Batticaloa, Eastern Sri Lanka, November 2013: Freda Arasavetnam has been a teacher for the past 36 years. She currently teaches at Joseph Vaas College in Batticaloa, a Christian School in eastern Sri Lanka. I met her at an event organized on International Children’s Day in the seaside town of Batticaloa last November.
Freda is a passionate about teaching English and Religion. And she loves the fact that, thanks to an exchange programme initiated by UNICEF and the Korean Agency for International Cooperation, she has been able to meet teachers – with different backgrounds and religions – from other schools in the east. This “social cohesion programme,” as it is known is part of a longer-term process of recovery that began when Sri Lanka’s 30 year old war ended five years ago.
“Yes,” explains Freda, “the war is indeed over and everyone is now talking about development and progress. But, deep wounds and mistrust still exist. This is why programmes such as these ones – to bring communities together – have been so positively received in our schools,” she adds.
Freda goes on: “Not only have I been a teacher, I have also been a student all these years. The more you teach the more you learn, but ever since these social cohesion exchanges, I have learnt so much more than what I’ve learnt in all those years. It opened my eyes to inspire our students and also allow myself to be inspired by them. The one exchange that I will never forget was a visit between our school and the Kathtnankudai Muslim Children’s School and Anaipanthy Rama Krishna Hindu Mission School. It was a day filled with fun and learning for children and teachers alike. We learned how we practice religion, how we celebrate different events, how we speak different languages, but most of all, just how similar we are.”
Freda then introduced me to two new friends she made through these cultural exchanges: Anusha De Costa and Jeevakala Rajasingham, both teachers at the Periyakallar Methodist Mission Tamil Girls School in Batticaloa.
Jeevakala Rajasingham (L), Anusha De Costa (C) and Freda Arasavetnam (R)
Anusha and Jeevakala have also been a part of the “social cohesion programme” since year 2012. According to Anusha “It is very important to have social cohesion exchanges. The relationships between us and our students have improved because of this. When we were children, we were used to the idea of being punished for misbehaving. Back then with the war and this unpleasantness at school, we didn’t want to go to school, let alone think about social cohesion... We learnt from the UNICEF trainings and seminars about how to handle children who misbehave in the classroom. We learned to be kind to them, to love them and also to understand their side of the story.”
The three teachers talked to me about how being kind towards their students has led to active participation in the classroom. “It is the best foundation we can lay to promote social cohesion, showing by example to be kind to others and develop mutual understanding”.
The social cohesion programme supported by UNICEF and KOICA is currently being piloted in 24 schools in the north and east. The programme supports sharing of learning, traditions and cultures through sports, cultural exchanges, debates and drama. These activities bring children and teachers together in both play and learning.
”After these exchange visits, the children try to keep in touch with the new friends they made,” explains Jeevakala. “Not only the students, we, the teachers, also keep in touch with other teachers from the programme. We learn so much from each other,” smiles Anusha.
While talking to Freda, Anusha and Jeevakala, Darmalatha Malkanthi, a Sinhalese teacher from Ampara Madawalalanda Maha Vidyalaya School, whom the three have met through the programme comes up to give them a big hug!
Darmalatha has been teaching primary for the last 25 years. Her school is the only Sinhala school included in this programme along with nine other Muslim and Tamil schools.
“For 30 years we didn’t get to see and experience different cultures and lifestyles. Now through these programmes and through the interactions of these children we get to see and experience,” she explains. ”it was fascinating to see Tamil kids learning to play the ‘Thammattama’ (a traditional Kandyan - Sinhalese - drum) and Sinhalese children from my school learning to play Tamil traditional instruments.”
UNICEF believes that programmes such as this one are an important step to building the base for an educational system where children from different backgrounds and languages can also learn together under one roof.