Friday, September 08, 2006

Lankawata mama adarai

DEPARTURE: I love Sri Lanka. I already miss Sri Lanka. I have been in Sri Lanka for eight months and planned to be here for another four. But this morning I received news that I must leave the country in two weeks.

My post-graduate degree program from an American university was meant to take place in Sri Lanka over the entire year of 2006 - as my 20 fellow American and two fellow Sri Lankan students completed our research for a degree in Sustainable Development and worked alongside Sarvodaya.

However, this morning we found out that our university has decided that to continue the program in Sri Lanka poses too much of a risk to the students and liability to the university.

SADLY MISSED: Lassana Lankawa
Instead, we all must leave the country within two weeks. We have the option to relocate where we choose and then reconvene in the US for a final seminar at the end of December.
With so many options to choose from and only a couple of days to make a decision, I first made the decision to go to India for one month for an advanced yoga teacher training program while I write my graduate thesis.

However, after contacting my family and hearing the news that my maternal grandmother is in hospital in critical condition, I have decided to return to New York to be with my family.
This past Saturday, I was thrilled to return to Colombo after a week's vacation in India. I had attended a wedding in Bangalore and while the experience was beautiful and inspiring, I was surprised at how much I missed Sri Lankan people, culture, language and food after only a week away.

While in India, I realized how much I had left to do during my remaining months here. I was hoping to explore more of the magnificent scenery of this ecologically diverse country, find a meditation and yoga centre, try new restaurants, learn to cook Sri Lankan cuisine, read more Sri Lankan literature, learn some Tamil and improve my Sinhala vocabulary.
I even had dreams of having a cameo on a Sri Lankan tele-drama, singing a song on "Superstar," being featured in a magazine or start writing a book about my experiences here!

These dreams are now lost, at least for now. If it were up to me, I would stay here and complete my year - and even consider extending my stay in the country beyond my academic year.
Yet, the decision is not mine to make. The administration and lawyers from my university have already made up their minds based on their monitoring of the situation and assessment of the risks involved.

Candidly, their conclusions did not appear out of thin air. The truth is that the political situation here has the attention of many outside Sri Lanka. When I informed my family at home about my departure, they were disappointed for not having the opportunity to come and visit me as they had hoped.

However, they were also relieved that I would be leaving a country where each day over the past thirty years has brought grim news of violence and death perpetrated by all sides.
Even during my recent week in India, people I met could only talk of Sri Lanka's amazing beauty. Yet, when I asked them if they had visited or planned to visit -they exclaimed they had no intention in light of the conflict going on.

I assured people that it is very safe here and that visiting Sri Lanka would be an experience of a lifetime. My words were in vain when they told me, "Why visit a country of conflict and bombs when there are so many other beautiful places with peace to go?"

This situation truly breaks my heart. Regardless of whether one believes the views of foreigners are an integral part of the development of Sri Lanka or not - isn't it important that this country be valued for its assets and appreciated for its beauty rather than have to be known for the pain and suffering that occurs on a daily basis?

I recall the first day I heard fireworks in the broad daylight - something that does not happen in the west where fireworks are saved for night.

My entire class jumped out of their chairs and looked out of the windows, thinking they had just heard bombs. Our Sri Lankan lecturer told us to relax and assured us the sounds were those of a celebration.

My classmates and I were anticipating violence, knowing we were in a country of conflict. These days, I hear explosions all the time - I know they are only celebrations and barely flinch.
Yet, I wonder - have I too, become immune and numb to the violence, the bombs and the conflict?

Is accepting that there is suffering in the world and moving on with our lives the only way to cope with the violence?

I realize that while I am required by my university to leave the country, my Sri Lankan colleagues, classmates, friends and readers have no choice but (or wish) to continue their lives here as usual in their home country near their family and friends.

In the movie, "Hotel Rwanda" there is a crucial scene when all of the foreigners are evacuated by bus. With tears in their eyes, they depart, leaving the Rwandans behind in the pouring rain. That moment is so bitter and portrays the fleeing foreigners as hypocrites who claim to want to help, yet all too easily.

I realize that my work here is not contributing to the improvement of society or this situation directly or as a whole.

However, when I think of the accomplishments of my classmates who have worked on various projects in five different tsunami devastated villages-and more importantly built strong relationships and bonds with Sri Lankan friends and host families-I am saddened by this sudden departure.

I had dreamt of leaving Sri Lanka at a time when there was peace all throughout the country. The pilot of my Sri Lankan Air flight from India was so positive and kind - welcoming all passengers to his homeland with many blessings - to a place that he sees as "paradise." I do hope that Sri Lanka works towards being paradise for all.

Please know that my colleagues and I will miss this country and will always have a place for Sri Lanka - its people, language, culture and cuisine - in our hearts for a lifetime.
My Sri Lankan friends have told me that they pray for peace in this country every day, and I will promise to do the same. As a dear Sri Lankan friend of mine has told me, "the situation is tense, but not hopeless."

Special thanks to my readers and the editor of this paper for inviting me into your lives. Also thank you to all of you whom I have crossed paths with - especially my dear friends (in particular the Silva family, Mrs. Rodrigo, Thalpitiya village, Sarvodaya, my American classmates, Manjula, Amila, Palitha, Kevin, Sam, Dinuka, Himalee and Wickrama) for your wonderful welcoming and hospitality. God bless you all.
Await Ruah's New York Diary


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