council and a church. We later bought it, and it’s still home today. The generosity we received is not unfamiliar to other families who have come to this country seeking protection.
Today, as diversity consultant and community engagement expert, I am the principal campaigner behind Amnesty International’s My New Neighbour campaign.
I have worked as a sessional academic at Deakin, Monash and Charles Darwin universities. I have developed community engagement & advocacy programs for Oxfam, the National Heart Foundation and Amnesty International. I have been an adviser to local, state and territory governments as well as Members of Cabinet, about diversity & social inclusion strategies including most recently as Commissioner for Multicultural Affairs in Victoria. I have been invited to present my work at conferences in the UK, Ireland and Switzerland, and has worked extensively across Australia with aboriginal and refugee communities. Based predominantly in central Victoria, I live and work on Dja Dja Wurrung country.
You can book Shankar for a speaking presentation via our Face-to-Face program here.
You can also read our Refugee Week media release here.
Please note that speakers are confirmed once a booking has been made and will be based on their availability.