Hearing Firsthand: Exploring Sri Lanka on My Fulbright Global Scholar Award

Sri Lanka

Laurie Lopez Charlés, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
2017-2018 Fulbright Global Scholar to Kosovo and Sri Lanka

Note: This is the second and final post of a 2-part blog series. Read Part 1 here
Arriving in Colombo
It started to snow as I looked out the window of my airplane leaving Kosovo, where I had spent six weeks on a Fulbright Global Scholar award analyzing post conflict mechanisms that support family psychosocial health. I was feeling overwhelmed but grateful as we sat on the tarmac, watching the snow that forced our delay. I had had such a powerful and instructive time in Kosovo, and the falling snow inspired me by giving me time to think. I was reflecting on the deep changes I witnessed unfolding in Kosovo, issues to do with identity and Kosovo’s challenges with reconciliation, and wondering what things looked like in Sri Lanka. Would the issues be similar regarding their own postwar transition? What would be different?

We arrived in Sri Lanka the next afternoon, and, as I started up my phone in the taxi en route to Colombo, I was back in Fulbright mode: A text arrived from my colleague at the University of Colombo, who wrote: “There is a Symposium on Development and Social Science Research at the University; come if you can.” Of course, I did. The presentations focused on so many interesting things relevant to my project, with a clear lens on the economic, social, and political aftermath of the war, all over this country of 23 million people. Sri Lanka is in the midst of designing, discussing and implementing what everyone I talked to referred to as “TJ”: Transitional Justice.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead: A Different Postwar Place

Destroyed water tank, Kilinochchi

Since my first Fulbright in Sri Lanka in 2010, when I lectured and conducted research at the University of Colombo, I have collaborated many times with Sri Lankan scholars and practitioners, who are experts on issues of community engagement and public mental health in postwar settings. However, despite the many trips to Sri Lanka and collaborations in between then and now, I’d never been beyond Vavuniya, and, although I’d attempted, I’d never been to Jaffna. This time, I went twice to Jaffna.

Jaffna is quite a lengthy road trip from Colombo—8 hours by car, and 10 hours by train. I traveled there with colleagues who are working on psychosocial support and transitional justice mechanisms for families after the war. After a TJ-infused training in the Northern province, they dropped me off at Kilinochchi, where I spent the night in a lovely small hotel listening to the pouring monsoon rains. The next day, with the help of my NGO friends’ office tuk-tuk, I caught a bus to Jaffna. While the bus traversed all kinds of back roads, lurching from tiny townlet to townlet assertively looking for passengers, I had a blast people-watching, listening to the language shift abruptly to Tamil from Sinhala, and gazing open-mouthed at the beautiful landscape. Shortly after the bus trip started, I was startled to catch a glimpse of Kili’s destroyed water tank from the war. I had heard of this, of course—but I’d never expected to see it. And, well, that is exactly what the Fulbright has been like for me. Unexpectedly finding that which is exactly what I need to see.


Jaffna Library, Jaffna

Fulbright is about people, as one Fulbrighter told me back in Pristina. And it was in the beautiful Jaffna library--burned to the ground right before the war and now rebuilt--where I found the people. The library was full of students, local people reading the newspapers, scholars working to tell stories of the Tamil peoples’ experience, and, to my surprise, piles of shoes at the front door. Libraries are such sacred places, but I’d never seen shoes at the steps of the library to show it. The library was sacred to me for another reason. I’ve spent so much time immersed in work in Sri Lanka; as a family therapist consultant, trainer, and researcher, and I’ve had numerous personal and professional conversations with psychosocial practitioners since 2010. I’ve also written books about Sri Lanka and with Sri Lankans. I’ve done interviews and focus groups in the country, as I’ve studied their psychosocial innovations. I’ve two shelves of books in my library in Boston about Sri Lanka—its history, the war, the aftermath. But, in the end, none of that really had foretold what I was about to experience. 

In a way, by going to Jaffna, I felt like I was seeing Sri Lanka for the first time. Many of my Colombo colleagues who have been to Jaffna since the war had told me of a similar sensation, going there was as if they were seeing a country they did not know. The people I met in Jaffna also reminded me of other communities I’ve worked in where the end of war opens them up to a different vision and a different story of who they are and can become. The stories about the war in Jaffna were different than the ones I’d heard in Colombo. Rather, the voice was different. The war injuries I had heard or read about were now told to me firsthand, not second- nor third-, as before. The changes in livelihoods since the end of the war I did not need to read about; they were here, right in front of me. The urbanization of Jaffnatown, as people move away from more rural areas, was first pointed out to me by a local scholar, who sat with me for hours sharing his observations. The shift in livelihoods after the war was reminiscent of Kosovo—a country of 2 million people, not 22 million like Sri Lanka—yet both were experiencing the same phenomenon. Stories of the war were everywhere. Everyone I met had lived through it in one way or another, as a resident or as someone newly returned from exile. On this trip, it was the Jaffna library where I began to hear such stories. 

My Global Scholar award segments are brief –six weeks in each country. That brevity is by design, as the Global Scholar award builds on my previous work in both Kosovo and Sri Lanka. I can be focused and task-oriented, leaving some things for later because I’m coming back. This is perhaps the best part of the Global award for me – that I will return and continue my work here.