Not all heroes wear capes, goes the saying. Some prefer to not wear shoes. Sumitra Visvanathan, for instance, pads up to us barefoot at the start our interview but genially agrees to slip on a pair of shoes to have her photo taken.
Laughing as she is put through the paces, from sinking into a chair with her feet hanging over an arm to sitting on a table with her legs stretched out before her, it is hard to reconcile this easy-going personality with the weight she carries as executive director of Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO). A quick glance through her profile underscores the gravity of the roles she has shouldered to get here: in between stints in the corporate and journalism worlds, she spent over 15 years with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) in various capacities. Her last posting was in Baghdad, where she was the senior project management officer of a field-based operation that placed her in the middle of the Iraqi insurgency.
That must seem light years away in this sunny meeting room, the far end piled high with donated items, but working for the UN had been a childhood ambition. Her late father, a headmaster, had instilled in his three children the habit of reading English and Malay newspapers daily from a very young age, so Sumitra grew up informed about the larger world around her.
“It might be a generational thing, but to my father, being well-read was important,” she says. “My father wanted us to know who the prime minister and minister of education were, when the next general election was taking place. I quite enjoyed it. Some parts of the newspapers were of course more fun than others, but it was also exciting to see what was happening around the world.”
Civil war broke out in Sri Lanka when she was in her early teens and relatives there had to flee the country. Sumitra was horrified at the news and read voraciously about displacement and refugees, becoming obsessed with the idea that a UN agency could help individuals. After reading law at the University of Leicester in the UK, with refugee law among her chosen subjects, she applied to the UNHCR in Kuala Lumpur for an internship. Instead, leveraging her rare knowledge in that section of law, the agency sent her to a refugee camp in Indonesia. She was not even 24 years old but her UN career had begun.
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