Saturday, August 23, 2014

From sameness to an appreciation for diversity

Nimna Wickramasinghe has been satisfied in her life in Colombo, till the time she did not meet fellow Sri Lankan citizens from the other part of the Pearl Island. A fortuitous joining of Future Leaders’ Conference presented her with an array of new beginnings.

“I did not know what was going to happen there,” Nimna said recalling her first day at FLC. She has participated in the 5th edition of the FLC organized at Galle. But all of her apprehensions were allayed as the Conference progressed. “I made lot of friends just because of the FLC. Today I have friends in all parts of the country. Earlier my friend circle was restricted to only my class and school, but now I have friends from all walks of life,” said Nimna. Now whenever she travels to other places in Sri Lanka, she just puts up with her friends. 

The experience speaks volume about the hope that the present generation of the Island nation has, as due to the war that raged on for quarter of a century, there has been a generation that never had any contact with people beyond their own community. This isolation meant that the prejudices and hatred bred unabated. But no more, the present generation dreams of “One Smile, One People and One Sri Lanka”.

Her experience at FLC has been once in lifetime for her. “At the end of the 5-day conference, I had an emotional moment, when my team volunteer from Kalmune walked up to me said that he found a younger sister in her.”Nimna was the member of Batticoloa Bandits in FLC-5. It took her some time to break ice with other very young Tamil boy in the team.  “There was 9 year old Tamil boy in our team. He barely spoke but, over a period of time you saw the team changing and on the day of departures everybody was teary-eyed,” added Nimna.

Her biggest take away from the conference was the appreciation of differences and she understood that children from conflict zones had lot of pent of emotions and a lot needed to be done to bring them into the mainstream. “My mother, now when she cooks food for me for school, makes sure that the food is halal and it does not have pork, so that all my friends can enjoy the food together.”

Nimna’s dream run with the new found friends continued even after the FLC. She started a school project in Mullaitivu region of the country that once has been the hotspot for the war. She understood that to communicate one does not need the knowledge of the language, but the willingness to communicate. And she only has fond memories about it, “For the school project we partnered with schools in Mullaitivu. Even though I did not know the language but we could communicate. The people in the region were really hospitable to us.”

The conference was also a learning lesson in taking pride in being a Sri Lankan. “Before FLC, when I thought about my country I used to wonder why I am here as it was a messed up place. Now I do not doubt my country any more. I want to help rebuild this country. I had got rid of my racist idea as after knowing people I am not afraid of them any longer,” said Nimna.   
Her last message was – “We should give peace a chance." 

Friday, August 22, 2014

‘Today I am a dreamer, I have big dreams’

“Today I am dreamer, I am no longer afraid to have dreams. I have big dreams”. He is all of 22 years of age. But the confidence glinting in his eyes and his big dreams are way beyond his age. 

For the better part of his life, Benislos Thushan, hailing from Jaffna, has known conflict as the normal way of life, where bomb explosions and weapon firing was a routine during the peak times of the war. “I had got displaced even when I was in my mother’s womb as the war was going on. We got displaced again when I was eight year old and spent some months in IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps,” he said, adding, “War was not a big thing because violence has been infused in my life so much."

The matter of fact tone in which he described the place of ‘normalcy’ that once war had in the lives of Sri Lankan is in contradiction to the hopes he exudes now. His journey towards hope began in 2010 when he participated in the second edition of the Future Leaders Conference (FLC) organized by Sri Lanka Unites (SLU).

“It (The Future Leaders Conference Season 02) was the beginning of the journey. Till then I only associated Sinhalese with hatred. But once I was there, for the first time Yohan, a Sinhalese came and hugged me,” said Thushan reminiscing about his experience at FLC. FLC gave wings to his dreams and he decided to come out of his cocoon. Today he has metamorphosed into a motivated youth aspiring to be an effective agent of change and become a multi-faceted young person. He speaks impeccable English, understands Sinhalese effortlessly and is aspiring to study medicine. “When I came to FLC, I did not know English. But then if I wanted to sustain my new friendships, I was under obligation to understand the language. And I started reading a lot in English.” Thushan’s perseverance paid off as he landed with a job at a leading Sri Lankan newspaper and started writing on socio-economic and political issues. He intends to study medicine and use it as a tool for post-conflict transformation in the society.

His passion was also sustained over a period of time by the doors of opportunity opened at SLU.  “I had small dreams. It was my dream to go out of Jaffna and then I got to visit 22 Sri Lankan districts and interact with more and more people.  Today I want to be a bridging factor between different communities and regions,” said Thushan speaking about his dreams. “Before FLC, I was only interested in academics. I had dreams which were self-centred, but nothing about society. But now I am a dreamer, big time. During the conference, I was able to see that absence of violence can lead to a prosper life.”  “When you hold grudge against somebody you are not going to make any progress. And during the conference I decided that I should not be doing that,” added Thushan talking about his transformation into a progressive and constructive youth.

Today he does not seek to counter people’s hatred with mere words but with loud actions. “One of my friends used to hate people from other community. I did not argue with him. But brought him to SLU and today he is a firm believer in the cause and sees social harmony as an achievable goal,” said Thushan with a blithesome smile.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Giving wings to dreams at Mullaitivu Reconciliation Centre

Logeshwar, 16, has a dream – one of becoming a politician. For those who think that his dreams are similar to those of any teenager will change their opinion once you get his complete introduction. He comes from Mullaitivu, the theatre of the last battle between the Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE in 2009. 

Even after three years after the war, the children in Mullaitivu did not have much hope of taking advantage of the new found peace as they lacked resources and the professional capability to compete in the education arena and jobs market. This is when Sri Lanka Unites took the challenge of capacity enhancement through Reconciliation Centre in the year 2013. The Centre was equipped to initiate the students into subjects like Information Technology, Business Entrepreneurial Studies and the English language.

“Earlier students found it difficult to compete for Advanced level and University entrance examinations. Without educational qualifications they ended up doing unskilled labor jobs. Now they have got a more level playing field to compete with the students from the other parts of the country for jobs,” said SLU’s National Director Ramzi Zain Deen while addressing the students during the Graduation Ceremony. Among the graduating students 206 were awarded IT Diplomas, 168 were awarded English Diplomas, 58 Business Entrepreneurship Diplomas and 20 kids were given IBM prizes.

The Reconciliation Centre has been a step in the direction of integrating the different communities of Sri Lanka in the social fabric, all of which suffered during the two and a half decade long war. It is with this new find hope and confidence Logeshwar said: “I want to be a politician and will counter propaganda.”

Logeshwar is not alone in his endeavors. Sixteen year old Kugajiny, who is fond of making colourful Kolams in her free time, is all enthused to finish her A-levels. She aspires to be Lab technician thereafter. Though she was young during the time of the violent conflict, she still has memories of it. “There were no studies, schools had stopped functioning. Most of us have lost our near and dear ones in the war. It was difficult,” said Kugajiny in English. But brimming with youthful exuberance, she said it was time to put the past behind them. “Now we are going to make Sri Lanka stronger and will live like brothers and sisters,” she added. Her proud teacher Remo Shihan looked on. Hailing from Jaffna, Remo has joined the efforts of post-conflict reconciliation of SLU with much vigour.

Just like the Kolam prepared by Kugajiny and her friends, Graduation ceremony was also a reflection of the colourful social fabric of the country that has several ethnicities and religions in its folds. The ceremony was conducted in three languages – Sinhalese, Tamil and English – a small step but it went a long way in winning hearts of the people. Later the dance group from GTMS Kallappadu performed a Mullaitivu dance, followed by two Sinhalese songs presented by the members of the Reconciliation Centre in the Southern district of Matara.
The rekindled hopes in the district have given strength to the students to work for their communities. Most of the students graduating wish to contribute to authentic reconciliation process and create a united Sri Lanka.