Unification News for January 2003

Religious Youth Service Project in Sri Lanka

by Dr. Chula Senaratne

The concept of an RYS project in Northern Sri Lanka in November 2002 came to us after a new government and Prime Minister were elected in Sri Lanka. The incoming government was actively interested in the use of dialogue to reach a peaceful solution to the civil war that has been especially damaging to the Northern region. This ethnic conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government has hindered both economic and social progress in the nation over the past 20 years but both parties recently agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding.

As a result of these peaceful compromises, considerable access to the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka was opened. Our RYS team which has been actively organizing projects in Sri Lanka since 1992, as a way to model ethnic and religious cooperation, thought it crucial to go into this former zone of conflict and create a project that would provide hope and vision to those who have suffered from the violence.

Once a settlement was reached in the Northern Region, the RYS team wanted to act quickly and pull together those living in distrust and animosity. The example of RYS and the experience it offers is a critical step needed to help the peace process work. We approached and received the blessing and support of Sri Lanka's Prime Minister and the Ministry of Youth Affairs. The Minister advised us and we teamed up with the National Youth Services Council (NYSC) because of its good organizational and administrative network in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka.

Vavuniya, the gateway to northern Sri Lanka was selected as the area to host the project and the RYS formed a partnership with the Rural Development Foundation (RDF) because of their success as an NGO in the area. As a result of the instability that the conflict created, many villagers had to move to resettlement communities. These resettlement communities often suffer greatly and are rife with poverty, unemployment and neglect. We chose to work in the resettlement community of Maravankulam with its nearly six hundred families pulled from various areas.

The needs of Maravankulam are great and varied but the project that was selected included building three culverts, which would allow the roads to be passable during the rainy season. The International Relief Friendship Foundation (IRFF) provided a generous grant for this work.

Mrs. Fazida Razak (Director- RYS Asia-Pacific) joined the project from Singapore to serve as the Project’s Education Director. Participants joined the project from all parts of the country through the help of NYSC, SUNFO, University Students' associations and RYS alumni. The meaning of the work was clarified through the project theme: "Peace & Prosperity Through Interracial Harmony."

The Project

Illustrating the need for RYS, communal strife between Buddhists and Muslims resulted in curfews in areas of Colombo that forced many of the participants to take alternative routes. Participants from Jaffna of northern Sri Lanka had to get registered with both the LTTE and the Sri Lanka armed forces before entering Vavuniya.

The 48 participants came largely from all parts of Sri Lanka and were Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, Muslim and Unificationist. The diversity of having a Buddhist Monk and a Unification Pastor working side by side was very stimulating. Participants squeezed into accommodations at the RDF training center that normally held forty. The opening ceremony was held at Muththiah Hall, Vavuniya and drew together a large gathering that included religious leaders, administrative leaders, commanding officers of the security forces and members of the media. The vision of RYS was presented and participants and the community shared cultural presentations and words of encouragement.

An important component of the RYS Education is its varied morning devotions. The devotions were lead by religious leaders or were guided directly by participants from the Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim and Unification traditions.

English presentations had to be translated into Tamil and Sinhala during the Education Program. What was feared to be a major problem was overcome by the enthusiasm of each of the participants as they eagerly worked to learn each other's language. We had many opportunities to look at each other communicate through gestures and signs and these extra efforts to reach out to others, helped us to break down walls and feel closer. The initial reluctance to mix soon broke down as it became clear that people were waiting for this opportunity for years and this yearning had been suppressed by the ethnic conflicts.

Following our orientation we took part in three days of physical work in Maravankulam, where participants were involved in building culverts and cleaning a playground for the community center. The work on the culverts was a bit strenuous. Participants were interactive most of the time passing the materials through human chains. The villagers were very happy and joined us in the work because they wanted to be part of it. Many times we had to send the groups of village children away because they became so numerous.

The final workday occurred on a public holiday called, ‘Deepavali,’ a cultural festival celebrated by Hindus. As Vavuniya is a city with a Tamil majority, the participants were able to experience the atmosphere more closely with firecrackers and fireworks exploding all around the neighborhood. We also celebrated ‘Deepavali’ at our camp with traditional Deepavali sweets. There was also a pleasant surprise on the same day, when one of the participants from Jaffna celebrated his 20th birthday, and also treated us with sweets. The brothers and sisters of RYS gave him a surprise birthday party with cakes & candles. Everyone was feeding him with cakes and offered him loads of hugs. It was a wonderful sight of brotherhood.

On the same evening we had our Cultural Night. Although it was a simple one, all the participants practiced hard & made extra effort to prepare necessary costumes for their performances. The participant’s performances consisted of songs, dances, dramas & martial arts displays. Most of them were based on the theme of ‘Peace.’ The important factor was that during the dramas, people of different races & religions got together to perform which showed unity among them.

On the day of the religious site visit, the participants visited a world famous Catholic Church, a famous Hindu Kovil and a Buddhist Temple. As the Madhu Church was in a LTTE control area we had to register ourselves with government security forces as well as the LTTE. The participants also had time to relax on the beach & visit a few important places in the Mannar town, which is about 80km from Vavuniya.

The final day was a very emotional one. It was the day for testimonies & reflections. Everybody was weeping & embracing each other. At lunch they were feeding each other. The Buddhist monk's eyes were full of tears. The Muslim girls whom are very reserved in Sri Lanka were seen touching their RYS brothers’ hands to say good-bye. These were rare sights to witness in Sri Lanka. After getting so close through RYS, the participants were so open without any restrictions or barriers.

After more than 10 years of involvement with RYS activities, this was one of the most meaningful projects I have ever participated in. On behalf of RYS Sri Lanka, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to the International Relief Friendship Foundation (IRFF) for funding this project and also a special thanks to Rev. John Gehring (Executive Director, RYS International), for the assistance and guidance in this project. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank our Education Director, Mrs. Fazida Razak for her invaluable contribution to this project. Last but not least a special thank you should go to all the participants without whom this wonderful project would not have been a reality.

Simply signing treaties or having government's generate proclamations of peace will not release people from the web of resentment that past injustices have created. Lasting peace needs to come from a change of attitude and heart. The simple acts of selfless service that are generated through the spirit of RYS are an important element to building a lasting Culture of Peace.

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