By Deepa Bala
The courtroom dramas, the heated advocacy to protect the rights of my clients, the gratifying moment of proving their innocence are all aspects of my job that I love. But at times, I am reminded that my role is limited. My contact with clients often only happens as a result of their involvement with the criminal justice system. My relationship is perhaps best described as reactive, and this limited interaction often leaves me wanting. It was during such a time that I came across an interesting volunteering opportunity with comdu.it.
Founded by young professionals and students, comdu.it is an independent, Toronto-based network of changemakers interested in making meaningful connections between the diaspora and community-based, long-term sustainable development efforts in Sri Lanka.
Through its Associateship Program, comdu.it seeks to facilitate short-to-mid-term placements of diaspora technical experts in Sri Lanka. Comdu.it focuses on strengthening grassroots organizations that serve vulnerable communities in war-impacted, under-developed, rural and remote areas of the country. It was through this program that I applied to teach English as a Second Language in rural Jaffna.
Oori is located in the backwaters of Karainagar and does not enjoy the same privilege and wealth as the rest of the islet. The area disproportionately suffered and continues to suffer in the aftermath of the war. Following the end of the conflict, the area’s residents were forcibly relocated to poorly supported camps. Oori is largely forgotten but for the work done by a few community groups. Even the sound of an auto is so out of place that it sparks excitement and curious stares.
The people of Oori rely predominantly on fishing for their survival. With issues over fishing quotas and rights and environmental factors, this often means that there is very little money to even provide for basic necessities such as food. Malnourishment is an issue that needs to be addressed and while schools provide free lunches to all students, this meal is often composed solely of rice and lentils. As a result, the children in Oori are petite in stature, and especially so in comparison to their counterparts in urban centres such as Jaffna and Colombo.
The Church of the American Ceylon Mission (CACM), one of comdu.it’s local partners, operates the after-school program in Oori. The free program serves the educational needs of nearly 120 students and runs from 3:30 to 6:00 pm, Monday to Thursday and again on Saturdays. As part of this program, I was assigned to teach students in Grades 6 to 8.
My kids, as I call them, were like any students in Toronto in wanting to test the boundaries and challenge their teacher at every turn. On my first day, they quizzed me on my Tamil reading and writing skills. My first class found out that I could do neither and by the time I went to teach my next class, the whole school knew. They were quick learners, and both witty and mischievous.
In anticipation of my trip and after consulting the Sri Lankan teaching curriculum guidelines, I prepared lesson plans. However, at times, we would spend longer than I anticipated on certain lessons. I found that many of the concepts that I thought would be familiar to my kids were, in fact, a mystery. For instance, during a lesson on identifying proper nouns, the majority of my kids had not heard of Rio Ice Cream in Jaffna. Likewise, despite living in Karainagar, they had only been to the nearby Casaurina Beach once and that too because the Church had taken them.
The kids were also surprised by my habit of giving them printouts to complete. Initially they thought they were being given a quiz. However, as soon as I told them the printouts were worksheets for them to complete at home, the printouts “mysteriously” vanished for the next day. When I implemented the rule that the sheets had to be done in class, I realized that some of my kids did not even know how to spell their own names. Each sheet had a different version of the child’s name, if that portion of the sheet was completed at all. As a result, some lessons took longer than others and some were done away with completely so as to focus on the practical needs of the students. To be able to understand local needs first-hand and to immediately adapt myself to meet those needs was one of the best lessons that I learned through comdu.it’s program.
More often than not, I was also on the receiving end of the children’s caring attitude as they often rescued me from the ever menacing threat of the mussu kutty. And it’s these experiences that are most reflective of my time in Oori. At one point, in trying to manage the growing mussu kutty crisis, the leaves of palm trees and dirt were being burned when the flame grew out of control and caught on to the tops of nearby trees and one of the pods used for teaching. With the closest fire department located in Kayts, it was the children who ran to get water from the well and teachers who tried to get tables and chairs from the burning pod. Within a matter of minutes, the fire had claimed the pod and a tree climber was called to stifle the fire on the trees. In Canada, on the other hand, we would be concentrating our efforts on safety as opposed to trying to salvage the building. And herein lies the security we Canadians feel in knowing these things can and will be replaced and that too in a timely manner.
There is a saying that tells us, “If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are blessed.” To that I’d add, if you don’t have a memory of war and have never suffered through the agony of not knowing how you will survive, then you owe it to give back. I think I’ve been blessed to not know those things. Somehow, I got to be one of the “lucky” ones who survived and came to Canada at a young age so that my only recollections of war are those imprinted in my mind by the media. In a sense, I owe a debt to somebody to make our world a better place, in whatever way I can.
I’m grateful to comdu.it for giving me the opportunity to pay back some of that debt.
Deepa practices at one of the largest criminal defence law firms in the Greater Toronto Area. She completed her J.D. at the University of Ottawa, B.Ed. in Intermediate to Senior Education at Lakehead University, and B.A. (Hons.) in English at the University of Toronto. She participated in comdu.it’s Associateship Program in 2015-16. To learn more about how the program, please visit http://comdu.it.