KYKY met with the UN Resident Coordinator in Belarus Sanaka Samarasinha. He was born in Sri-Lanka and chose a very difficult profession – His profession was crisis management in the time of military conflicts and natural disasters, as well as journalism, law and restaurant management KYKY met with Mr. Samarasinha to understand how his vision of Belarus has changed in 5 years and why changes in our country should be close to everyone's heart in order to be truly successful.
“I did not have the experience of working in the former Soviet Union”
That was my first impression when I came to Belarus. Because you have to understand: I moved from Singapore to Belarus, it was +40 degrees of heat there, while in Minsk it was -20 degrees, so my very first impression was: "What am I doing here?!"
Yes, that was my impression!
It was a physically unnatural environment for me - not the one I was accustomed to! I mean that I come from an island, from an island country - from a hot climate to a cold one. In addition, I'm used to eating a lot of spices and chili with potatoes and meat (laughing).
To be honest, I knew very little about this country, like most people in the world. And my first impressions were based on what I felt at that first moment. I was adapting the whole day, but everything around seemed not very welcoming to me - in those first few minutes. Well, of course, when you do not know anyone here, you're all alone, the prospects are unclear - and I felt this profound sense of uncertainty. It felt contradictory - both profound and vague: "I'm here" - but I did not speak Russian and could not even read the Cyrillic alphabet, and I did not have the experience of working in the former Soviet Union.
In the first few years, while I was here, there weren’t many inscriptions in Latin letters. I once went to the supermarket and picked milk for coffee, and then I found out that it was liquid yogurt ...Of course, if you do not read the Cyrillic alphabet I do not think you necessarily know that "MALAKO" is milk - I did not know that, and learned a little later.
Of course, I visited the countries of the former Soviet Union, but I never worked there. But I had a lot of experience in other parts of the world: in Asia, Africa, North America, Europe, the Pacific and the Balkans. But not here. So I really had a question in my head: "What can I contribute to this country, considering that at that time I knew practically nothing of it?”
Use of English and service orientation
But I think since that moment there has been a change in terms of the wider use of English in restaurant menus, for example While working here I was observing a gradual change but a significant leap forward in the use of English was from the time of the World Hockey Championship - in the metro, restaurants - and not only in Minsk, I mean, even regional capitals - of course, I visited them a lot. I remember what they were like during those first two years when I went there and could not find a receptionist in a hotel in Brest or Homiel who could speak English. But now they do! The process started, and I’ve noticed it.
But back in the early days, when we went out for dinner in Minsk there used to be maximum ten restaurants with a menu in English.
Movies! There were no films in English. At all! Until recently - two years ago – they started screening movies in English once a week.
Now almost everywhere there is at least one copy of the menu in English - it's really great! Even in small towns. And I think it's a sign. The country is more open for business, to people outside the former Soviet Union. It is open to business, to a lot of Russian tourists, people coming from Central Asia, the Caucasus. Obviously, with the "visa-free" regime Belarus has opened for business, as well as for the rest of the world.
A few of my favorite places in Minsk: "Tiflis", near the Botanical Garden. I'm not a vegetarian, Georgian cuisine is one of my children's favorites in Minsk. They grew up more on Mexican cuisine rather than Sri Lankan as I used to be a Mexican chef. But my wife is an excellent Sri Lankan cook. Once my family and I have been cooking on your television channels.
Our "Top-3": "Tiflis", "Chayhana", "Bergamo".
"Bergamo" offers the best Italian cuisine from all that I have tried here. And my kids really love pizza. Five Cheese pizza from "Domino's", and pepperoni with spices are also our favorites. In fact, it's important that their delivery only takes 30 minutes. Because in this country you cannot find a place that can deliver you something to eat in 30 minutes! And this concept should change. I used to try different restaurants on Saturdays, but the delivery took more than an hour and a half. And during this time, I can cook my own meal, right?
That concept should change - Service orientation is critical. Using quick delivery is just one example of that. But I think that everything has begun to change in this field as well.
Of course, I communicate with many foreigners who live and visit here: when you communicate with each other, you realize that you often experience the same things. I think you do too.
Often you go to a restaurant or somewhere else on a free day. And in the end, you really feel guilty, because the people who should serve you make you feel like, it's a privilege to be served by them. While it should be other way around.
Because customers go there is the reason for a business to survive and flourish. Service orientation is the training of people from this sphere, the establishment of effective,efficient, quality service, quality. However, all these things are changing here. I am very happy about it.
Sri Lanka, for example, has been developing its tourism industry for 40 years, maybe more. In fact, our country ended the civil war only in 2009. And since then the tourism industry has taken off in leaps and bounds. But even with all this experience and knowledge there are a lot of areas for improvement.
And one of the reasons is that the industry itself and type of tourists are changing. The ability to use technology to provide services is also changing. So yes, it never stagnates at all. Because the market is changing, and you have to adapt.
In Sri Lanka we have three official languages: Sinhalese, Tamil and English (note: Sri Lanka was a British colony for 150 years). I speak Sinhalese, and another ethnic minority speak Tamil, and some – both Sinhala and Tamil. But not all Sri Lankans speak English.
When I was a child, some of those who worked in the tourism sector did not speak English, but spoke German. Why? Because of the tourists! Because most tourists who came to Sri Lanka at that time were Germans and it was important to be able to communicate with them.
And these same people, ten years later, still did not speak English fluently, but then they began to speak Japanese and Korean. It is because of the tourists who started to come from those countries! And now those same people speak English, but also Chinese and Russian for the same reasons. So this is a constant adaptation to the market.
If you ask any travel agent or, probably, google, you will get an answer to your question, “What are the good places to go to?” Mir, Nesvizh, the War Memorial Museum. But I'm not sure that this will necessarily give you a complete understanding of Belarus.
Think of Belarusian nature. You should spend time in the forest! Of course, you can start with Belovezhskaya Pushcha - the pearl of your forests. But it is not the only beautiful forest here! Of course, it's right to start from there, spend some time, in search of a bison or something else that you want to see there.
I think spending time in the forest - close to nature is really important to understand this land. Maybe even people. For example, the forest will take you back to your history, of the partisans. The forest is very important. And lakes. The land of ten thousand lakes! Viciebsk region in the Miory area, for example. We spent a lot of time there. Also in Braslav. And that's why people need to leave their cities and explore Belarus! Especially the small towns and villages.
“Your country is more than just "clean"
I like to communicate with people from different parts of Belarus. For example, when I go to Nalibokskaya Pushcha.. Once I took my parents and my wife's parents with me. We had lunch at a small farmstead owned by a family I know well. It is a village with less than a hundred inhabitants. I was walking around this little village with our hosts, to talk to the neighbours - "babushkas" and "dedushkas" I took my parents with me to various parts of Belarus. I remember one weekend, when I drove a thousand kilometres myself and took them to different, different towns.
People saw us, welcomed us, offered tea. The "babushkas" were telling us about their chickens, eggs, their favourite flowers - this is something that, I really think, you have to see to know this country. Its not only what you see on the way from the airport to Minsk: So many first-time visitors say, "Oh, it's so clean here!" Yes of course it's clean, it's true! But your country has more than just "being clean." What I am talking about is the soul of your country, which people need to know, but that takes some time.
As you know, I like to cycle. For these five and a half years of my presence here, I rode around the parks and forests and so on. But this summer with a group of enthusiasts, we rode more than 400 kilometres - through the villages, with stops in the towns, in conversations with people - I experienced Belarus as I had never experienced it for all the previous 5 years!
So, if you really want to know your country and your people - get out of the car, get off the train, get on the bike - it's the best - and interact! People are far more hospitable in these small towns and villages than in big cities. I suppose that is the same everywhere in the world. They are happy to see other people, to share their stories - it's fascinating.
“I also have family members with mental disability”
This trip was in August last year. For 8 days we rode more than 400 kilometres. I really wanted to do this: to experience Belarus for the first time sitting next to these people and listening to their stories - with a special focus on families who have members with a disability or have children with mental disabilities or mental illness. In such sincere conversations I spent a lot of time having breakfast or dinner with these families who invited me to their houses, introduced their children - it was very moving. But it also opened my eyes to how isolated people can be! I did not realize this. You know, even in an apartment building people do not talk to each other when they are dealing with such difficult challenges. And especially - with those who have such a situation. Some parents said: "Our neighbours do not want their children to talk with my child, because she has autism. It was sad to see, but I think it's not so unusual around the world. It happens practically in every country in the world including my own. The reason why I did it was to try to understand the causes of stigma and fear existing in society. This topic is very personal tor me, as I also have family members with mental disability and illness. I grew up with this experience.
You ask about the signing and ratification of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. We were part of this process. I can say that we used the platform we have and, the authority of the United Nations to discuss and elevate the discourse to the level where more people could understand why Belarus needs to sign and ratify the convention. But we were not alone, I mean that a lot of people worked to make it done.
And it was a significant step that Belarus decided to take, because it gave legal rights to people who otherwise could rely only on the goodwill of the government, or business, or someone else. Now, if you have a disability, you have rights! And if you have the right, it means that someone else has an obligation - to fulfill and respect, and to protect the right that you have.
Look at our office - it is more that 25 years old, but only a couple of years ago, when I came here, there was not even a toilet for a person with a disability. How could someone like that apply for a job here if we don’t have the facilities to accommodate them.
Business cards with Braille: we often do not think about it, but everyone should be able to read our contacts, even people with visual impairment.
I have business cards with Braille, for example. I came across them in Singapore: someone gave me one and then ... you know, I never heard about it! And all I did is that I brought the idea here! I grabbed this idea from someone in Singapore: someone just gave me such a business card, and I asked myself: why did I never think about it! If I hand you a business card with Braille, you do not need this font, because you can see. But when you take it in your hand, you’ll think differently already. You will start thinking about inclusion.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was signed in October 2015. But I think we still can do much more to implement it.
Somebody once said that is not the Minister of Transport who knows best about public transport and its problems, but the people who use the bus or trolleybus to get to work every day. That's why we should ask these people how to improve the work of public transport. I think it’s the same concept with disabilities and removing barriers.
When we redesigned our office, it was not just some architect who made the draft at his own discretion. We invited people who came in wheelchairs and people who were visually and hearing impaired. They told us how it should be.
Sasha Avdevich (note - Alexander Avdevich, a Belarusian with a disability, who alone travelled through the countries of Europe on a specially designed hand-held bicycle) joined us during the 400-kilometer cycling trip. And during that tour we started to inspect some places - for example, schools: whether it is possible to go there in a stroller or a wheelchair. In some places there were toilets for wheelchair users, but Sasha himself was in the wheelchair and could say: "In fact, it creates more problems than helps the person in a wheel chair the way it was designed".
I would say that the best advisor for any project, in fact, is a person for whom this is all being done and who will tell how us to do it right.
“Sometimes working with the recovery from natural disasters consequences is much easier than dealing with human conflict and wars”
I was in or close to the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Belarus more than once. Taking reasonable precautions is of course important. As I discussed with the government, the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the precautions and controls that are currently at place are adequate for me and for my children who lived here for 5 years.
Can we do more? Of course, we can always do more! But I think that the stigma associated with this and the fear come from ignorance, which is often more than an actual danger. This is my own view. My personal view of the consequences. Of course, I will not go picking mushrooms in the forest in the exclusion zone, of course not. But I do not see the need to go to the supermarket and try to figure out where these or other products come from.
I think it's important to continue to keep testing and, of course, to continue monitoring, but look, from the point of view of the consumer of products, all over the world - not only in Belarus - we have many questions: the use of antibiotics in milk and meat, for example.
I grew up at a time when there was a civil war (note - the civil war in Sri Lanka lasted from 1983 to 2009).
And there were suicide bombers who blew themselves up in the city on a regular basis. I was a journalist covering the war
So I think that from a very young age fear was something I didn’t quite understand. I lived in more than 20 countries, some with complicated situations. Well, you know, I worked in places like Afghanistan, Myanmar andKosovo.. A couple of years ago, I went to Liberia when the Ebola epidemic began. So probably some people would say that I'm crazy.
But I'm not the only one like this, there are many people like this. One could say that thisis about getting an adrenaline high. To some extent for some people it's true,and is quite addictive. As a young journalist, I was waiting to go to the war front. I wanted to be there! But I became more cautious: when I grew older. When you have kidsyou can not die tomorrow, because you have responsabilités. At the same time, you go to places like that because you see people in trouble and you want to help in whatever way you can.
I worked in Myanmar from 2007 to 2010 (note - as deputy UNDP representative in Myanmar). And the crisis that we were dealing with ... in general there were different types of crises in Myanmar at that time: for example, there was a cyclone that killed 140 thousand people in a few minutes (note - the cyclone Nargis, 2008), and we had to deal with that. In fact, even my house was affected, and my children were hiding under the table for hours during the cyclone and the storm that followed, but for others it turned out much worse: many died or lost entire families.
There were also landslides in various parts of the country, and people were dying. I also worked with the Rohyinga community. You have heard about them recently in the news.
You know, sometimes working with the recovery from natural disasters consequences is much easier than dealing with human conflict and wars, because it happens and then its over. And then you think about how to help people recover after this disaster with the hope that next time we will be readier for such a catastrophe: either build stronger houses or build them in a safer location. This is not the case for conflict that often is deep rooted and stems from generations of distrust. It takes a long time to truly recover and rebuild.
I was also in Sri Lanka when the tsunami happened and then more than 40,000 people died in my country (note: the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004). Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka were the most affected countries.
From the point of view of the characteristics of dealing with a crisis you have to move fast, but you have to be patient.
Because in a crisis you have to move fast: you have to be sure that people are safe - first of all, to take them to a safe place, to ensure that they have water, food, shelter, medicines and so on. And for this you must move fast.
But you must be patient. Because you will not be able to find solutions in one night for the problems that have been there for several generations.
So you move fast to be sure that you have minimized or mitigated the negative impact of the crisis on people. To save lives. But you have to be patient to work on the underlying causes of the problem, and not expect that the solution will be found tomorrow – for example to a conflict that has been with your parents and your grandparents.
Of course, you think you have the United Nations and it will solve the problem for you! Yes, we could put peacekeepers in "blue helmets" between you for a short time. But the moment they leave, you, the fight starts again. So we have to work with you and make you sit together and discuss. It can take a whole generation. The results maybe even your children will not see, but we have to keep at it. That's what I meant when talking about being fast and patient at the same time.
“I think that you should be proud of the Belarusian language”
If you "google", you will find a video on Youtube, where I’m reading one of the poems of Yanka Kupala about a beautiful Belarusian woman with long hair who works in the field. It took me a couple of days to practice reading the poem (laughs), and I do not think that I did a great job with my pronunciation.
The Belarusian language is very beautiful. I will be frank, I would like to see more Belarusians speak it. The reason why I do not speak myself - this language is not a language crucial for working in this country. So I spent the little free time I had to learn a bit of Russian, which is one of six UN languages. I would like to practice Belarusian if I had more time though. I think that you should be proud of it and use it much more.
There are few countries in the world that truly nationalized symbols of the Sustainable Development Goals. Belarus is one of the countries that did it. And people supported it. The reason why I supported this is that I believe that the Global goals cannot be achieved until they are owned by people in every country. That’s when the Global Goals truly yield local results. Using in the design of global goals symbols that are close to us, that are related to our culture and history - this helps people to realize and accept something with their heart, not just their mind.
Normally the term of my mission is 5 years. The UN must decide where I will go next. So, I'll be here for another couple of months. What will I miss? I think that I will miss many things. But especially the familiarity of Belarus, because it became my second home. And if you ask me again, what is my first impression compared to my impression now: it's like black and white.
Once I talked to people from different countries during dinner, and they asked me: young people from Belarus now can go abroad but most of them still come back home. Why? I answered: “Because it is home for them.”
My family has already left to Sri Lanka. My children go to school there now., Last weekend was Independence Day: I saw their photos in national costumes at school Very beautiful.
My wife is still working in EPAM - this is a global company. So even though she is now in Sri Lanka, she continues to work, even without living here. When she was here she worked not only for Belarus. She was helping offices in Ukraine, the United States, London and elsewhere. You can afford it in the modern virtual world, if you have a good connection to the internet – to work anywhere.
Of course, if we had not come to Belarus, she would not have met Dobkin and we wouldn’t become friends with Arkady.
I really like him, nice guy, clever, and I am always happy to see him. So yes, of course, if we did not come to Belarus, she would never work in EPAM because she may not have met him. But then again who knows? The world is so interconnected.
But its not only I who will miss Belarus. Look at my children: one of my daughters, she is now 7 years old, and she has spent 5 of them here. So Belarus is everything that she knows. And that's a lot - here lies the whole basis of her character.
Maria Rusinovich, heading "Heroes".
The material is taken from kyky.org.