Interview with Tanuja Thurairajah: The Making of Project Belonging

Living as a migrant for the first time in Zürich, Tanuja Thurairajah found herself thinking about the narratives that people were exposed to in their daily life.

“When I came here I met other Tamils, but somehow I felt that they reached out to a different narrative and I reached out to a different narrative…”

“It’s difficult to really understand each other’s narratives when you think that your own narrative is the only one… and so I felt it was important that we share our stories.”

Overwhelmingly so, as around this time the war ended in Sri Lanka.

“War has created a distance between the two communities. How do you understand each other’s narratives when you only keep hearing your own narrative?”

(Excerpts from The Making of Project Belonging with Tanuja Thurairajah)

Tanuja and Vijayan her husband felt that sharing personal stories of pain, conflict but also of other experiences as a migrant in Switzerland was somehow the only way in which people could bridge this divide. This was their motivation.

The Storytellers: What is their sense of belonging? This is the question that haunts the oral histories named Project Belonging. It was not easy to record stories and a lot of hard work, patience and relationship-building was needed.

 “Many in the Tamil community over here are very reluctant to share their stories… they are conservative in that way… this was the challenge”


The Making Of Project Belonging VID

Listen to an insightful interview with Tanuja Thurairajah set to a montage of beautiful images of the diverse storytellers.

The Making Of Project Belonging with Tanuja Thurairajah from iSrilankan on Vimeo


Special Mention


Why is Project Belonging a great example of how to record and tell someone else’s life story or oral history?

We all love powerful photography and this is one of the features that sets Project Belonging apart as the creators  are talented in both photography and in theatre. Yet I believe that just being a good photographer or a poet does not fully equip you to take off and record sensitive stories and publish it if you would wish to make a social impact with your stories on the communities involved and be a professional oral historian.

First, Tanuja and Vijayan are professionally skilled to handle the sensitive content of the interview. They worked with communities affected by war in Trincomalee and other areas, in peace institutions in Colombo.

Tanuja continues her post-grad study while Vijayan is involved in experimental theatre and else in Switzerland.

It is not surprising therefore that there is a lack of raw sensationalism in the stories themselves. All stories are told with a rare sensitivity both in terms of content-curating as well as with due respect to the storyteller.

Also in keeping with the principles of recording oral history they give the storyteller

the freedom to tell his or her story at a pace and in the way (s)he chooses to tell it. For in that telling, in that nuanced remembering and narrating, lies more than in the story (s)he is telling.

Further, it is especially wonderful to find a partnership between a young husband and wife in such a project. It is also a transforming experience when they are from the same community as the storytellers and therefore community is created in the telling, the listening and in the inward transformation created in connecting with another’s pain, human loss and also joy, humour and perplexity.

Giving a face and a voice to a statistic is one of the best lines I have heard and that is precisely what they do in Project Belonging.

I discovered Tanuja over here, not in Colombo, and was delighted that she shared my love for oral history and is doing a balancing act as mama with two kids as I do. I think just having someone from Colombo in southern Europe gave me comfort that there was someone who knew where I came from but also was interested in the human story. This is ironic cos I am interested in other people’s stories but am unconsciously seeking to be understood for my own I guess meanwhile. Being a migrant makes you more sensitive to the narrative in a way, be it your own, or anothers’.Meet Rajan Karunakaran, the Good Citizen featured on iSrilankan.



Tanuja Thurairajah is an independent writer/diaspora activist whose deep interest in social and humanitarian activism remains the base of her creative and professional pursuits. She is working on projects related to the Sri Lankan Diaspora in Switzerland and her interests are writing political/ analytical essays, documentary films and photography. She is currently studying for a Masters in Peace & Conflict Transformation at the WPA/ University of Basel and has been living in Zurich with her family since 2007.


P. Vijayashanthan is a theatre activist with experience in traditional Sri Lankan Tamil dance forms such as ‘Koothu’ and specialses in non-spoken and experimental theatre. He is currently freelancing as an Actor/Artistic Director in Zurich and recently directed Girish Karnad’s ‘Naga-mandala’ in German. Vijayan’s interests include photography.

Go to Project Belonging on Vimeo and Like the Project Belonging Facebook Page in community with the spirit of the initiative and support for their work.






Footprints is a series which brings you stories and features from and about Sri Lankans who live away from home. iSrilankan follows the story of their lives to see how the Srilankan footprint has travelled and how diverse is the imprint they leave on the Planet, in communities and cultures that differ from their ancestors. 


  1. Sulochana Peiris says:

    This sounds a very interesting project, Tan. I am looking forward to watching them all. And congrats to Gaya for discovering her and also deciding to feature “Project Belonging” on isrilankan. The “Project Belonging” fits nicely with the formula for storytelling adopted by isrilankan. So, once again, congrats to both!

  2. jagan sriram says:

    it is heart rending to read about migrants that too srilankan tamils who are my blood relatives to lead a different life in western countries.we tamils or even indians love to be extrovert.they would like to bond with neighbours hang out with friends and would like to visit relatives.unfortunately i live in chennai and i have been born and brought up in this city.i have spent most of my life in same locality and i know many people here and i love to go around.unfor tunately in western cities it is not possible to retain the oriental attributes which i mentioned before.i can understand life will be stale and would not have time even to say hello to our neighbours leave out talking with them.what i would suggest is tamilians in west can once in a year come to tamil nadu bring their children expose them to tamil culture and take them to place which have significance in that way as they say in tamil ore kallul rendu can escape the mechanical life of west and at the same time their children will get exposed to tamil culture.,hope that i have contributed my mite.

  3. Jagan, Namasthé or Vanakkam, thank you for commenting and am sure you listened to the Project Belonging stories. They are about Sinhalese, Tamils ,an adopted child which I think is a very good selection of diverse stories. It’s great that you read em and you engage with the themes in migrant oral history. This is the main purpose of featuring them in iSrilankan and to note the great effort of Tanuja and Vijayan who are self-funding this initiative as a committed venture. Migration is heart-rending Jagan but it is a human phenomenon shared by Italians, South Americans, East Europeans, Africans, Chinese and many nationalities for various reasons. What is sad though is that migration from a war-zone included many who would have never left their hometowns otherwise. Also, the “west” is not stale and mechanical. It’s just how we see it sometimes as it is not what we call ‘our community.’ (My mother uses your very words so don’t feel offended. ;). Our children need to know their roots and culture but my personal view is that if we ourselves do not relate positively to our migrant societies where we live our children will forever feel as though their lives are divided and that their parents live in another world. I find Rajan Karunakaran’s story helpful to my own life in Europe as a migrant and I feel humbled by his amazing personality. Let him take a bit of our culture to the world and let em be better off for it. He teaches his son to ski and let him be better off for having lived in another part of the world. These are my thoughts. This is a very open journey iSrilankan and I welcome your views Jagan. You would make a great oral history interviewee yourself I think.

  4. Thanks for taking time off to engage!

    I agree with Gaya and Rajan is the perfect example of someone who is able to embrace a multicultural life and tailor it in such a way that it makes him comfortable and content. Also, in terms of the younger generation being exposed to the Tamil culture, perhaps it is not so obvious to most, but migrant Tamils are more ‘cultural’ than the ones for example back in Sri Lanka. Culture is very important to the Tamil migrant community and it is what brings them together as a large diaspora. In Switzerland the ‘ghettoisation’ factor is significantly less nevertheless culture is something that binds these Tamils together and they use any excuse to congregate and enjoy this culture. There are many temples, festivals and cultural events, and job security gives them the freedom of having the money to enjoy these ‘cultural’ perks! Furthermore, the ‘busy’ lifestyle is not something that is contained to the West, globalisation has reached into every nook and cranny of the world and within every nuclear family both the husband and wife must be employed in order to lead a sufficiently comfortable life. I think we need to get rid of these myths and make an attempt at embracing a multicultural life which would definitely be to our benefit!
    Thanks again and continue your engagement! Dialogue is what matters!

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