Children building bridges of friendship across the divide

In this set of articles, I highlight a strand of reconciliation that holds some hope for the future, small though it may be in scale. Anne Abaysekara’s first response to Capt Elmo’s lyrical message of symbiotic growth was presented in the Christmas season in a local newspaper and was  inserted here as well. But it is NOW replaced by her c frecent update courtesy of the Sunday Times of 16th May. Elmo Jayawardnena’s evocative piece follows   Such efforts seem so necessary within a cyber-world where virulent comments from Sinhalese and Tamil extremists spout hate and plot further sorrow for generations present and future.  This critique can be extended to those who concentrate only on a litany of grievances. In a recent comment on an article by Leela Isaac in groundviews, Dr. Rajasingham was moved to exclaim: “Let us not waste our energies on such issues and irrigate our conflicts further to harvest more misery and sorrow.” Michael Roberts

Children building bridges of friendship across the divide

Anne Abaysekara

“Many little people in many little places do many little things that can change the world”, wrote Capt. Elmo Jayawardana in a recent newspaper article entitled, “Peace Begins With Me”[see below]. Recently, I saw an instance of this, here in Colombo – little people – Tamil-speaking children from the East coming to spend a few days in Colombo in the company of Sinhala-speaking children who made them feel welcome and accepted. To quote Capt. Elmo again, “We hate some people because we do not know them, and we will not know them because we hate them.”

 

So here was a visible, tangible, carefully planned effort to start building a bridge of friendship by helping children from East and North and South to meet and mingle together in congenial surroundings – an imaginative approach towards changing hard-line attitudes that too often prevail on both sides of the divide in our country.

The Library Project launched earlier by CandleAid (formerly known as AFLAC) saw the opening of 66 libraries in southern schools. A great team headed by Priya Cooray has been engaged in doing something positive with regard to Children Of The Conflict (COTC). It has also arranged education sponsorships for children of military personnel who gave their lives or who have been disabled, in the war.

With the end of the conflict, CandleAid moved swiftly in the direction of the North and the East as well and, happily, it has now opened a chain of school libraries from Jaffna to Kalmunai via Trincomalee. The focus, however, now goes beyond setting up libraries, to “Uniting Children”. CandleAid has had the vision to see a way to use the libraries as a means of linking schools in the North and East with schools in Colombo and elsewhere to build bridges of friendship between the communities.

It is what Capt. Jayawardena (who, with his wife Dil was the moving spirit behind AFLAC and who now guides CandleAid), calls “the soul of the effort”.

Methodist College, Colombo, which was quick to respond to the idea, was invited to send a group of students and teachers to Wesley High School in Kalmunai and this took place in February this year when “Mithuro”from MC journeyed to Kalmunai to meet their counterparts, “koottalikal” in Wesley High School.

On March 21, there was a reciprocal visit from Kalmunai. Forty children – girls and boys – spent a few days at Methodist College and renewed their commitment to peace and goodwill in our land. The boys were kindly received for the night at St. Joseph’s College, but they were conveyed by van to MC in time for breakfast each morning and they went back to their hospitable lodgings only after dinner.

A team of four first year A/Level MC-ites had been given the task of planning a programme for the visitors and their own girls, helped by a couple of teachers. It meant that their short school holiday was almost fully taken up with devising plans to make the most of the all-too-short period of interaction between `mithuro’ and `koottalikal’, but they threw themselves whole-heartedly into the project and came up with an excellent programme.

On arrival, the visitors were greeted by their MC mithuro running up to them with bunches of colourful balloons in their hands and this was a great hit, especially with the younger children. The National Flag and the flags of both schools were hoisted by the two Principals. The school songs of both were sung, as was the National Anthem.

Various other interactions took place. English was the link language for many of the children. I spoke with a few boys and girls whose English was as fluent as that of a Colombo child and I learnt that they studied in the English medium class.

Those who weren’t so familiar with English, were not shy to speak in “broken” English in their eagerness to communicate with their Sinhala-speaking friends whose knowledge of Tamil was limited. One of the latter told me, later: “When we tried to speak the few words of Tamil that we knew, they were very appreciative. It made us want to learn Tamil.”

There were some Tamil children among the MC mithuro, which helped matters. The Kalmunai group was not exclusively Tamil, but included some Muslims too. One night the whole lot watched an English movie which all enjoyed.

There were discussions on given topics like “What do you think of the aims and objectives of CandeAid.” Children were invited to relate a story they had learned from a friend on the other side and one child related how her friend in Kalmunai had helplessly watched a friend of hers being washed away in the tsunami in December 2004.

During one session, someone had spontaneously begun to sing “We shall overcome….” and all the children had taken it up enthusiastically, both the Kalmunai and the Colombo children singing together with one heart and voice.

There were visits to the Planetarium, the National Museum and the zoo and a stop to view the Parliament building from the outside. CandleAid hosted a lunch at KFC for the whole lot. All the participants took part in a significant act.

Methodist College had blocked out a section of a wall and all the children daubed their hands in coloured paints and pressed their palm-prints on to the wall.. When the handprints were dry, each child wrote her/his name against her/his own handprint.

Unlike the Berlin Wall, this is a wall that will serve as an enduring reminder of how, here in Sri Lanka, children were brought together in friendship. The visitors had enjoyed going to the `Janakala Kendraya’ in Kotte where they watched artists and craftsmen at work and also bought souvenirs to take home.

There had also been an unscheduled stop at the House of Fashion on their way back from the zoo! It wasn’t only the teachers who were pleased by this, for many of the children had come prepared to do some shopping. The young visitors from Kalmunai were keener to buy gifts to take back to their families, than to make any purchases for themselves.

The culminating event of their last evening prior to departure, was a joint art exhibition by the art students of both schools. A great deal of trouble had been taken over this and the 141 paintings, each one neatly mounted, made a colourful display on the wall of the gallery leading off from the MC auditorium.

These pictures had all been done prior to the visit to Colombo so that they could be mounted and be ready for exhibition. The Chief Guest was Ms. Sheila Richards, a distinguished Old Girl of Methodist and presently CEO of the Neelan Thiruchelvam Trust.

Ms. Richards commended the meeting of students from the two schools as a step in the right direction of breaking barriers and of working towards real peace and reconciliation.

When it came to parting on the last day, there was much exchanging of addresses and telephone numbers and it was evident that new friendships had begun. The departing children each received a card on which was written: “We will always remember you –your friends at Metho.”

So ended a very worthwhile and meaningful interaction between schoolchildren from Kalmunai and Colombo, but it was only the start of the friendships they have formed and the forerunner of many other such exchanges in the future.

The Principals of both schools and their teachers, were enthusiastic promoters of the initiative taken by CandleAid. It was a costly venture financially and was made possible by the generous donations of many people. A stated aim of CandleAid is to function as “a link between your generosity and someone else’s need”.

It is to be fervently hoped that other schools will link up in the same way. Children are our hope of a better future for our country. Where the older generation has messed up, they can reach out to join hands with all who make up this multi-cultural, multi-religious country and together work to build one united and harmonious Sri Lankan nation in which the rights of all its citizens are ensured.

(For further information contact priyacooray@hsbc.com )

Peace Begins with me

Elmo Jayawardena

There are three huge hundred year old ancient nuga trees growing in a sandy patch by the Wesley School in Kalmunai. The space is seraphic and is shaded by the giant tree trio standing like sentinels. It is a kind of “all purpose” ground where children gather to play. The nuga custodians symbolises a very important lesson to all of us. One has a palm tree shooting up to the clear blue sky right from its belly, maybe some bird dropped a seed and the palm grew without an objection for intruding. The other has a well spread tamarind tree entwined branch to branch with the old Nuga companion, sharing the same space and shading the same good earth. The third has all kinds of small and big stumps and stalks sprouting from all over, ferns and vines, strangers as they grow in complete harmony on the Nuga foster parent.

It is only us, the so called “very intelligent human beings” who flew to the moon, transplanted human hearts and strut in Savile Row civilization who find it difficult to appreciate the simplicity of congruence.

CandleAid started the project; ‘Uniting Children” under the adage “Peace begins with me” by opening 27 libraries from Jaffna to Kalmunai via Trincomalee

The soul of the effort being to link children in peace, and Methodist College Colombo was invited to carry the first olive branch and dove their way to Kalmunai to meet their counterparts.  

 On a clear February morning they drove from Colombo to the east, the “Metho Mithuro” looking for their “Wesley School Kootallikal”. The Colombo girls in jade green ties were led by Nilshika, an “A” level student and were accompanied by two teachers. They had two girls who spoke Tamil, great way to start friendships. The entire project from its infancy was totally supported by the sterling leadership of the Methodist College Principal who believed in positive possibilities and worked with CandleAid people. She and her teachers and students gifted a sincere meaning to the belief “Peace begins with me.” On the eastern side, Wesley School from Kalmunai came to play host to the friends from Colombo. Here again it was the Head of the school and the staff who committed themselves wholeheartedly to set the tone for the links of friendship to begin.    

That’s the platform, now let me tell you the story

At a time when politics take center stage with promises galore on initiating progress and everyone cashing on the war victory, we should also ask the question. When the battle dust settles, is it peace? Do we have equality? Are we really two people, the ones that love the country and the ones that don’t? 

The answer is not simple. Too many bullets have been fired and too many graves have been filled by the young and the innocent. The battle scars have created gigantic gashes amongst the races that will take decades to heal. Circumstantial hatreds do not evaporate easily, unless we as individuals stand up and say “Peace begins with me.” 

Real peace is not ushered by the end of a battle. We all need to do intensive soul searching and come up with answers that would pave the way for reconciliation. If and when Wijayanayaka gets back to his friendship with Somasundaram and visits Velvatathurai, like old times and loafs around in his friend’s old Austin Cambridge that would be peace. Or a Balendran flies Mig jets for the Air Force and Gunendran is an officer cadet in the army that would be peace, as long as both Balendran and Gunendran do not come from Royal College but from Jaffna Central. Maybe a Kalamathy from Thalaimannar arrives in Colombo to study medicine sans a shred of fear; that would be a better definition of peace, the sincerely sought and the lasting kind.

The battles were fought to end a thirty year old conflict that had almost burnt this beautiful country and divided its people. The war is over, that we all know. Yes, we hope for peace, pray for peace and seek peace, but the main question is; are we doing enough to find more meaningful and lasting ways to co-exist?  

It is the interaction that we lack now. The fundamental need among all Sri Lankans from all races is to strip ourselves of the fragments of disunity and pick up the pieces for real peace. And that can mainly be done by the people and not by “powers that be” policy which at a grassroots level does become at most times irrelevant and meaningless.

We hate some people because we do not know them, and we will not know them, because we hate them; this applies fair and square to both parties.   

 They met in the school premises, Mithuro from Methodist College and the Kootallikal from Wesley School. The conversation was sprinkled with Akka, Malli, Nangi and Thangachchi. The smiles came easy and winsome and reached eyes that sparkled in friendship. The teachers were there too, along with the team from CandleAid, all joining in a new found soft and gentle step for peace sans the pomp and the pageantry. A day’s program had been laid and it was totally geared to cement the friendships of the students of these two schools.

A fresh beginning, a new page and a new and simple concept to tell the rest of the country that it is possible to say “Peace begins with me.”

The girls from Colombo brought books to supplement the CandleAid Library that was opened at Wesley School. The two teams worked together and made paper flowers and arranged them in two pots, one to be kept in Kollupitiya and the other in Kalmunai. This was primarily to signify the memory of a journey by children across three decades of terror and turmoil. They dug the ground together and planted four mango trees, or “trees of peace” they called it. One day the mangoes will come, fruits of labour and someone might remember the friends who came from Colombo to clasp fingers and talk peace.

The students drew pictures together, depicting a theme of unity and pinned badges on each other which had a dove with an olive branch and the message in clear letters which said “Peace Begins with me.” The teachers were absolutely wonderful, filling the blanks and adding words of encouragement. 

There are no words to quantify such beauty among people. There can only be hope that others will follow. Thirty envelopes were given to the Kalmunai School, each carrying a name and an address of a Metho student that a Wesley girl will write to and become friends with. They then will visit Colombo in April, to take part in an art exhibition and will meet their new found friends. More events will follow, linking the students of these two schools, paving the way for uniting them as children of a land that needs the future to be blessed with harmony.

Maybe the three ancient Nuga trees watched the children in friendly chatter, wearing badges that said “peace begins with me.” They would have seen the laughter and the camaraderie and the once separated strangers of different races coming together in their little attempt to change the sad and sardonic ethnic equation.

Maybe they heard too the girls when they said in their youthful clear voices “we took a small step towards a giant leap which we hope others will follow” Many little people in many little places do many little things that can change the world. I am sure the ancient nuga trees would have been thrilled that this happened in their shadow.

Kalmunai was one library; four more were opened in the next two days, Natpittymunai, Mylampaveli, Mich Nagar and Morokoddanchenai.  So much more could be done, so much more will be done. It is all a matter of believing “Peace begins with me.” 

 Capt Elmo Jayawardena elmojay@sltnet.lk 

There are 26 other schools from North to the east that CandleAid will link with schools. Please contact CandleAid if any school has an interest to be part of “Uniting Children” program.

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