A Sri Lankan Woman’s Story of Success and Family
Written By: Justine Lyn
Dileeni Lukmalie Weerasinghe has always been a dreamer. She follows her own path in life, overcoming the challenges life throws at her with grace. When we talk about inspiring young Asian women, I think we can look to Dileeni as she looked up to her own mother.
Dileeni was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1960.
Her mother had always been her role-model, her “iron lady”. In a time when women in the workforce was still relatively recent she had scaled the heights. “My mother went to University when she was a little over 16 years old. She graduated when she was 20 and at 21 years, she became a principal of a school. She proceeded to acquire more degrees and eventually obtained positions as Divisional Directors of two prominent Government Institutions dealing with Industry and Trade.
With such big shoes to follow, Dileeni wondered what her own future held. She did her elementary education in Sri Lanka learning both her native language which is Sinhala in addition to English. Growing up, Dileeni remembers, “I had four choices given by my Dad. You can be a Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer or Accountant. That’s it. You pick one. And I didn’t like any of them. I didn’t have that in my bones.”
Instead, Dileeni was enthralled with the tourism potential in the island. Her parents had friends who owned hotels when she was young, and she thought the opportunity to meet many people suited her charismatic and outgoing nature. It seemed to spark something inside her. She was vivacious, living every moment to its fullest.
“Even at a tender age my Dad taught me valuable lessons. He was a man of wisdom. He could see far ahead. At such a young age, he built a large house with two extra apartments, one for me and one for my brother. He wanted to make sure we were okay. He used to tell my mom, “if something happens to me, I want to make sure you and the kids are okay.” And my mom used to say “you’re so young, what are you talking about?” And you know, he just went out for dinner with two foreign friends and never came back!!! He passed away due to a fatal car accident.
Dileeni’s world came crashing down that day…
Dileeni remembers, “two people who came to Sri Lanka for a UN conference met my mom and dad for dinner. My dad was driving them back to the hotel when the car accident occurred. Somebody who was totally drunk hit my dad’s car. My mom was thrown onto the middle of the road totally unconscious. At this time my brother was only three years old. I was 13. If my mother did not survive my brother and I would have been orphans. This thought makes me shudder even now. But thank God, my mom survived.”
Remarkably, her mother was able to pick up the pieces after losing Dileeni’s beloved father.Having secured a renowned scholarship she went to Switzerland for training and by the time that she returned home, she had a job offer from the United Nations to work as Chief Technical Advisor/ Project Coordinator of a project covering almost 32 countries in the Asia/Pacific Region.
Dileeni is proud that, “they offered her a job in the United Nations. And I think she was one of the very few Asian women to hold an international assignment at that time. From a one-year contract, she ended up working for 20 years for the United Nations not only in Asia and the Pacific but in Africa as well.
It must have been thrilling as a child, thinking of her mother jet setting off to distant lands. “Her head office was in Switzerland,” Dileeni remembered, but she was stationed in Thailand at ESCAP which was the UN Head Quarters for Asia and the Pacific. She used to travel to almost 32 countries to provide these countries with necessary technical assistance to increase international trade, in particular in non-traditional products.
“My mom would go to one country, come back, change her bag to go to another country. She used to travel a lot,” remembered Dileeni. “When we were young, we used to travel a lot with my mom. Although I didn’t travel to all the 32 countries, I had the travel bug in me”.
The apple does not fall far from the tree it seems.
Dileeni began to travel the world while she was a student, she explained, “We went to Thailand in 1976. There, I went to a British school in Bangkok and studied in English. Thereafter I went to England to finish my high school. I was in an English Boarding School in Felixstowe for two years. From there, I moved to the United States to do my undergraduate degree in Ohio. I went to College of Wooster in Ohio”. However, Dileeni was alone in Ohio and missed her family.
“For the summer break, I came to Canada to visit my relatives. They were very fond of me and urged me to try and get a transfer to Canada. My uncle who lived in Hamilton studied at McMaster University. He suggested I apply to McMaster. He got me an interview and I was lucky to be accepted.”
In 1979, Dileeni came to Canada to attend McMaster University and pursued her undergraduate degree. “I fell in love with Canada and considered Canada was my second home. I knew that this is where I belong.
Indeed, she had not forgotten her childhood passion for the hospitality sector. “From Canada, I moved to Switzerland to study Hotel Management at the prestigious Ecole Le Roche. I loved it and I excelled in it. I did so well because I think that was my passion”.
“In 1983 I got married to my childhood sweetheart”.
After her marriage, she moved to the Bahamas with her husband who got a good job. Despite the beautiful island, she felt the pace of life was too slow.
She explained, “I loved it at the beginning, but after a while I had nothing to do. I couldn’t get a work permit because my husband was already on a permit. I was getting bored. How much can you go around the island?” The couple decided perhaps it was time to go back home to Sri Lanka, so they returned to their homeland.
However, things in Sri Lanka had changed…
Dileeni had remembered Sri Lanka as, “a small island with everything so beautiful such as the beaches, the mountains, the hot and the cold. So many cultures, so many religions. It’s very multicultural for being such a small country.”
Despite being part of the majority Sinhalese community, she remembers, “when I was growing up, my parents’ best friends were Tamils and we were very close. But with the ethnic situation life became rather unstable.” Despite being countrymen, Dileeni observed that, “We were together, but we were separate.”
This was not the country she had returned to. “There was an ethnic war going on. It didn’t really affect us personally. We were in Columbo, the main city, but I was expecting my first son and I was very concerned about his future.”
She had good reason to worry. While working for the Air Lanka Catering Services (ALCS), she witnessed a flight being bombed.” I felt the whole building shake and I ran to the window to see things flying all over the place. I didn’t know it was a bomb for I had never experienced a bomb blast in my life. That was my turning point.”
It was shortly after that experience that Dileeni and her husband decided to leave beautiful Sri Lanka. “We applied for immigration to Canada. The Visa Office handed our approved papers and said, “why do you want to leave such a beautiful country?” My thought process was mostly for my son. Although we had a good life in Sri Lanka with all the luxuries, I wanted a safer and a brighter future for him.
To say that Dileeni’s time in Canada in the beginning was challenging would be an understatement. Her husband at the time had neither the much-needed Canadian qualifications nor the Canadian work experience. He was an Accountant with British qualifications.
Although Dileeni had the necessary Canadian qualifications she could not think of working. She remembered, “my son was small, I couldn’t really leave him. So, that was another challenge. My husband said, “we have good jobs back home, why don’t we consider going back?”
But my heart was in Canada and I did not want to go back. I persuaded my husband to apply to any job that was available. Every application came back saying, we will keep your resume on file.
However, I was very determined.” Not only did she believe in herself, but she believed in her husband. “, I told him, “Why don’t you take the yellow pages and just call companies?” He kept calling, and luckily for him, a lady said, “Come for an interview.” I told him, “Doesn’t matter if you were a manager back home, take whatever job you get, I’m sure you have the skill set to move up the ladder.” He was offered a supervisory job which he took. Within six months he was promoted to Assistant Manager and then to Manager.”
When her son was about 8 months, she decided to go back to part time work to supplement their family income. She got a job at Wardair working the evening shift.
“My husband worked from 9 to 5 and I worked from 6 to 12. This way we could take care of our son between the 2 of us. He would come home from work and drop me at work. We had only 1 car. Then he would come at 12 midnight to pick me up. We had to take baby back and forth as we couldn’t leave him at home alone. “It was quite an experience if I may say. We had to start from scratch. It was tough,” remembered Dileeni.
Although Dileeni was offered jobs at Prestigious hotels in Toronto, she opted to work in the Contract catering side of the hospitality sector so that she can attend to her 2 sons needs. She was hired as a Manager then Director and finally was promoted to be a Corporate Training manager.
After 12 years in that position, she decided to pursue a higher education and returned to complete her MBA at the University of Guelph. Later, like her own mother’s story, Dileeni herself was offered a teaching job at Centennial College. She recalled, “a friend of mine got a really good opportunity and she wanted me to help relieve her.
So, I joined for half a semester.” Soon she was offered teaching at Humber College, which became her main focus. She also remotely teaches at Seneca and Algonquin colleges. Teaching is her passion and has excelled in that.
Dileeni now considers Canada her home, it is where she raised her 2 children and where she lives with her mother and her present husband. “My mother is 89 years old right now, but still amazing,” stated Dileeni proudly.
“Every time when my mom comes to Canada on vacation from her UN assignments I used to drive her back and forth on Mississauga road. My mom used to tell me, “One day we will buy a house on this road.” And I used to say, “Oh mom, that’s only a dream. I don’t think we can ever afford to live on this road.” But in a few years, she achieved her dream of living on Mississauga Road.
It is hard to imagine that someone who has had so many challenges thrown at her has been able to achieve so many of her dreams in Canada. You may wonder where in the world Dileeni got the strength to do all that she has done. Indeed, Dileeni wondered the same thing, saying, “I don’t know how I got the perseverance and the courage, I think it’s from my mom”.
Indeed, I think Dileeni is right that she owes her mother so much.
She showed young Dileeni that no matter what trials and tribulations you face, you can succeed if you stay strong. “My mom’s courage, determination and perseverance… I think has stabbed me,” explained Dileeni.
Like her mother, much of Dileenis success, I feel, comes from her passion to follow her dreams and live her life according to her own roadmap. In the face of personal and political turmoil, Dileeni was able to take a page from her mother’s handbook and do whatever she had to do in order to not only survive, but to thrive. Indeed, I think we could all take a little inspiration from the Dileeni’s story.