Three weeks to the official opening of Café Arokkiya and another six months’ work left to do! Abhinayan Kugendran and Shahul Hameed Alhathir, the project managers brought in to achieve the impossible, had their work cut out. Getting ready for the kitchen installation had a crew working around the clock, reconfiguring the kitchen to accommodate commercial kitchen designer, Tithira Perera’s plans. Teams of masons, electricians, tillers, plumbers, painters, labourers were kept on a short lease by the dynamic duo of Alhathir and Abs. (meaning of ‘arokkiya’ in Tamil - ‘wellbeing’).
On the Edge of Our Seats
Little more than one week to go and the Amex crew from Colombo transport kitchen hoods, stainless steel benches and equipment ready for the big installation. This was the most important feature of the building as this is where our widows would be cooking to earn a living. Simultaneously, Nafees was tiling the five bathrooms, a local team was laying pavers in the courtyard, Mayuran, Aashik, Kathafi and Jawsan were digging and shaping a pond, Bridging Lanka directors were cleaning and scrubbing. A hive of activity…but the clock was ticking.
While the physical infrastructure was a major focus, concurrently workshops were being conducted for the widows. Jan Gillies, a volunteer from Australia was introducing the women to the English language, starting them off with simple phrases - “Welcome to Café Arokkiya”, “How are you?” “Would you like…?” Strong bonds were formed. English classes were never this much fun!
Intro to Computers
This was the first time the widows had touched a computer. Thanks to the Australian Government’s Friendship Grants Program, we were able to buy 10 laptops. Through the simple instructions of Aussie volunteer, Diarne Kreltszheim, the women were introduced to the ‘on’ button, mouse and keyboard. Their first software package was Excel – again simple applications that would help them cost the various cuisine offerings of the café. The women were so excited and feeling very modern as they became accustomed with this strange way of doing business.
The Day Before
One day before the opening and a miracle occurred – the kitchen and café construction was finally completed - thanks to Alhathir’s and Abs’ expert project management skills. The widows took to the commercial kitchen like ‘ducks to water’. Hours were spent arranging supplies and getting acquainted to the brand new equipment. Overnight, the women had gone from cooking on open fires to a commercial set up. Clear and simple instructions from Tithira Perera got them going in the right direction.
The Day Finally Dawns
Years of challenging ordeals finally ended. Café Arokkiya was officially opened by the Australian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, David Holly on 18th July, 2019. A momentous occasion attended by hundreds of dignitaries and special guests. Many of the Bridging Lanka directors travelled 9,000 km for this special event. His Excellency exuded a very human and engaging presence and a speech from the heart. Two of our widows also made speeches, their first in public. Overcoming considerable nerves, Sebamalai and Savariamma did us proud!
Labour of Love
We were honoured to have the newly appointed Australian High Commissioner officially open the café, kitchen and education complex and unveil the special plaque. The café is dedicated to the resilience of the more than 500 war widows in Manthai West and in the memory of a special Sri Lankan widow with an indomitable spirit, Maud Menezes, who donated generously to our initial works in this area eight years previously. It was a special and moving event and the start of a new chapter for a group of widows from Vannakulam in Adampan as they begin to earn a livelihood from the café. We wish them the very best.
Letting their Hair Down
After the official proceedings, the café floor exploded in spontaneous dancing. Young and old, male and female let go of the stress of the previous weeks and let loose to the sound of toe-tapping music. It’s moments like this that the true spirit of Bridging Lanka emerges – that we are one irrespective of age, education, ethnicity, religion, station in life, caste, ability/disability.
A Year of Success
The Donkey Clinic & Education Centre is officially one year old! This would not have been possible without the support of our donkey lovers in Brisbane, Melbourne, Berlin and Colombo and of course Perth-based Animal Aid Abroad. Alhathir, Manager, Dr. Thuram, our Vet Surgeon, Vijitha, IT Instructor & Admin Officer, Aashik and Kathafi, Donkey Welfare Officers and Raseefa, English Teacher have achieved much. Foremost is the changing mindset of people towards donkeys, from hate to tolerance to love. The dedicated staff have rescued 93 donkeys in the year. Most of them healed well and were released. Some weaker donkeys were retained at the DCEC and a small number were euthanized due to horrendous injury. Our IT and English classes have gained traction and a boon for cash-strapped locals. The number of national and international visitors increases steadily. This past year we had 1,778 visitors from overseas who donated close to Rs 150,000.
AAA to the Rescue
When the Animal Aid Abroad team from Perth, Australia, visited Mannar in January, they were not only taken by our donkeys but also distressed by the dire condition of Mannar’s street dogs. They soon resolved to help. Land was purchased for an animal rescue centre and clinic. Its purpose - the care, sterilisation and rabies vaccination of over 3,000 street dogs. In July concrete blocks were cast for the proposed clinic. We are now on the lookout for an architect to design the building on a pro bono basis.
Safeguarding Homes from Floods
Volunteer, Lachlan Bourke and Bridging Lanka director, Steve Dunn, discuss the next phase of the Paal Kulam restoration. An additional part of the stone-faced bund wall would be constructed. Meetings were held with the Catholic priest and potential contractors to carry out the work. The previous work already completed by Bridging Lanka had protected the surrounding properties from flooding due to the widening, deepening and rehabilitation of this kulam.
Towards Religious Harmony
Another trip to Digana, Kandy District, was arranged to pick up the pieces of a project in trouble. We met casually with Fazal Moulavi to discuss where to from here. On our previous visit to Digana we had been ambushed late one night by police, Special Task Force (STF) and Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers who had been tipped off that we were suspect Muslim terrorists. We were questioned aggressively and only let off when they discovered that our team was multi-religious and multi-ethnic. It was a close call. We were advised to leave town immediately. Community relations have become so strained since the Easter bombings. This has forced us to regroup and strategize afresh.
On a Lighter Note
It was a noteworthy event – Visakha Tillekeratne, one of our Sri Lanka directors meeting many members of our Australian board for the first time. Many issues were discussed including establishing communication channels between the boards, the need to undertake another donkey census and organising Bridging Lanka’s tenth anniversary celebrations that fall next year.