BEIRUT: The ambassador of Sri Lanka picked up a pink Hello Kitty eraser and smiled, replacing it on the desk of a fidgeting 5-year-old. Over the past two years, Ranjith Gunaratna has become something of an expert in children’s school supplies, from neon Spongebob backpacks to Smurfette pencil cases.
Since January 2012, Gunaratna and his wife Wasantha have taught a language and culture course for young Sri Lankans in Lebanon each Sunday.
The children chat with each other in Arabic and English before class begins, arranging their cartoon character accouterments.
A statue of the Buddha serenely surveys the scene from a corner.
“Students in this region [are] actually losing their links with Sri Lanka,” the ambassador lamented as his wife passed out handouts with the tendrilous letters of the Sinhalese language.
While the children show impressive acculturation, Gunaratna says most students, even those born here, are not here to stay. “Their father or their parents’ job, once it is finished, their sponsor says, ‘Ok we don’t need you,’ then they have to go back to Sri Lanka ... Their situation is uncertain.”
With no language skills, these repatriated children face immense difficulties. Many have to repeat primary school. “I have seen some students who are in grade 10 [abroad]. ... In Sri Lanka they have to start grade five or six,” Gunaratna said.
These children’s parents, many of them domestic and menial workers, are concerned their kids will not be able to speak with their own extended families in Sri Lanka. “Our mothers or grandmothers, they don’t speak English,” said Sunethra, whose daughter was practicing her Sinhalese in the basement below. “She speaks our language, now it’s OK,” she said of her daughter’s progress since attending the classes.
Downstairs, Gunaratna has drawn a picture of Sri Lanka on the white board. It is the first time some of the younger students have seen the shape of the country which they will almost inevitably call home some day.
He draws a dot on the map for the capital, Colombo, and helps the children pinpoint the regions from where their families hail.
Language and geography aside, the class offers students an important sociology lesson, albeit one most probably do not understand. One girl in the class is Tamil, an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka which was involved in armed resistance against the predominantly Sinhalese government from 1976 until 2009. Moreover, despite not infrequent interfaith clashes in Sri Lanka, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu students all attend the weekly class.
The class is something of a homecoming for the Gunaratnas as well. The couple met teaching at a school in a rural village in the 1980s. “She taught for 20 years,” says the ambassador, watching as his wife deftly manage the youngsters.
For his part, Gunaratna went into the civil service after his teaching post, and has served in Kuwait, Oman and Lebanon. While he praised the recent efforts to improve the rights of Sri Lankan workers in the region, he said the next generation has been largely overlooked by policymakers and advocates. “We are only looking at the welfare of workers in the Middle East. We are not thinking about the children,” the envoy said.