“She gives us the confidence to do better”

15-year-old Fatheema Sulaika has lofty plans for her future. Study hard, become a psychologist, do her bit for mankind and hope that her example inspires oppressed women the world over. Needless to say, encountering such vibrant ambition down one of Slave Island’s drearier streets was rather unexpected.

A tall, lithe and uncommonly beautiful girl, Fatheema Sulaika – or Sulaika as her family likes to call her – was shy at first, self-consciously stifling smiles at the camera and shooting glances at the overprotective gaggle of female relatives who were always close at hand, craning over each other’s shoulders to see what it was about their young family member that we were so interested in.

Although just a teenager, Sulaika has a quiet wisdom about her that seems at odds with her surroundings. Her home seems impossibly packed – consisting of one main room, leading back to a small bedroom and an even smaller kitchen with a loft above it, accessible by a rickety staircase. It felt even more cramped when she told us that it housed no less than 18 family members and relatives. Having previously heard from her that she was intent on her schoolwork, our natural reaction to hearing about her crowded home situation was to ask her how she managed to get any studying done at all. Her simple reply was that it was difficult, but that she was doing her best to manage.

Still, if not for the chaos surrounding her – both at home and within larger Slave Island – Sulaika may not have chosen psychology as her future profession. Being exposed to such a degree of overcrowding, and learning about the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse in the area as she grew up, she began to wonder about the correlation between difficult living conditions and psychological instability. She was also wise enough to pick up on the fact that being allowed to go to school, and later work for a living was a privilege that not many other girls like her were being allowed. It is a privilege that she fervently promises never to take for granted and admires her mother’s courage at being able to see that her own past should not be repeated in her daughter’s future.

Tellingly, whenever we visited, the other occupants of the house were always women – sisters, cousins, aunts and Sulaika’s mother, Umma. When it became clear to them that we were interested in Sulaika’s future ambitions, they went all out to show off their clever girl.

We found that Sulaika’s interests did not stop at books and learning. Her mother proudly pulled out drawing upon drawing and displayed them for us and Sulaika shyly explained what she meant to express through each one. The pictures were poignant – one was of a lost little girl in the midst of a crowd of adults who passed her by as if she were invisible – and we were impressed with Sulaika’s almost unwitting insight into her own situation.

Unlike many of the other homes we visited in Slave Island, Sulaika’s had a computer. Still, it was a major exercise to switch it on and as the family fumbled with plugs and switches in their bid to help, it was clear that nobody but Sulaika and one of her sisters knew how to use it.

Watching her operate quietly and methodically in such crowded, noisy surroundings, Sulaika’s ambitions seemed both impossible and attainable at the same time. Impossible because of the environment in which she must work; but attainable because of her obvious thirst for learning, desire to rise above her current station in life and help others to do the same, and sheer will to do her mother – and women over the world – proud.

Produced by Sharni Jayawardena and Tarika Wickremeratne, as part of Walkabout: Slave Island. Watch the trailer to this series below, and visit the Moving Images website for more stunning content on Sri Lanka.