Thursday, August 19, 2010

SLU conference 2010 - Reflections from an observer

by Sashi Selvendran* (USA)

What do you get when you bring hundreds of the brightest, most talented students from all around the country together for 5 days? You get something life changing, something larger than the individual parts, something new. Sri Lanka Unites held its second annual Future Leaders Conference this past week, bringing together students from different parts of Sri Lanka, from different ethnic backgrounds for 5 days of inspirational thinking, strategizing, discussing, playing, and sharing.

From the first day when the students nervously unloaded into the auditorium and patiently waited as their fellow peers arrived, to the second day when they began dancing in the aisles, it didn’t take long for this talented bunch to know they were among friends. Despite the language barriers, the students were able to find linkages with their fellow classmates from different parts of the country. They shared in their love of food, of music, of sports, and movies to realize that despite the war, they had more in common than they would have ever known.

It wasn’t easy to get the students to leave their school pride and friendships behind to join new teams. As they entered the auditorium, you could see the look of bewilderment as they were all separated into new groups. So they sat in silence for the first hour. Many didn’t speak to each other, assuming that because the students next to them looked different they probably didn’t speak the same language. But slowly as they started talking, introducing each other, and sharing stories, they came to see how easy it could be talk to someone that may be from a different background and speak a different language. By the second hour in the auditorium, more students had arrived, more conversations were started, and more friendships were developed.

As the first day came to a close, the students learned more about the purpose of the conference, visited their shared rooms, and ate a traditional Sri Lankan meal for dinner. They watched as a live band performed an original composition, in all three languages. They clapped and beat their feet to the rhythm of the beat, as the excitement of the next 4 days started to build.

The second day brought insightful discussions with Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala and project planning sessions. The day ended with cricket and other team sporting activities that revved up the group for the rest of the evening. By this point, bonds had been formed with their teammates as they rallied together in the activities. With full energy the students were clearly a lot more comfortable with each other and fully embraced their new teams. One team even chose to wake up at 4am to practice Iftar with their Muslim peers and fast until sundown, as a sign of solidarity.

By the second night’s entertainment, the students were fully energized. The entertainment acts were well received, and the students brought the house down with a session of baila and dancing. A breakout performance by a young beatboxer combined with a Tamil rap from one of the students got everyone clapping and jamming together.

The third morning was a time of reflection and inquiry for the students. Speakers discussed the value of building social change by starting with yourself. Raghi Kadirgamar talked of the shared commonalities between the ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, including DNA. He invited the students to strive for social transformation by finding leaders they believed in and following in their path. He provided examples of leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, who simply transformed society by non-violent means. He encouraged the students to not let their fears limit them and strive for what they believed in. Kushil Gunasekera of the Foundation of Goodness asked the students to provide acts of kindness and set an example of themselves. “Do things differently, don’t do different things” he said. He emphasized the importance of perseverance and commitment, with the example of the world famous bowler – Muralithiran who had to put in hours of practice to perfect his throw. Incidentally, Kushil is Murali’s manager. Finally he asked the students to allow their challengers to be their teachers, instead of to let them hold them back.

Following these talks, the students engaged in a thought-provoking question and answer session. Many of the questions reflected the depth of their thinking on the topic of reconciliation. The questions from Colombo to Mannar to Kurunegala and Galle demonstrated the sophistication of the students’ understanding of the end of the war, the process of reconciliation, politics, and development. One student asked, “what’s going to bring true reconciliation – infrastructure development or political transformation and dialogue?”. Another asked, “how are we to secure the political and economic well-being of the people affected by the war and how far do the current policies achieve it?”. Another asked, “if the country was truly democratic and pluralistic, why aren’t the minorities better represented in the government?” One of the most thought provoking questions left the speakers speechless - “how can we as students bring a greater awareness to the authorities of the effect of discriminatory policies on some minority groups?”. The sense of 'more can be done' prevailed among the students as question after question posed the question of - how can we build a unified Sri Lanka, and bring in the minority groups into mainstream society, so that there is inclusive development in post-war Sri Lanka.

For many of the students, this was the first time they had left their hometowns. Coming to a new place, separated from their families, and then separated from their friends was intimidating. But as the conference progressed, with smaller groups for sharing stories and discussing key issues, inspirational talks by leaders, and of course, sports events, the students merged well into their new roles. They chanted emphatically for their respective new teams. Unique teams that weren’t comprised of students from their own school, but instead students from different ethnicities and regions all playing alongside each other, against a similarly structured team. They learnt each others stories, they shared their hurt and their hopes, and they came to new understanding. Most of all, they broke down barriers erected by decades of division and conflict, to realize that truly they shared the same hopes and dreams for themselves, for their future and for their country.

Whether they came from small towns or big cities, the common confidence and ambition was palpable. The potential for SLU to channel the energy of these students to start social change in their communities is clear and inspiring. The impact remains to be seen. But if the student’s non-stop energy, hard-hitting questions, and strong interest in reconciliation seen at the conference is any indication – the sky is the limit for this group to innovate, create, and lead their communities to new heights.

*Sashi Selvendran is a Sri Lankan American who moved to the States in 1984. Her Tamil-Sinhalese roots brings her back to Sri Lanka often to visit family and friends. She currently works in International Development and is a member of Lanka Solidarity - a multi-ethnic diaspora group based in the U.S. She was visiting Sri Lanka in August and decided to attend the FLC as an independent observer.

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