A top Sri Lankan athlete who set national records in the pole vault has been working as a housemaid in Dubai to help support her family at home.
For the last year Sachini Perera, 24, has put her athletics dreams on hold when Sri Lanka’s currency crisis and soaring medical bills made it difficult for her to look after her mother, who requires long-term care.
“I feel this is my world now,” Perera told The National in her first interview in English since she moved to the UAE in July last year.
“But step by step I will fly. I will work – one step, then the next – for my dream to fly again.”
She takes care of a young child and does the housework in a Dubai home during the day, setting aside time to exercise after work.
She follows a weekly strength training schedule sent by her coach in Sri Lanka.
“I came to Dubai to find a solution for my family. My parents say, ‘you are an athlete, you are not a housemaid. This is a break from your sports life’.
“I want to be the one girl from Sri Lanka who wins an international medal for the pole vault,” she said.
“Being a housemaid is my job. But my work is not me – I’m a gymnast and athlete.”
Undefeated since 2018
Perera’s situation drew attention after a Sri Lankan television channel profiled her, causing outrage with people criticising the authorities for not doing enough to retain sporting talent.
Soon after, The National spoke to Alexi Gunasekera, Sri Lanka’s consul general in Dubai, who said efforts were being made to find her a sports-related job in the emirate.
He accompanied Perera to a meeting with sports authorities in Dubai on Wednesday to explore options so she could focus on training. The details are being worked out, he said.
Perera is undefeated since 2018, with a pole vault national record of 3.71 metres set last year. According to World Athletics, the regional record so far stands at 4.72 metres, set by Li Ling from China in 2019.
As a teenager, gymnastics was Perera’s first love and she represented her country in international events including the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
However, when her mother suffered a stroke that left her partially paralysed, Perera was forced to hit pause on her vaulting dreams.
“I’m nothing without my parents and when my mummy is on the bed how can I not take care of my family,” she said.
“I decided to find a job in Dubai so I can pay for her treatment.”
Perera sends most of her monthly salary home to pay for care for her mother, who now can walk a few steps with help.
Sri Lanka’s economic collapse last year sent fuel, food and electricity prices soaring as the currency plummeted and the nation defaulted on external debt for the first time since independence in 1948.
This prompted more than 311,000 people to leave in search of jobs, mainly to Gulf nations, as per government employment bureau numbers last year.
Similar numbers are expected to leave to find work abroad this year.
Perera also wants to address critics on social media who deride her for taking a maid’s job and giving a “negative” portrayal of Sri Lanka.
“It is my private life that I came to Dubai and I work as a housemaid,” she said.
“When I left, no one cared for my athletic life so I had to leave to take care of my family.
“Now they say why go as a housemaid and that I should come back.
“People ask why I make sad news about Sri Lanka, but I’m speaking to say I’m taking care of my mummy and my family.”
Perera says she also wants to speak up for her friends and other athletes who have won medals for Sri Lanka and also struggle to make ends meet.
“People should know about them. Mine is only one story. We have many stories in Sri Lanka, they need help,” she said.
Despite her brave front, it has not been easy to step off the track.
“I miss my competition, my dreams, my future,” she said. “It’s very hard.
“Sometimes I cry with my coach, with my father.
“I do want to start my sports again.”
Support for training
The Sri Lankan government has taken note of her story, meaning there may be a happy ending for Perera.
“When we got the news that a Sri Lankan national record holder has come to the UAE and is working as a housemaid, as consular officials we had to act,” said Mr Gunasekera.
“We are trying to see what can be done with the support of Dubai sport authorities.
“She needs time to train and she needs an employment opportunity to earn because she has to look after her mother.”
Mr Gunasekera said in popular sports such as cricket, Sri Lankan sportsmen earned enough to handle their family’s medical expenses but other athletes may not be able to cover charges.
“Sachini has the talent and is determined. I’m positive there are clubs in the UAE or schools she can work in to achieve her dream,” Mr Gunasekera said.
Despite yearning to follow her passion, Perera said she is grateful to her current employers who give her time off to use the gym, pool facilities and take her to the beach and Safa Park to train every week.
“They treat me very well,” she said.
“I have gone past a bad situation because of them.”