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Shirin Cabraal

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When Shirin Cabraal first heard of the tsunami in Southeast Asia, it was not through reports in the media. She got a direct call from her mother in Sri Lanka. Beaches that Shirin had known as a child had been devastated; fishing villages had been destroyed. But fortunately, her mother said, the capitol city of Colombo had been spared and no one in her immediate family had been lost. Shirin was celebrating the holidays with her brother in Washington D.C., when the tsunami struck her homeland on the opposite side of the planet. Her brother promptly arranged to join the clean-up effort. Shirin came home to Riverwest. Reflecting on the disaster in Sri Lanka, Shirin has many stories to tell. There is her friend whose beachfront hotel disappeared; the other friend who lost everything but then amazingly recovered her small address book; the survivors who pitched in to collect money for the desperately displaced. Her homeland is drastically changed from the Sri Lanka she last visited three years ago. Living literally on the other side of the planet, Shirin does not often get back to her childhood home. She’s made a full life for herself since she came to Milwaukee in 1982. At that time she had just graduated from law school at UW-Madison, had a brand new baby and the offer of a job in Milwaukee. She and her husband moved to Humboldt Avenue and she has lived there ever since. She loves her bungalow with its sunny deck and view of Pumping Station Park. She contracted with local builder Paul Siefert to customize her house, as she wanted special adaptations built to ease her frequent use of a wheelchair. Her legs have been partially paralyzed since she had polio as a child. But much as she likes her house, Shirin also loves to visit other parts of the world. Ask her about her travels and she will tick off an impressive list of the countries she has enjoyed visiting: Japan, Thailand, Singapore, England, Italy, Germany, Australia. Someday she hopes to visit China. Wheelchair and all, Shirin is quite the globe-trotter. Living with special needs has given Shirin valuable perspective in her work as an attorney at the Wisconsin Coalition for Advocacy. This is the agency that is charged with protecting and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities in our state. Shirin works to ensure that people with disabilities have the services and resources to remain in the community without being institutionalized. Heath access and Medicaid are her areas of expertise. She also works on abuse and neglect in institutions. Over the years, Shirin has developed expertise with a wide variety of such cases. And then — and this is where her eyes light up — there are the questions like: “Is there a wider problem here?” “Is there some systemic change that is called for?” “How can I apply my skills and expertise to effect systemic change?” Those are the questions that draw Shirin Cabraal. The other big draw in her life is her family. Her daughter Sakura is a freshman at Milwaukee High School of the Arts. Her son Priyam, 23, attends UWM and lives close by. His daughter Priyana is the apple of her grandmother’s eye. At 14 months, she is what Shirin calls a “cocktail” — her lineage is a mix of Singhalese (ethnic group of Shirin’s family in Sri Lanka), Japanese, Midwest/European and African-American. Like Shirin, Priyana incorporates many cultures. Like Shirin, Priyana gives living testimony to the connections among human beings all around this planet.
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