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Fiona Barton: Leaving everything I knew to volunteer in Sri Lanka

Fiona Barton/VSO

Read award-winning author Fiona Barton’s memories of training journalism students in Sri Lanka at a time of violence, repression and fear.

street scene Colombo, Sri Lanka

Fiona Barton decided to trade in 'conveyor belt living' in the UK for a new challenge in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo.

My lightbulb moment – to ditch my career and apply to VSO – came over a terrible meal in a Chinese restaurant in late 2004.

My husband and I had just been to see The Motorcycle Diaries – the inspiring story of Che Guevara’s journey through impoverished Latin America. The film had ignited something in both of us and as we looked at each other over the congealing beef in black bean sauce, we started talking about a future that would involve changing everything.

Becoming volunteers

We were not reckless kids. I was 48 and a national journalist – a job I had loved for 25 years – and Gary, was 52 and a builder with his own business. We had two adult children, responsibilities, mortgages and all the paraphernalia of a full working life.

But the idea of volunteering was so powerful it became our ear worm. We talked, we researched, we consulted our family and three years later, when the time was right, we applied to VSO. Twelve months later, we boarded a plane to Colombo in Sri Lanka to begin our placement.

I worked with journalist students and tutors at the Sri Lanka Press Institute and working radio and print reporters at the Lifeline project, bringing humanitarian information to Tamil families living in IDP (internally displaced person) camps.

It was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure; leaving everything I knew to start a new life but I have never looked back. 

I worked with journalists, doing their jobs under terrifying physical threats and Gary taught carpentry to adults with learning difficulties.

It was hard; a challenge most days to adapt to this new context. This was not conveyor belt living where I was trundling along in the same comfortable rut. But, it made me feel more alive than I had for years.

Fiona Barton while volunteering in Sri Lanka

Working under the radar

The media in Sri Lanka was under horrific pressure – journalists were being murdered and kidnapped with impunity – when I arrived.

It meant working quietly, under the radar when I was asked to assess the effectiveness of the Sri Lanka College of Journalism one year diploma course for print and electronic media students. The college recruited 80+ students each year from all ethnic groups and had suffered a period of violent repression at the hands of the state. 

My report went to the Board of Directors of the Sri Lanka Press Institute and its recommendations were used to support sustainable development of the course. The latest diplomas have just been awarded to the class of 2018.

Mentoring the Lifeline team of nine reporters led to the production of daily radio broadcasts, a weekly newsletter and a radio drama for the 285,000 IDPs, living in camps after the end of the civil war. At first, the team delivered emergency humanitarian information about water security, health and education and, as the camps released people, the newsroom told their stories and gave them news about resettlement, demining, livelihoods and reuniting their families.

Unforgetable moments

The Lifeline newsroom’s first field trip to Jaffna when the A9 road north finally reopened after the Sri Lankan civil war is a moment I'll never forget. For some of the younger Tamil reporters, it was the first chance to visit Jaffna and discover what had happened to their families and homes.

The placement had an impact on me in every way. I continued working with threatened and exiled journalists in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe until 2015.

Find out about volunteering with VSO