About the Authors: Melissa Coulter serves as a Public Diplomacy Desk Officer in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, and Jeffrey Anderson serves as a Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy Colombo, Sri Lanka.
We recently traveled to Jaffna with Ambassador Patricia Butenis, USAID Director Jim Bednar, and other Embassy staff for the opening of our new American Corner on January 24. We flew up in a 17-seat turbo-prop plane at a low altitude, giving us an aerial view of the island and of the recent flooding.
Jaffna, the historical and cultural heart of northern Sri Lanka, was one of the cities most affected by Sri Lanka's 26-year civil conflict. The city still bears scars from the conflict, but with the end of the war in May 2009, residents hope they can rebuild the city and culture.
The United States has close historical ties with Jaffna. Arriving in Jaffna in 1813, American missionaries established the first printing press in Jaffna and the first medical centers, medical schools, and the first Tamil-language newspaper in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). Harriet Winslow, the great grandmother of the late Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, also founded the Uduvil Girls School, the first all-girls boarding school in Asia.
Building on these traditions, we the opened our new American Corner in Jaffna. It's housed at the Jaffna Social Action Center, which is coincidentally next door to the location of the American Center, which closed in the 1980s due to heightened violence.
During the opening, the Jaffna Social Action Center welcomed guests with colorful flowers into its brightly painted courtyard and open-air auditorium for the opening ceremony. The Udavil Girls College Choir, dressed in crisp white dresses, set a tone of hope and reconciliation with their performance of a song about moving forward together in peace. After all the official remarks and ribbon cutting concluded, the crowd stayed for more than an hour enjoying refreshments, viewing the poster show on the United States' long history with Jaffna, and checking out the American Corner library collection and internet connection.
The corner includes computers, DVC equipment, and resources on studying in the United States, and other books and reference materials. The 100 guests at the opening included Major General Hathurusinghe, Commanding Officer for Jaffna, V. Mahalingam, Chief Officer of the Indian Consulate in Jaffna, Yoga Patgunarajha, Mayor of Jaffna, and various religious leaders, community leaders, journalists, and students.
As Ambassador Butenis said in her inaugural remarks, we hope and expect that the American Corner in Jaffna will quickly become a vibrant community center, digitally connecting Jaffna with the rest of Sri Lanka and with the world and providing a space for dialogue between Sri Lankans and Americans. The Embassy also has American Corners in Kandy, Oluvil and in Male, the capital of the Maldives.