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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Something I Learned Volunteering for Sri Lanka Unites

By - Alina Berger,

In my experience as a volunteer from Germany, Sri Lanka Unites consists of an inspiring ideology, mixed with an ambitious team most of who are volunteers. Sri Lanka Unites conducts workshops, reconciliation centers, leadership conferences and also runs a project against women’s harassment.With these projects SLU tries to tackle issues of racism and hatred as well as harassment against women. At first glance the project for stopping harassment against women and a movement for peace and reconciliation seems to be different from one another, but let’s focus on the similarity of both.

The main topics of both the projects are differentiation and segmentation between human beings in our society, which are used to legitimize unequal living conditions, a different treatment and they also include assumptions about the behavior of a person. The distinctive features can be gender, “race”, ethnicity, religion, class, health, sexual orientation and many more.These differences are often associated with hierarchies among peopleand the feeling of being superior or inferior. Obviously they can lead to discrimination like racism and sexism relating to specific demographic groups.

Behind the implementation of equal opportunities and the fight against discrimination is the basic understanding of equality of every human being. So in the fist both articles of the universal declaration of human rights is written “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” (Article 1)and furthermore “(…) without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status (…)” (Article 2).

We are living in a diversified world where everybody is unique. But instead of living this way, we often think in categories, try to classify and evaluate humans to make life easier. But the axes of differentiation are not based on just one category; instead, everybody has a lot of categories incorporated and in fact it is more complex. It is not only ourselves defining our identity, but a huge amount are others who are judging us.These attributions are located in a powerful and hierarchical social context, which is meaningful and socializing. But it is important not to produce naturalizations of categories, because the categorizations are modifiable and they depend on history and culture.

But how is it possible to change stereotypical thinking? Regarding the aim of anti-discrimination, learning processes of individuals and in the society are necessary and they also find their expression in the behavior and actions. You have to accept and respect diversity in our whole society and also in every individual.You should not forget that nobody feels always superior. Sometimes you are in a less privileged position, so you should have empathy for others in such situations.People who take advantage of suppressing others often feel oppressed themselves and try to compensate it through suppressing actions.A constructive self esteem should be based on your talents, your personality and positive social actions, not on oppression.

It would be a paradox trying to solve the issue of hatred between different ethnicities through reconciliation and simultaneously to ignore the injustice and oppression women have to go through. The aim of reconciliation is not only to face ethnic problems, so harassment against women and many other issues are still included in this topic.To emphasize the point: How can someone say that the various ethnicities have to accept each other and should be treated equally, but women should not? Where should be the difference?
Just think about your feelings and thoughts during or after a situation you or somebody else experienced injustice, regardless of the reason. Think about the principles in life which are important to you and how you can follow them. The most important questions you should ask yourself in this context are:

•    What kind of a society do you want to live in?
•    What is your part in this system and what a person do you want to become through your actions?
•    Thus, how can you change the society into a better place through your personal actions?

And don´t forget: Even the longest journey begins with the first step.

Mentoring Weekend



By - Shehara De Silva,

Yet another successful completion of an annual highlight, the mentoring program held on the 7th, 8th and 9th of March marked an eventful weekend.

The essence of the program like every year was mentoring the students so that they may initiate their Champions of Change project along with the respective partner school. The purpose being the necessity to enable the students to become change agents not only within their own communities but also outside their comfort zones and drive their potential to greater heights.

Students arrived on the 7th, Friday evening at Lyceum International Nugegoda, some after tiresome hours of travelling, still enthusiastic and much awaiting the program ahead. Upon arrival they were registered and schools were partnered. The students were then given a briefing about the program itself and divided into teams that they would remain in for the days to come. The day was wrapped up following dinner and the students were sent off to get some shut eye before the eventful day that awaited them.

The following morning students were greeted with an enthusiastic exercise session that got them up and about. From high knee drills to duck walks the work out was intense and lasted an hour or so. Nevertheless energy filled the hall as the team and students alike prepared for the remaining sessions. The morning was complete with team building activities, team performances that were judged, brainstorming sessions and a briefing about SLU and our vision. The afternoon session was set aside for the schools to meet their partners and for the students to get started with their project proposals. The dream team conducted a presentation educating the students on how to initiate a project, setting objectives, promoting, managing finances and so forth. There was also a panel discussion so the students could learn through first hand experiences of individuals who initiated successful projects and went on to win the challenge.

However like any other mentoring weekend the highlight was the evening and the fun that awaited. The sports session most importantly further integrated the group as the teams participated in various relays and competed against one and other. The day would not be complete however without the traditional campfire. As everyone gathered around the blaze and the days activities slowlycame to an end, excitement filled the ground. The dream team performed a skit leaving everyone in hysterics followed by a pass the parcel session that had certain students having to perform various tasks leaving others to laugh. It was certainly an eventful night that came to a close with the seniors attacking the dream team with buckets of water and a round of flour too.

The following morning students returned to the main hall to spend the last couple of hours finalizing and presenting their project proposals to the team. It was clear that the students were on track and we are certainly looking forward to the initiation of as many of the projects proposed. Following a teaser with regard to the conference and encouragement to be a part of it this year a photo shoot brought the eventful weekend to a close, and I take great pleasure in saying, now all that awaits is the conference. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

SHOW You Care Campaign During the School Relations Tour



Such a grave social issue and yet one least attended to, is it that it has become so widespread that society has come to terms with it, that we have come to accept it?

Sexual harassment is an unwelcome act of a sexual nature, using assault, criminal force, or words or actions, which causes annoyance or pain of mind to the person being harassed. Although to the recipient the act is humiliating and repulsive, the perpetrator may view it as harmlessly normal. It is nevertheless sexual harassment if the act is unwelcome. Sexual harassment can occur in private or public life, between family and friends or at the workplace, public places and transportation. Both men and women can be perpetrators. But our focus is on the weaker link. An individual who find herself being subjected to harassment more often would be a woman.

The ‘S.H.O.W. You Care’ campaign is an initiative that we as the SLU have taken to create more awareness about this grave social issue and to bring attention of the public to the existing laws and the legal measures relevant to harassment.What’s significant about our campaign is that men stand up against the harassment of women and carry this message to the community on behalf of their mothers, sisters, relatives and friends. A collective effort, nevertheless has twice brought the campaign to successful end both in Colombo and in Galle. Moreover we have also been able to carry out a workshop with regard to the same in the East.

Following a briefing the team sets out to approach uncountable numbers of buses. Both men and women alike are informed about the hotline numbers now available in case of such emergencies and each individual is encouraged to voice themselves and stand up against harassment.

Over 200 volunteers boarded 1,248 buses within the course of 5 days, in all the main bus routes in Colombo addressing over 35,000 commuters with our message in 2012. Similarly following the workshop in Galle in January 2014, prior to the campaign it was to a mere request that over 50 students responded to by giving us their fullest support. Girls and boys alike showed much enthusiasm. Each student was given a S.H.O.W t-shirt and transported to the main bus stand. Hesitant at first, it was a matter of time before over a thousand rallied around inquisitive to know what the campaign was about and direct their efforts towards the cause.
The workshop in the East was an indicator that we have now taken this initiative across the island and will continue to do so. The students were of much appreciation and extended their gratitude as we wrapped things up. Although public transportation was not as relevant to them the initiative itself was valued as harassment of women manifests in many forms regardless of how and where it may be.

So from pasting numerous stickers on buses to distributing thousands of cards with hotline numbers including the penal code with regard to harassment of this sort, incase of legal uncertainty, today we are certain that we have been able to touch the hearts of at least a few dozen. We consider it a milestone in journey toward reconciliation as a social issue is not unique to a single community but our country as a whole and it is necessary to unite in order to bring such matters to a halt.

By - Shehara De Silva

Monday, February 17, 2014

School Relations Tour 2014


“I wish to create a dent in the universe” - Steve Jobs. A youth movement for hope and reconciliation, today we as SLU has set standards that are looked up to by our peers, moreover heard, across the globe. With this thought in mind a team driven by passion, commitment and dedication towards our cause set forth on a journey throughout the month of January. Approaching over 50 schools from the North to the East and all the way to the South of our little island and back.

Four solid days of training served as prep for the team prior to the tour. Sessions inculcated in them values and enhanced our leadership skills in order to help each of us pursue the mission with success. Following which, alongside the national director and those of the senior team, the Dream Team 2014 left Colombo on the 15th of January in anticipation of a successful tour in the North.
Having no previous experience in carrying out workshops and assemblies for over a hundred excited students at a time the team was feeling slightly nervous of what lies ahead of them. Nevertheless from the very first session it was a journey of experiential learning and identifying strengths and weaknesses. Each workshop or assembly that followed was better than the previous and so assured the smiles that would leave the halls. It was becoming more evident that the new Dream Team was making an impact by building peace and reconciliation in schools, giving students a better understanding of each other’s ethnicities. So from Jaffna to Mullaithivu did the team leave with more exuberance than before? By then the team had understood each other’s strengths and prepared for the following workshops in a more strategic manner bringing out the fullest potential not only in each other but all the students who enthusiastically participated in the programs. Many schools assured us of their support and participation throughout the year establishing or renewing their Sri Lanka Unites School Chapters within that very week.

The following week the team left in view of the south with more confidence than before. Not only were the workshops and assemblies carried forth well but the SHOW You Care Campaign too was wrapped up with success in Galle creating much needed awareness in regards to sexual harassment of women. A group of students supported the SLU team as they too rallied around in an effort to put a stop to women harassment. Ignored by some and accepted by others each individual boys and girls alike, spread the message of awareness and joined hands with the team to support us. The team was greeted with much warmth by all the schools from Galle to Tangalle, Matara and back. We were also able to organize a workshop in the Sri Lanka Unites Reconciliation Center located in Kamburupitiya and so ended the tour to the South upon establishing and renewing bonds with yet another strong coalition.

The much awaited tour came to an end in the East where the team gained immense experience. Verbal communication was not necessary; we now understood each other so well a simple gesture was enough to ensure the message was understood and so we made our statements from Ampara to Kalmunai, Batticalo and back. Simply under a tree, in a classroom or a large hall our message to the youth of the East too was conveyed. The new Dream Team also visited the school at which we hope to facilitate the highlight of our Flagship event which is the Future Leaders Conference. It was an encouraging visit, reminding us of the eventful year ahead.

As always a restless bus ride always completed our day’s efforts placing a smile on all our faces. Confusion and irritancy in an effort for one conversation to be heard over another the team travelled overnight and returned thrice to Colombo only to part from each other with disappointment much awaiting the next meeting. Memories made will last us a life time, from having to brush our teeth around a garden tap to enjoying dinner on the middle of a deserted road, from trespassing into kiddies playgrounds all over the country to engraving our names in the sands of beaches in point Pedro and beruwala, in arugambay, pasikuda and Trincos marble beach. Definite sense of accomplishment is encompassed in us all today and with a large turnout anticipated for the conference this year. The best is yet to come!

By - Shehara De Silva

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Dream Team in The North



By - Shehara De Silva

On the 15th of January the Dream Team 2014 along with our National director and a few others seniors left Colombo in view of the North on the much awaited School Relations Tour.

A restless night was met by an exciting dawn as we arrived in Jaffna and prepared for our first assembly. We cared less for what anyone had to say when we all gathered around the garden tap and brushed our teeth with much anticipation. We were to attend assemblies at Kokuvil Hindu College and St. Patricks College. This went according to plan with a successful end to the morning session. Lacking experience, it was certainly an eye opener for us. We then prepared for the day’s workshop at St. Johns College with much enthusiasm while a few of us met with the principal of Jaffna College, with regard to our program.

Jaffna Hindu Ladies College, St.Patricks, Vembadi Girls High and St. Johns College Jaffna attended the workshop and a few ice breakers got the girls and boys on their feet, enthusiastic and excited about the program that was to follow. After a brief introduction as to what Sri Lanka Unites is about, the students engaged in activities that we hoped would inculcate in them leadership qualities, lessons on teamwork and unity. We then focused on the topic of reconciliation and positive change that we as the SLU team bring about. Subsequently we addressed the social issue on stereotypical views held by our peers with regard to the ethnic division in our country. The smiles that left the hall assured us that the day had been a success. A team photo at Point Pedro ended our day in Jaffna and we were greeted by a much needed night of rest in Mulaithivu.

As we divided and conquered the day that followed was eventful. The team separated into 3 groups placing those who speak Tamil most strategically, I would say and approached 8 different schools. However the day would not have been one well spent if not for the eventful evening at the beach and a memorable ‘paan and parippu’ dinner on the middle of a road at a godforsaken hour. Tempted at the sight of a kiddies park nearby our night was complete upon trespassing and taking immaturity to a whole new level.

It was with much pride that we carried forth the following day’s workshop at our reconciliation center in Mulaithivu, after much preparation the previous night. We wrapped up the days program with the students placing their finger prints on a map of Sri Lanka pointing out a place they’d like to visit the most. 

Needless to say the bus ride was always the highlight of our journey. A milestone down with a few more to go, the tour to the North came to an end. A mere step towards accomplishing our vision.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Look Back at 2013




The year of 2013 kicked off with Sri Lanka Unites opening its first reconciliation center in Mullaithivu. It was a 3 year dream of Sri Lanka Unites with the opening ceremony being held on the 31st of January. The reconciliation center was declared open by Alistair Burt MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, United Kingdom. On April 2013 the reconciliation center had its first graduation ceremony for the first 3 batches of the English Diploma followed by the graduation ceremony for DITEC Program conducted by ESOFT, a combined number of 58 students graduated from the Mullaithivu Reconciliation Center on the day. At present the Mullaithivu Reconciliation Center provides scholarships for over 150 students in Business Entrepreneurial Studies, ICT and English. Just 7 months after the launch of the Reconciliation Center in Mullaithivu Sri Lanka Unites launched its 2nd Reconciliation Center in Matara. A remote village named Kamburupitiya was the location for the new center. United Kingdom’s Foreign Affairs Minister William Hague graced the Matara Reconciliation Center by his presence on the 14th of November followed by discussions about overcoming issues facing Sri Lanka with students of both the Reconciliation Center students and the new Dream Team.

As always the flagship event of Sri Lanka Unites was held this year in a colorful fashion with great enthusiasm by the Sri Lanka Unites Team. The venue for this year’s conference was Sangamittha Balika Vidyalaya, Galle. It was the first time that a Buddhist School was hosting the conference more over the venue for the conference was even more unique given the fact it was hosted by a Government School. As always students took part in the conference with great enthusiasm coming from all corners of the island representing all ethnicities. Over 530 students took part in this year’s conference with over 120 volunteers helping out in organizing and mentoring the students taking part in the conference. This year’s best Champions of Change project award went to Methodist College and Hind Ladies College for their project of standing up against harassment of women. This year’s conference had a slew of interesting speakers ranging from various ethnicities and age categories. Day 2 of the conference introduced the idea of reconciliation and explored underlying responsibility of all Sri Lankans in this regard by Dr. Selvy Thiruchandran, Dr. Jehan Perera and Mr. Javed Yusuf. The ideal qualities a leader should possess in order to ensure effective and lasting reconciliation was presented by Justice Shiranee Tilakawardena and Mr. Kushil Gunesekara on Day 3. Ms. Namini Wijedasa, Mr. Fadhil Bakeer Markar and Mr. Nalliah Kumaraguruparan Ashokbharan spoke to the students about the need for youth to creatively identify foster creative expression of ideas to address present day challenges on Day 4. The conference was also made colorful by entertainers such as Dushyanth, Randheer, Choro Calibre and Voiceprint. On the final day of the conference the moment that always moves the heart of the people is when the students take the stage and apologize to each other for the hurts and injustices of the past inflicted by one community to another. Although many have criticized that this is only a feel-good element there is no denying that the students need this. Forgiveness needs to be asked, hurts must be acknowledged. It is a vital part of the healing process. It’s one important step taken towards the process of reconciliation.

After an enormously successful SHOW You Care campaign in 2012 this year’s SHOW You Care Campaign kicked off at Vihara Maha Devi Open Air Theater on the 25th of September. Over 200 Volunteers and school students from Ananda College, Wesley College, St Peter’s College, Methodist College, Hindu College and Thurstain College attended this year’s SHOW You Care launch and they were enlightened by speakers such as Caryll Tozer (Founder of Women in Need), Shyamala Gomez (Fokus and Gender Advisor at United Nations) and Neela Marrikar a women’s activist and Chairperson at Grant McCann Erickson. The campaign was endorsed by many celebrities ranging from sports stars to entertainers. Randhir an ardent supporter of Sri Lanka Unites made a guest performance at the launch. This SHOW You Care campaign was also endorsed celebrities like Murali, Alanki Perera, Randhir, Kushil Gunasekara, Sheshadrie and Dinakshi Priyasad. The launch was wrapped up with a candle-lit vigil and the students left with not only with a deeper understanding of the laws surrounding harassment, but with a greater awareness of the impact of harassment thus encouraging them to take pro-active steps to stop the progression of this issue.

The mentoring weekend for 2013 was represented by 20 enthusiastic schools dedicating themselves to making a lasting impact in Sri Lanka. The 2 day mentoring weekend program held at Pamunugama enlightened and gave guidance to students who were given partnering schools to carry out their Champions of Change projects. Excited students at the mentoring weekend made in roads to their Champions of Change (CoC) projects by laying down their project plans to be carried out with their partnering schools. An exciting line of CoC projects seems to be in line for the year of 2014 with students determined to make a lasting impact in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Unites office had visitors for Avurudu when Japanese delegates from Peace Boat made a visit on the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Pleasantries of Sri Lankan and Japanese traditions were exchanged by the SLU Team and the Japanese Delegates. Both parties had a better understanding of each other’s cultures after the pleasantries ended. On the eve of Ramadhaan the SLU team had an Ifthaar experience. The team sat down together on a traditional Sawaan to have dinner with traditions accustomed to Muslims. Perhaps one of the highlighted guests Sri Lanka Unites got the chance to meet this year was the Birtish Prime Minister Hon. David Cameron. Members of the new and old dream team had the honor in meeting the British Prime Minister.

In conclusion 2013 was an eventful and colorful year for Sri Lanka Unites in which an enormous amount of progress was made. Keep an eye out for the year 2014 with the Future Leaders Conference Season 6 about to take the Eastern province by storm, the third campaign for SHOW You Care and many more events to be held.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Place in Your Heart

By Rochelle Silva,

“There’s a place in your heart and I know that it is love”, sang Michael Jackson. Love, in its myriad forms and ways; ranging from the firm yet kind parental love to mushy adoration, certainly keeps us going. And it is the love for our motherland blazing in the hearts of every individual that will keep Sri Lanka going. So the war in our sun kissed island ended more than 4 years ago. Does this mean our country has been full of love and peace ever since? Do I hear you saying “Oh! Can we talk about something else?

True, the country has moved ahead in terms of economic development. However, I’m not too sure of the development in our attitudes, especially when I see the recent hike in hate speech and religious discrimination over social media. Every religion is based on the golden rule that you shall treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Is that the reason why racist posts and comments with hurtful rhetoric flourish online? Is that the reason why sharing an anti-racist post can earn you nasty comments?

I faced a similar incident a few months back. To be honest, I was angry: Don’t these people realize that they are paving the path for another war? Another 30 year war which crippled our nation? Be frank; all of us have been affected by the war in one way or another. Think about all the innocent lives that were lost… Maybe some of your loved ones too… Think about the feelings you had when you heard that bloodcurdling music of breaking news on TV… Think about the curfews, check points, bomb threats, the effect on development, the mass exodus of many Sri Lankans… On a personal note, I nearly lost my mother due to the central bank bombing in 1996. Just thinking that there was a possibility she might not have made it makes me tear up inside. Do wewantthosehorrificeventsagain?

Even though all these thoughts were circling in my heart, there was a catch here. If I commented with an equally sarcastic comment, I would just be “hating” hatred. I discussed the possible motives behind this with a great friend of mine who raised some interesting questions. Wasn’t it possible that these persons had undergone traumatic experiences due to the war? Maybe their relatives got killed. Maybe they were brought up with the idea that they should hate other ethnic groups. If my mother had died, I might have become a bitter racist too. As Nelson Mandela says, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite’’ 

Fortunately, there are Sri Lankans who can say: “I’m not racist. I treat everyone equally.” If you are one of them, be really proud about yourself! As Mahatma Gandhi says, “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”. But you can’t say “Okay. I’m strong”, and wash your hands of responsibility. If there’s a place for Sri Lanka in your heart, you should put your strength into action. 

Your efforts may seem insignificant, but like the little drops of water gathering to make the mighty ocean, the collective efforts of many individuals will definitely make a change. Being one of the contributors of a page titled “Written for Reconciliation” (writtenforreconciliation.blogspot.com), I’m happy to see that many are making their voices heard.  

Whenever you come across hate in your day to day lives, take the time to understand. Forgive him/her and take the first step towards reconciliation. It could also be something as small as sharing an inspirational quote/article on your social media profiles. As Martin Luther King says, “you can either react with bitterness or turn your suffering into a creative force.” I’m sure you’ll make the right choice- because there’s a place in your heart, and I know that it is love.