It has been a happy and already fulfilling 15 days in Sri Lanka.
So far on this 30-day outreach, several active people who care beyond themselves, have said in various ways that IofC is especially needed in Sri Lanka today. Particularly after its twin barrel endorsement for greater democracy (in the Presidential and parliamentary elections); and, above all, in helping with the much evident need of alleviating the pain, the trauma many mainly in the North, are left with at the end of decades of a very cruel war.
Jehan Perera, ED of the National Peace Council says this is the right time for IofC to come in. This is because IofC talks of becoming free of the past through correction just as this nation is looking at bringing balm to the pain of the past caused especially to the Tamils through many efforts - individual and government ones like the 'Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission'. Jehan says: “Sri Lanka today is better than yesterday. Tomorrow will be better!”
The ’IofC for Life’ team feel that this visit is clearly a god-given start to Indian IofC humbly serving Sri Lanka long-term by working to support the Sri Lankan team especially Wimarshana Ranasinghe and Shashika de Silva and, through this IfL visit, the expanding young team here in the next year - and every year!
The biggest joy, as hoped for, is to see Shashi and Wima come into their own - really big time. You would be thrilled to see the confidence, competence and calm with which they are leading us. Language is, of course, no longer an impediment for Shashi. And you have to see how in his own Sinhala, he is ever so effective! As we go around we find both are also fairly well-regarded in NGO and more particularly peace-building circles through their work in that field before IfL.
Before coming to Sri Lanka, Wima and Shashi together with the IfL team, had prayerfully decided to try to raise funds for the visit locally and not through foreign funding.
So they gave a brilliant, inspirational turn to the fundraising of the SLRs 1.3 million needed by saying to the Sri Lankan team they would like to kick it off by giving Rs 15000 each themselves. In the next meeting Vijitha Yapa, the IofC President, touchingly picked it up saying that if unsalaried full timers can give from their pockets, then each of his family of four was also going to give - Rs 15000 each! Others responded too and the total quickly became Rs 1.4 lakh.
With over a Rs 1 m given or pledged in kind - meals and accommodation along the way – now we are around Rs 50.000 short and we sense that we will be given it all by locals. Please pray as this could be putting together a new (or, the old IofC) model of funds coming as people see this work is needed.
For an example of uplifting blessings: A few days ago in Mannar at breakfast there was a crisis, namely, no ready cash! Some worry energy was expended but trust and tranquility were reclaimed soon. And as of old, by the end of the day in came the blessings of two totally unexpected gifts from locals adding to Rs 18000. That tided us well over the immediate requirement. Wima, a Buddhist, spoke of her belief in the truth of the experience: "Where God guides, He provides."
And as for the Sri Lanka programme, it is Shashi and Wima who in great part through their own contacts have laid down an incredible round-the-island 13 stop visit for this month. Incidentally it is enthralling to see Wima translate to and fro Sinhala with faultless and un-halting fluency.
Now highlights from each stop along the way.
Hatton: A beautiful hill station surrounded by spectacularly manicured circles of tea hill tops
From India, Shashi had written Jesuit Father Leonard Michael who he had met just once before during a Playback Theatre workshop. And lo! this visit to the ‘Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka’- tea garden workers and their next generation - materialised. A day and half program with mainly young women was organized by Fr Leonard’s ‘Centre for Social Concerns’.
As soon as the 1st day’s interaction ended Fr Leo phoned someone clearing a hitch in relations from his side.
His deputy, a lady beset with tensions of in-laws compounded with having to have her mother stay with her, came for the next day’s session having after years hugged her mother (who naturally was in tears at that).
The CfSC team now are looking at joint times of silent inner listening for their work of serving society.And Fr Leo wants us to come back any time we can.
Kandy: Busy city of the Temple of Buddha’s Tooth Relic
In an hour of arrival we had a lively conversation over masala tea with this nationally known, spirited lady, Vishaka Dharmadasa devoted head of the Association of War Affected Women. One soldier son of hers went missing in the war in the North since 1989(?). She has brokered prisoner exchanges between the Govt and the LTTE. “Now that we in Sri Lanka are on the way to reconcile, we cannot make a mistake this time…..If we make our enemy feel secure, the enemy will not be an enemy anymore.”
Next day, a day’s follow-up meeting of 20 leaders of the four main religions of Sri Lanka some of whom the NPC took to Panchgani last year. Some decisions from them at the end of that day:
A.C.S Crooz, civilian, Kandy: Many in Sri Lanka feel angry towards India. I was one of them. I also felt very angry but I am sorry for my anger. I will use the morning 20 minutes to overcome hatred.
Hindu Priest from BatticoIoa: I want to practise the panchashila afresh and all that I have learnt from this one day. I will do service without expectation, will practise silence every morning and correct my mistakes. I will work according to my conscience..
Father Nesan, Catholic Diocesan priest from Mannar: I realized that there is a gap between what I preach and practice. I often find my words powerless and hence do not have any effect on others. From today, I will preach only my life experience.
A lady from the Galle area: As social workers we also have mistakes within, I have many things in my glass, if we can find 20 mins daily in silence, our lives can change. Listening to people helps.
Niroshan Eknayaka: 36 yr old works with an NGO headed by one of the finest Muslims (Muzammil Cader in photo)in Sri Lanka who came to AP, and is fostering nonviolence for 23 years and has trained 10000 people: “This morning for me was like someone catching hold of me by the ankle and threshing me down on the ground. I have been teaching values and non violence for 12 years but never till today did it occur to me that I should practise them myself.“ Niroshan returned three books that very afternoon to his NGO’s office and says that of the 1500 books he has at home, 250 are not his! Henceforth he wishes to include the IofC Freedom Glass personal change demo in his training methods At least one leader from each faith community have asked us to work extensively with them in future visits to give our ‘distinctive’ input.
Kurunegala: home of IfLer Wimarshana Ranasinghe
An evening’s conversation with Wima’s mother was totally transformative for her in understanding and reassurance about what her daughter was doing with IofC. As a result she came travelling onwards with us for a couple of nights. After a joint period of morning silence, she said: “I was amazed by the self discipline of your team. I think it’s a need for any group. I often have to ask my women’s group members to be silent but I think silence has to come from within. When I was looking at the waves in the lake, it was like the thoughts we have. They are always there. We need to learn to be in the present.” She then seemed to find it hard to leave our group to go back home.
Anuradhapura: the first capital and Budhhist heart of Sri Lanka
"I should earn hearts of people - not just money. IofC made me realize it is so important to be yourself. If you inspire someone, you earn that person for life," shared Sulari Vibhusha Kumarasiri ( APYC 2015 , Cambodia) a best friend of Wima who now works in the Police Dept. Earlier in Colombo she shared how the August APYC helped her to turn onto a new page in relations with her mother. She shared that tale of reconciliation compellingly at a Colombo gathering. She joined another college friend a lawyer, Harindi Palkumbura (Life Matters Course, Mannar, Aug 2015), travelling from Colombo to be with us just for the weekend. Harindi said: “I was thinking that our ancestors built these stupas for us, but what are we leaving for our future?...Thank you for making us part of this noble work. Long rides in trains or buses to join all of you don’t matter anymore.”
Madhu: Catholic pilgrims flock to the ancient Mother Mary statue. Pope Francis came here this year.
Panchgani-returned Fr Thamil Nesan invited us to be hosted there for a night. (Exception made for ladies in our team to be put up in the Priests’ Retreat House!) He had us address the 40 or so priests gathered there for their monthly coming together for ‘Recollection’ for 24 hours. And we did, apparently to some effect. Fr Nesan himself shared that IofC helped him cut his preaching down and practice up! The Retreat House have invited us to come back any time we can for more sessions.
Mannar: Where the train from Colombo ends at the edge of the Indian Ocean for the 32 km ferry-ride to Dhanushkody in Tamil Nadu
Jeremy Liyanage, a Sri Lankan Burgher living in Australia from the age of nine was our host. You can’t but be struck by his voluntary labour of love for Sri Lanka to help develop Mannar district together with the Mannar Chamber of Commerce. He comes every three months to Sri Lanka. A session with his team and others in their ‘Bridging Lanka’ initiative led to much soul searching on changing oneself and ways to do the job better.
Sister Rubarani Joseph of Mannar was at Panchgani with the religious leaders also. When you see her work in person you know she is a living, ever-smiling example of belief in God and total service to Him through serving the needs of others. She got papal approval from Rome for establishing a new order “Franciscan Missionaries of Peace” in 1996. Some new sisters have joined her order.
In the decades of war she resolutely protected 15 small girls through the 13 times she was displaced and resettled here and there. Often the LTTE would say they will allow just her to leave but each time she battled, insisted and won in that the little girls would go with her wherever she was being asked to move to, rather than be left possibly to be recruited into the war. She would travel in an open truck hiding all the girls under palmyra leaves.
In Mannar, she started with looking after an orphanage her Bishop asked her to. Then through donations she built up a 20-room school from nothing on her family’s property in town for “Building Peace and Reconciliation through English School Education”.
She started in 2009 with seven LKG and UKG kids. The government has given her a 3 acre marshland plot she is reclaiming for the school to relocate to, as it expands beyond the present 230 student strength.
Committed to serving she clearly is; and also in her clarity to have one portion to be built as a small IofC training centre. “IofC has already touched my life.”
She organized a Town Hall meeting for over 200 of her students’ parents to come to hear us. An extraordinary event so quickly put together for us spelling the regard she has in all the community for her totally selfless giving and joyful work.
Knowing the basis IfL is moving through Sri Lanka is on a wing and a prayer, she donated Rs 10,000 for the IfL outreach in Sri Lanka. Doubly touching, when she herself is raising money for the foundation of her new school.
Kilinochchi: Sri Lanka’s killing fields was the centre of the LTTE. Totally destroyed and now rebuilt
Shashi knew Rev Joshua from the very effective social art form of Playback Theatre. And on the strength of that acquaintance, Rev Joshua hosted us fully for four nights and the only full 3-day programme onour tour. At the end of the first day, he remarked that unlike so many programmes in the last 20 years he ran, this was really working and achieving change in people. He wants more.
Expressions from participants:
Thaya: Tamils are in every country of the world. But in Sri Lanka as a Tamil, I do not feel at home. I feel I am a refugee here ...From childhood I had thought to fight for my Tamil people. But today I realise mine has not been the right way. Opposition, violence and anger will not achieve anything.
Shashi: As a Sinhalese, I am sorry you feel that. Our governments have not done the right thing; but together we can do something for our country.
Dharsha: There is so much dirt, …the worst in me (my glass).. I had an inferiority complex.... did not want to share whatever I have, clothes or anything ... I’m jealous of others and fret about getting things I do not need...I have fear of what others think of me...
Debora Jeevamalar: There is sadness in my heart about Tamils. I used to think others have oppressed us but the worst thing is that Tamils have oppressed other Tamils....
Thilona: (Sinhalese): Since childhood money was always an issue for me but now that I am earning, am happy I can put in a rupee or two. Nonetheless I had a feeling of being stuck in one place in life - of having no options. Now I have found a solution and will not be stuck in one place anymore.
Illme Hasim, Muslim artist and businessman from the South: I had a good family. Till 16, I kept the problems our family were facing within me, as I could not have gone on otherwise. Then at 16, I made a list of people who had troubled us - to kill them. I went to one such person's home but saw his family condition was not at all good. If I had done anything to him, his family members would suffer. I felt disgusted with myself, went into depression and at university even tried to take my life. Doctors advised me to use my creativity and do art. Now I do not have hatred towards society but only towards myself because I have perpetuated wrong. Then I had a choice between becoming a monk or a politician. And I chose politics as a way to bring change. But my depression eventually curtailed my time in politics. Then I continued with drama especially highlighting children's issues and injustice to them. Today is a new beginning and I am starting with drama again. Now I will aim to build a smaller drama team who I can totally trust. Still I do not always cope with the pain in me. I have changed but others have not.
(More on the 3 day programme in the next installment, especially the flood of personal decisions on the last day with each one sharing the ‘un-shown sides of their life’ through them doing their own Freedom Glass demo!)