Building Bridges: Defying Divisions and Creating Connections

Building Bridges encourages self-expression and sustained dialogue as they envision a safe space where the youth from Sri Lanka’s diverse communities can come together.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

© Building Bridges

After the Sri Lankan civil war had ended following a 26-year old military campaign,  conversations about how to bring the Tamil and the Sinhalese communities together started – both of them, having come from very different experiences of the war. So, as part of a series of projects that were put together by a volunteer organisation called Citizens Initiative, Nushelle de Silva offered to do a theatre program for the children. What was supposed to be only 10-15 sessions long ended up continuing for an entire year. 

Irfadha Muzammmil, an interior designer by profession, had always wanted to get into the corporate, commercial aspect of designing. After her internship in Sri Lanka where she met Nushelle, Irfadha went back to Singapore for her final thesis. Ironically, during her thesis research was when she learnt more about the civil war in Sri Lanka and the war’s real aftereffects. Eventually, she came back home and three years after the war visited the war zone, which changed her life’s ambitions forever.

On finding out that Nushelle was trying to do her with the theatre workshops for children, Irfadha joined her as a translator and she hasn’t looked back since. Today, they together with a few other members make up Building Bridges – an organisation that is dedicated to building a safe space for self-expression and sustained dialogue which they believe is vital for the process of working through conflict together.

INKLINE caught up with Nushelle and Irfadha recently and had a conversation about Building Bridges – its mission, future goals and much more.

INKLINE: How did it all come together? From a few workshops to founding Building Bridges? 

Nushelle de Silva: I did the theatre workshops and it was really only supposed to be a short project for this volunteer group. But, in the middle of that year the volunteer group just disbanded because they had a lot of other projects going on. So I finished my fellowship year working on this theatre project as I had gotten a grant from the Princeton University to do the workshops. So, I completed it and I had run out of funding and hadn’t really thought about what was going to happen next.

It was really Irfadha’s, not a suggestion so much as an exertion that we somehow continue doing Building Bridges despite the fact that we had no money. That’s when she started doing these small partnerships while we were rallying and figuring out what would happen next, that really gave us the momentum.

Irfadha Muzammmil: It was really frustrating at first, we actually tried reaching out to the government and we wanted to go through the Department of Probation and Childcare Services, but eventually we realised how bureaucratic the process is. It was a lot of back and forth and still, there wasn’t any kind of positive response.

That’s when we found The Music Project on Facebook. I got to know that the lady who was running it was actually one of my ex-lecturers at the Design School. Eventually, we reached out to her and we met and at that period they were doing these intensive in-house residential workshops where they brought three Tamil schools and two Sinhalese schools from Kurunegala together for a musical workshop, at the end of which they would have a really cool concert.

So she asked me if we would like to get involved and do parallel visual arts workshops while they did the musical ones. It was an amazing opportunity and we were completely onboard.

I: What made you choose theatre as an art form to be taught to the children?

N: The reason I chose theatre was that it had a huge impact on my own life. Even though I was born in Sri Lanka, I was brought up in Australia and I had a particularly bad experience in school. Because of my colour, I was ostracized and I found it very difficult to make friends. So it made me really think about things like belonging and identity and I actually was very reserved for a lot of my childhood until I found theatre and started acting in school in Sri Lanka when I moved back.

Through theatre, you really grapple with that logic of how people are, why people work they way they do, why people do things the way they do.  It changed me in a number of ways, in terms of giving me tools for empathizing with people and it was a very social thing because you act with these people, you make friends, and rehearsals and dramas are good ways to bond with other people.

It was because of my own positive experiences with theatre, that it became my vehicle for working with these people.


I: Tell us more about the visual arts workshops that you do.

I: When we recruit children into the workshops we always ask them ‘Would you like to?’. It is never forced on them, they will retort with ‘I’m not good at drawing’, ‘I’m not good at painting.’ So we tell them that visual arts is not about you being a good artist, it’s about creatively and visually expressing yourself.

For example, in one of workshops we got like 20 paintings of different artists such as Van Gogh and Salvador Dali, and these students are not familiar with these work of these artists. We asked them to kind of study the painting and do a script for a drama based on the painting. It really does open doors to make meaningful connections and be agents of our own change.

I: What other workshops do Building Bridges offer?

N: A member of our team, Amalini De Sayrah is a journalist and a photographer by profession. So she’s learnt a lot of about the ethics of capturing someone or something visually, the importance of telling stories sensitively. So, I think what we do with all of our workshops is to sort of think about teaching the art in service of some kind of civic relationship skill.

Like in terms of theatre it was about creating a space for feeling empathy and learning about how can I connect with someone who I find difficult to understand; in photography, it’s about what is my environment, where do I live, how do I see what I see.

We have been also adapting design thinking as our fourth art workshop series to teach children to think critically about the environment, to think about how they can engineer the change in practical doable ways. So, that is another pilot, theatre and visual arts are the established ones and the design thinking and photography are the experimental ones.

I: What are your long-term goals for Building Bridges? 

I: It’ll be dream come true for me to incorporate some of our syllabi into the school curriculum, that would be pretty amazing. Even though not in the national curriculum,  teachers from our schools ask us to give them activities, so we know that it’s being practiced.

N: For my own self I can say that given my training as an art and architectural historian, I look a lot at exhibitions and museums as a visual cultural display of identity and how that shapes people’s sense of selves. Something that’s lacking in Sri Lanka at the moment is a strong network of museums and museum education. 

Museums can be really powerful tools for shaping critical thinking.  Museums in US and UK have really strong programs for children, from a really young age children can get to think a lot about of these things that we are trying to teach in a more structured institutional way. So my own personal interest is in finding ways to turn Building Bridges into an institution that works with museums, which is a much more long-term goal because Sri Lanka’s current museums aren’t equipped in that way.

I: What advice would you give to young people like you who aspire to be social entrepreneurs?

I: I’m going to go with a cliche but it’s so true. Just never give up. There are going to be barriers, but you have to fight and get over them. We kind of figured that out in 2015 when we didn’t have many of the workshops, nothing was happening, all talk and no action, but you just keep going at it, you knock on all doors and one of them will open.

N: One thing would be to start small. When we think of making an impact we think in terms of a huge scale – what is the point if I only reach like five or ten people? What we don’t realise is that it has a snowball effect, so don’t be afraid to start in a small and manageable way so that it doesn’t spiral out of control and implode, and realise that being able to help five or ten people is still an impact, and a very important one.

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