Friday, July 31, 2015

A Life Changing Experience

My journey with Sri Lanka Unites began back in January 2014, but my passion towards reconciliation ignited way back in school. I initially studied in a school that had quite an extremist cultural background; though however, the education rendered was remarkable. The dominant Sinhala Buddhists in the school looked down upon the minorities. It was mandatory that the Muslims, Tamils, and Christians observe Buddhist prayers and study the philosophy for their Ordinary Levels. I’m ashamed to admit that I too was indeed an extremist to a certain extent until I joined St. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia for my Advanced Levels.

Studying in this prestigious college I found it amazing to witness how students from varying backgrounds worked together regardless of their language, caste or creed. Despite being a strong Anglican College, St. Thomas’ allowed every student to practice his own faith. It even went out of the way to organize relevant religious observances to the minority while Anglican programs were held. Not only was it a pleasant sight, but also it was impressive to savvy the momentous college development solely due to the unity among the students.

It wasn’t too long before I started to wonder about the situation in our own country. Could we have achieved a lot more had we been united? The answer was quite clear to me. I lived in two situations and experienced what’s better. From then on, I yearned to be a mediator for unity between everyone. It was during the period while I waited for my university to begin that my brother introduced me to Sri Lanka Unites. Although it was known to be a youth movement for hope and reconciliation, I wasn’t much aware about what they do when I joined. So I decided to simply tag along with whatever they do since I had plenty of spare time in hand. My ignorance ran out of the back door when I attended their very first general meeting. Not only were there people from Colombo with diverse religious upbringings but also people from all over the entire island! Everybody was gathered there only for one single cause- to reconcile Sri Lanka after the 30-year long civil war.

There was so much of manpower in that room that day. I felt assured that this was the way to go in achieving my dreams- to bring undisputed harmony in my motherland. During the meeting, a topic I constantly heard was Future Leaders’ conference. Though it sounded unfamiliar to me, I gathered it was something big they’ve been planning for a long time. I was curious as to whom these future leaders were. And I finally found out that they were supposedly none other than our very own brothers and sisters in high schools; more or less, the future of our country. I gradually figured out what SLU was all about. It was an outfit having a yen to bring out the best in the younger generation in order to unify Sri Lanka. This was what I longed for from the very beginning. This was the main for me to get involved in the Future Leaders Conference. Since I worked with the SLU team and participated in the volunteer training, I had a clear-cut idea as to what SLU expected from me. And of course the volunteer docket I was provided with, guided me a lot because it included the core responsibilities and the agenda of the conference. I was awfully moved when the previous volunteers shared their personal experiences at the past FLCs that I promised myself I would deliver the best I could at the conference.

I so vividly recall the very first day of the conference. The opening ceremony was coloured with dances and songs and was followed up by a prize giving for the Dream Team 3 and the winners of the project “champions of change”. After all that, began the fun but the voice cracking part, my team that included the other two volunteers Devindi and Abirami, had to scream our team name HAMBANTOTA HURRICANES at the students who were supposed to be with us. It was quite a hectic  thing to do with 19 other teams trying to be louder than us. But where in the world would I ever get a shot to test my loudest note than in here? This was the golden moment!

 After making sure everybody was on the right team, we walked up to the conference hall that was only a few meters away from where we were. There, we introduced ourselves to each other. No one seemed to be making any conversation in my team. Their cultural, social, and religious differences probably would’ve been the drag. It was definitely a challenge to make them interact with each other. To resolve this hitch we came up with activities that required communicating with each other. Some of them were “The Human Knot” and “Reach the Globe”. We could see an increase in progress after these few activities; at least to the extent of making them feel comfortable to be with each other during conference. After every activity we didn’t miss to point out the lesson that could be learnt from the concept of the game. At the end of a promising day, while engaging in a lighthearted conversation we became quite close to each other while even nicknaming a few. To me, I found all the day’s work enlightening when two of my team mates- Nipun and Umar both from entirely different religions and societies, became ‘besties’ overnight. Their friendship was a crystal-clear sign that reconciliation was no doubt a possibility.
Time flew so fast and finally we wished each other goodnight and the students went their separate ways to sleep. But the day didn’t end for me there since I had to switch in to my Shakespeare mode. The forum theatre, which I participated in, was scheduled to be on the 3rdday of the conference. So the crew had our rehearsals later that night and Naveed, the expert in drama guided us with our parts. Being new to stage play, I felt good to have received parts for all three skits that addressed three major issues in Sri Lanka at the time: Racism, Halaal-haraam situation, and Women harassment. I felt extremely satisfied to be a part of something that would be highly beneficial to what I wanted to do for Sri Lanka while improving my own skills. So I assured that I would give my best to address this situation through this fantastic opportunity.

The second day was a whole new adventure. But my idea was to start this hectic day with a few exercises so that we could face the tasks at hand in our best condition. So we did a simple workout with a few warm-ups and stretches. Just like the day before we did many activities to boost our team spirit but never forgot to have fun along with it.

The fun and games were followed by an interesting session of lectures; there were renowned speakers who focused on topics like leadership, motivation, inspiration, and peace building. What was great about this seminar was that everyone was given a set of headphones that would translate the ongoing lecture into their respective native languages. We perceived how many students had very good questions that needed to be discussed to the core. I was surprised by some of the questions raised by such young minds. It was plain to see our younger generation’s intense fervor for a reconciled Sri Lanka. The evening session was reserved for sports. Sports come as a powerful way to convey the message of reconciliation. Jordan, Wynne, and Michael our three American volunteers had organized some really great sport activities that brought about quite an extent of interaction among the teammates. I saw how committed the students were to the games they played. Not only did it increase their team strength but also it developed their sportsmanship. To add more, our volunteers taught them how to be humble in victory and optimistic in defeat, how to celebrate with the winners and to encourage the defeated, and moreover how to give a tough but honest competition. It was rather gratifying to see each these kids adhering to these qualities through out the conference. While the sports session was going on, 3 students were chosen voluntarily by the team for oratory competitions in English, Sinhala, and Tamil languages.  As I listened to the speeches of the three in my team, I felt a sense of humble pride to know that I’m actually mentoring these talented kids from different ethnic backgrounds. Burying their religion, ethnicity, and their language their outstanding and unique talents shone with their equally passionate energy. Some had mesmerizing voices; some danced like the wind; some had brains of Einstein; and some ruled in the fields. Therefore, I believe if and only if these students or different societies collaborate could our country easily flourish.  The sports session was succeeded by a painting session. We were given a canvas with pastels to paint about peace in Sri Lanka and submit by the end of the fourth day. That was in fact a wonderful way (although a nightmare to me) to get the taciturn fellows express their views. Art speaks louder to the soul than words do. We were also given another significant task to carry out a stage performance based on any evocative theme as a group the next day. After discussing, we brilliantly decided to show how to make the maximum use of the resources around us. The reason we came to the conclusion was after observing dozens of empty bottles and buckets lying around in the conference site merely used for drinking purposes. We thought of showing how such overlooked materials could actually be of an innovative use. How we can truly make music out of those. We practiced on till dinner. We unwound a long day of work and activities with entertainment and cheering other team performances. And later at night everyone danced to the music of ‘DJ’ Tariq.

By the third day I noticed a stronger bond between the team members. They were helping each other with their chores and sharing food, laughter and even clothes with who had less. As before we started our day with exercises, although this time with a little more persuasion to some of the lazy bums. Eventually, we started off with an activity called ‘blind maze’ to improve listening, leadership, and team work skills among the team members. I wanted to make the maze as complicated as possible to bring out the best in them. Just like I believed, they indeed completed the maze by making use of their best potentials. Although they were very different in social aspects, I can say that it was one team I led with tremendous team spirit and energy. During the lecture sessions as went in to the lecture hall everyone do their team cheers. Till all the teams came in and everything was being prepared every team did their respective team cheers out loud. The HH after our cheer joined the other teams to cheer for them as well. That resonated the hall with a huge noise. This initiated all the teams to contribute cheering at least a bit for other teams. The hurricanes made sure to show everyone that being divided into teams is not about a rivalry in between teams.

It was the day of the forum theatre. So my fellow volunteers in my team took my part responsibility for the students. After 2 nights of practice we were all set to deliver our best on stage. Although most of us were tired and sleepy after 2 days of work in the hot climate of Ampara, we were eagerly waiting till this moment. This was my first time in front of a crowd from all over the country. I had no clue on how they will judge my acting, or how they will react. What I only knew is that this has to be done whether people would like it or not. My part for the first scene came first. I was nervous but a voice is telling me, everyone is looking at you even the students of my team. That gave me the confidence booster I wanted. Everything went great, the skits on racism, halaal issue, and their interventions. But then came the skit on sexual harassment. In the skit there’s a scene where a male student who is from a high class family who shows interest on this girl. But the girl refuses everyday because for her fair reasons. One day this guy approaches towards her and she gets angry at him after having a rough day being harassed in the bus. She raises her voice and she ended up getting beaten up. This scene was played by Naveed and Shehara. And as Shehara was getting beaten up almost everyone started to laugh and cheer for the guy to encourage him to beat more which was quite disturbing for us and of course for the girls.

This is where i saw my initial thought on how bad it’d be in the nation. It was a confirmation on that this is a major issue we have to focus in the country. Almost all the girls got uncomfortable afterwards. Although the relevant script writers and directors didn’t take an action to correct it at that time, they did a presentation and asked the male audience to request for an apology from the female audience present in the hall on behalf of all the wrongdoings of men. In the evening of the third day, the students had to engage in more sports activities and they also worked on the team performance for the night. All of them were so committed they even tried to skip the dinner to practice before the final performance which I couldn’t allow. The ones who knew tamil even made a rap to include in it. Then it was the time for our team performance. I noticed as my team got on to the stage there was a huge cheer. But it wasn’t from our team; it was from the rest for our team. All the other 19 teams were cheering for us. The hurricanes felt energized and I watched how they performed so beautifully from the audience. From all their hard work in the day, they performed it to the perfection. Our team cheer had so much energy in it. After a great performance like that I couldn’t help myself but to get on to the stage with my team and do the team cheer with them

Another special thing I saw is that the students were trying to learn languages they didn’t know from each other so that they could talk in every language.

The fourth day was the cultural day. All the meals included something unique to the Eastern culture. After our usual exercised, we headed for the cultural hall for the seminar. The trailer for the FLC 6 played a huge role in the conference. It was played every day, and because of the energy of the audience the students were up on their feet and clapping for the beat of the trailer every time it played. After the educational session on the sexual harassment of women in Sri Lanka, everyone had to put their own Shakespeare mode, every team had to come up with an TV commercial idea and had to act it out. I think it was to see how creative we can get in a sudden moment. It was fun to see weird kind of products but creative way of presenting them in each team performances. Some weird products for weird reasons were commercialized.

In the evening everyone started working on the paint. Wow that time was full of selfies and photos, applying paint on each other as well. We asked everyone who were around the place we were doing the painting to put their hand print on our canvas. That was a time full of laughter and bonding.

Since it was the day before the end of conference everyone seemed a bit sad as well. But they never forgot to spend every second with each other and enjoyed each others’ company.  For the last sports session there was one where we had to balance a potato on some strings and take it from one place to another.  Everyone seemed to enjoy that the most from all the sport activities they did, well you can see me lying on the floor trying to balance a potato in this picture. For the night entertainment event we were asked to wear something that is unique to our own culture. So the night was filled with colorful and cultural clothing. Sarongs, sarees, shalwars all the cultural dresses I could think of from all over the country. I’m awful at wearing sarongs.

 It was my student from Galle who helped me out to wear it and keep it tight. The night was a great entertainment session done by my good friend Michael Mcdonald (beatboxer and Hip Hop dancer) and Kalmunei’s own Arzath (Rapper). That was just an amazing session. Then as they finished their session the team SLU came to the front of the stage and did a cultural dance which was spectacular. Kudos team SLU… At the end of the fourth day all the team photographs were taken and everyone looked so vibrant in that photo because of all the different clothing. Final night was very emotional. It was already late at night but no one wanted to sleep. We gathered around a circle and spoke what we had to say in our mind. Everyone spoke of how happy they are and how this experience has changed their lives for a better cause, how they changed from who they were to whom they are now, how thankful they are to meet such amazing people from all over the country. I was proud as I could be of my team at that night seeing how much they’ve learnt from this learning experience and for being able to guide them throughout this process.   After all the students went to sleep, all the volunteers got together for a singing session.  That was a wonderful time to calm ourselves down after that emotional night and tiring 4 days. I hope our singing didn’t make the students dance in their dorms.

The final day came. I thought since it’s the last day I shouldn’t tire up the students by doing exercises. But to my surprise, it was them who wanted to do the exercises. They said ‘Ayya, It’s the last day. We did this for all the other days although we hated it. You should let us hate it one last time.’ I just couldn’t stop laughing for that.

After our physical exercises we thought of doing our cheer on the school ground. The Jaffna giants were so close by to us. Sangeeran the volunteer from Jaffna giants and I started cheering for the Jaffna giants, then all the Jaffna giants cheered for us. Then all the 20 teams came to the ground. We started doing the team cheer for each and every team. In the end every student from all the teams was on the ground cheering as loud as they could. It was such an amazing sight.

Then it arrived the time for the closing ceremony. First they showed us a video on a conference they did in Congo and a video from Congo wishing Sri Lanka Unites. So we returned them the favor by making a video to wish them as well. As the video was about to end, all the students started to scream out loud ‘ congo… congo…congo…’  The hall was echoing with the word congo.  Before the winning teams were announced, all the teams were asked to come to the stage one by one and do their team cheers for one last time. We gave everything we had in us to that final cheer. It was just full of energy.

We didn’t win many competitions in the conference. But surprising everybody, we emerged the 3rd place out of the 20 teams. When I asked the SLU team they said that was because we had a huge team bond, a high team spirit, good sportsmanship, and our innovative activities we did in our leisure time. We celebrated our victory in the end with a cake and some soft drinks.
After the prize giving, the trailer was played for one last time. And wow that energy in everybody I can’t describe it with words. But at the same time they were tearing because we’ve almost reached the end of the conference. The final cheer was for  Sri Lanka unites… Sangeeran, another volunteer, and I got on to the stage when the video ended and as we screamed out loud saying “who are we?” everyone replied “SRI LANKA” out loud..

The most emotional part was the final hour we had. Everyone couldn’t help but cry because we knew deep in our heats that we are going to miss each other so badly. All the students from each teams had watery eyes because we became such great friends… actually more like a one great family.
This is what I wanted. This is what I hoped for. Although each and every one of had our differences. We had one thing in common. That is we are Proud Sri Lankans. And I’m thankful as I can be to Sri Lanka Unites for giving me this great opportunity.

The best is yet to come.

ThilankaLiyanage – Volunteer FLC 6 ( Hambanthota Hurricanes)

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