Children building bridges of friendship across the divide

By Anne Abayasekara

“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”.

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.

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