Our home in Sri Lanka came into existence on March 31, 2013 after two years of construction. It was built on land donated to GiveLight by a team member, Shahram Marleen after the sudden death of his beloved father. This was Shahram's way of honoring his father, and continuing his legacy.
I first came to Sri Lanka in June 2010 to receive ownership of the land and inaugurated the project. When I first saw the green land with cows happily grazing under the dense, tall coconut trees - I felt a surge of happiness and excitement.
That feeling paled in comparison with what I felt when I set foot in the stunningly beautiful GiveLight home four years after that first visit.
Upon arrival, on a sunny afternoon in the heat of a tropical summer, I saw a sight that brought coolness to my eyes. Standing in crisp, white thaubes were our 40 boys - aged seven to 13 years - giving me a warm welcome. “AsalaamAlaykum Ummi,” they called in unison. "Peace be upon you, my mother", the best of all greetings. My fatigue melted away hearing those words, despite having traveled for ten days with no jet lag recovery time. Ilham, the youngest among them, walked toward me with a reserved smile and presented me with a lovely bouquet of flowers. Such a sweet and considerate way to welcome me, their Ummi home.
Walking inside, absorbing the spacious & well designed home sense of triumph swept over me. This was, by far, the finest home we had built. From the time I met the architect, who is renowned in Sri Lanka and seeing the blueprint, I knew the house would be beautiful. He has worked on many grand mosques in Colombo. His talent is evident in every room, from the kitchen, the bedroom, the hallways, the high-vaulted ceilings, all the way to the bathroom sinks.
See more pics here from conception to completion of GiveLight Sri Lanka Home.
Having just returned from the Friday congregational prayer, the boys had been waiting to have their first lunch with me. They sat politely around five dining tables and as I greeted them all, each group signaled me to join them. Though I knew the following days would bring lots of fun, I also realized I would have to be mindful in dividing my attention and affection evenly amongst all 40 children.
Later that afternoon, we gathered in the large dining hall to hold our very first Annual GiveLight Competition. The children competed in one of five categories - speech, Qur’anic recitation, adhan (call to prayer), qaseedah (muslim songs), and poetry. I watched in awe as the boys delivered their speeches and poems in near perfect English, a monumental accomplishment given that none knew a word of English when they first entered our home. It reinforced my belief that when we invest in a child, he or she flourishes in ways we cannot imagine.
In each category, we picked three winners, two of who especially struck a chord. 13-year-old Osama, a naturally strong leader with an easy smile won the speech competition, thanks to his impressive vocabulary and articulation. Hassan - 11 years won the adhan and recitation completion, moving everyone in the audience with his amazing voice and Qur’an recitation. The pride and pleasure on the winners’ faces were evident as their names were called to collect their prizes - and rightfully so. It took courage to participate and present in front of a large audience, and we made sure that all were recognized with prizes for participation. Impressed by the outcomes, the judges’ panel consisting of the school principals and me agreed that the children had come a remarkably long way.
The kids were sent to bed early that night, after the rigorous long afternoon. The next day would see a cricket tournament, which a generous Southern California family had sponsored (with uniforms, trophies and medals, and foods/drinks).
The children preparing for the dawn congregational prayer awoke me early the next morning. Peace flooded my heart. This was one of the rituals I wanted to instill in our children from day one, and I had witnessed it continually across all GiveLight homes - from Aceh to Rawalpindi to Kampong Cham, and now Atulugama. Praise be to Him who allowed me to grow up in a loving environment that practiced Islam with love and devotion.
The morning was spent in warming up for the cricket match and readying all three teams - blue, green and red - to play. After an intense three-hour match, Team Blue won and jumped in jubilation. Trophies went to the best players, and medals were given to everyone. A delicious traditional Sri Lankan lunch called Sawan followed. In a communal tradition, groups of six-seven kids shared a large tray of rice, lamb, daal, and veggies. I appreciated how this created togetherness in our children, the staff, and all guests.
After some downtime, we gathered in a new playroom - the work of a talented artist and a beneficent friend. We played Chess, Carom board, Snakes and Ladders - and took many “selfies.” Noting the many beautiful drawings on the wall, I asked the children if they would draw for me - which they happily obliged. We spent the rest of the day sitting together, telling jokes, and getting ready for a beach trip the next day.
Dawn prayers completed, the boys dressed and ate breakfast quickly - unable to contain their excitement. “Ummi... trip?” they asked. I responded each time with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Seated in the bus, the kids sang and danced with delight. Touched with how much each child wanted me to sit by him, I rotated from seat to seat every five minutes. Every time I switched seats, the child next to me held my hand and smiled up at me. Even now, I can’t erase their smiles from my memory.
As we neared the beach and glimpsed the ocean, the boys began to scream with joy. They could not wait to jump into the water. The logistics of taking 40 kids to the beach was daunting, but we somehow managed — until the next logistical challenge.
Kite-flying was a tag-team effort between me and Sheroon - our amazingly dedicated Project Director. After hearing, “Ummi, pattem (kite),” every few minutes, we gave in. Sheroon negotiated with the kite seller and I organized turns. A good hour was spent watching more than 20 kites flying high against the clear, sunny Colombo sky - and reveling in the small, beaming faces of our young kite-fliers.
An Aquarium trip followed a lunch picnic in a big park. As we walked, the boys competed in holding onto my arms, and we strode together in a row. After a game of tag and a round of photographs, we enjoyed tea and cake to celebrate two of our boys’ June birthdays.
When the moment of goodbyes encroached upon us, I couldn’t hold back my tears. A bond was formed from the moment we met, at the first exchange of smiles. The longing in the children’s eyes, the smiles that lingered a few seconds longer, and the gifts they kept bringing me, stayed with me long after we parted. I felt a connection with all of them, but five of those most attached to me left a mark. Crying hard as we separated, they repeatedly pleaded, “Ummi, don’t go! Come back soon! In three months…?” How I wish I could have stayed longer.
Like all the children in our GiveLight homes, these children have also have found a spot in my heart. I see their potential and the possibilities. They are the future of Sri Lanka. And I feel honored to nurture their dreams. Through every visit and the time spent with each child, I recognize this rare gift. It is an honor for me to be a mother in the grandest possible way, and to work toward securing these children’s future - by His Mercy and Grace.
Colombo, June 26th, 2014
See more pictures on our Flickr gallery.