Sujeeva Nivunhella, courtesy of the Sunday Island, 22 November 2015
An emotional essay written by a Sri Lankan student studying at the University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland following the deadly Paris attacks has gone viral on social media. Sarah Jameel (23) is a dental student at UCC. She had her primary education in Sri Lanka and recently graduated from McGill University in Canada in Biomedical Sciences and International Relations. Her essay titled “A love letter to Beirut, Paris and beyond from Sri Lanka” has been read by thousands of people across the world and it was also picked up by various websites and newspapers in the world. She was also interviewed by Spirit Radio in Ireland.
Sarah explains how she was brought up in Sri Lanka amidst 30 years of war and her first experience as a five-year-old child when bomb attacks were carried out on the Central Bank and World Trade Center buildings in Colombo. She opens her essay by quoting Harry Potter, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”. She says that she was part of a generation that was born and raised during a war and the effects of the atrocity of three decades will for-ever be part of her childhood.
“If you are a peacemaker, never give up on that role because the world needs more of you”, the student says. Her dream is to create reliable and affordable dental care to areas of conflict and regions of the world that need it the most through the formation of a Doctors Beyond Borders for dentists. Her commitment to community service and youth activism has won her the titles of Global Teen Leader by We Are Family Foundation, Global Changemaker of British Council, and TEDMED Front Line Scholar by TEDMED. The following are excerpts of Sarah’s essay, which she addresses to “Dear fellow humans”:
“We don’t choose which part of the world we are born into. It’s not a decision we get to make until we are years out of uterus. And sometimes this decision may be already made for us; if you end up becoming a refugee and have to take an unsafe boat and be in the mercy of the hands of smugglers, because no one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark, you only run from the border, when you see the whole city running as well. You have to understand, that no one puts their children on a boat, unless the water is safer than the land.
“But, whatever the reason may be, humans like you and I are strong, we are courageous and we wait it out until enough is enough. They (neuroscience research) say that humans are the only creatures who are able to empathize with other fellow humans because of the cognitive functions bestowed in our grey matter.
“We have evolved, or being made this way ?— ?whichever truth you believe in — to be able to feel the pain of another human’s struggle, to be able to rejoice in joy of another human’s triumph. And this is to me is truly what makes us human — even when we are miles away from them and just watching events unfold through a TV screen or a twitter feed.
“Last week was an excellent example of this cognitive phenomena. A massacre in Paris, a car bomb in Beirut, an earthquake in Japan, and countless other attacks where we humans have given into aggression (which is controlled by a very primitive part of the brain, and not one where higher cognitive functions such as analysis or thought processing and social responsibility take place) makes me wonder if we are turning the evolutionary clock backwards and becoming less human.
“But the good news is that the neuroscience is in our favor. We can be trained to be more peaceful, to be more compassionate, and to be kind. And this is what we need to prime on. So let me tell you a story of this science in action. I was born in Sri Lanka, a country that has a written history dating back 2,500 years – a country that has embraced the philosophy of Buddhism for millennia.
“So I was part of a generation that was born and raised during a war, and although I may not have lived on the frontline, the effects of this mass atrocity of three decades will forever be part of my childhood. Living in the cosmopolitan capital city of Colombo didn’t mean I was safe, so I know what it is like to go to school every day and not know if I would make it back home safe, or if my parents would get back in one piece from work.
“The common occurrence of suicide bombs (especially since those responsible invented the suicide vest itself) in urban areas made me grow up to have what I call a “bomb sound reflex”, which is why even today if I hear a loud bomb-like sound, my first instinct makes me question if it was a bomb.
“As the country was in a very volatile position of ending the civil war through military means, so was the use of innocent civilians as human shields in the war zone and those out of the war zone as collateral damage. And therefore being given training on how to act during a bomb or explosion was something we were taught even as
“But one day it did, there was a loud explosion, a suicide attack targeting a high ranking official, and myself together with my fellow Prefects had to follow what we were taught, and more importantly keep my classmates calm and safe until the chaos ceased.
“So I may not have been in Paris with you or in Beirut or in Baghdad or wherever else your dignity was shattered through fear, and you may not have had the training I was given on how to deal with such a situation, but if you came out of this experience stronger than you were before, I salute you.
“There comes a day when these types of conflicts see their natural demise or an intervention that does the same job, and until then you need to be hopeful but never hateful.
“So, today and tomorrow and until our days are numbered as inhabitants of this planet we call home — a planet we are renting from nature and must thus not destroy — I hope you remember two songs, “We Are The World” (not just je suis paris but nous sommes le monde) and “We Are Family.”
“I hope the results of the recent events don’t shut your doors to those who may not even have what you have, a home. I hope it only strengthens you to open your doors wider to create an army of kindness. Like the way countless Sri Lankans opened their doors to strangers and friends who were targeted because of race, ethnicity, political beliefs or as a result of any other human-made social construct.
In war, choose love. In despair, choose love. When the good and bad become relative concepts and appear to be grey, choose love. When you don’t know whom to blame about the magnitude of atrocities around you, choose love.
“This is my love letter to you, and I hope it will open your heart to transcend borders and reinvigorate what humanity is all about”.