Unification News for January 1995


Touching the Untouchables

by Ruvini Jayasinghe

Place: Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India
Dates: Sept. 22-Oct. 3, 1994

Event: RYS regional service project organized with Tamil Nadu Harijan Sevak Sangh and Gandhi Memorial Museum, Madurai

They were lying on tattered mats, dead to the world. Some had to make do with the bare floor, which did not look too clean, even in the dim light.

But what did it matter? As we met more of the inmates of the orphanage who were not in an afternoon slumber, it was difficult to pick out a single child who was spotlessly clean or well dressed.

Children of harijan (untouchable) scavengers, perhaps these outcast mites had no right to be clean or neat in a country burdened with a past of caste discrimination?

But the hundreds of bright smiles of welcome and sparkling eyes in little faces only reflected the hopes and expectations of the 150 orphans at seeing us. Had the Harijan Sevak Sangh's president, Mr. Pandian, who runs the orphanage, told the little ones about the additional story that would be built for them with the assistance of a group of brothers and sisters from all over Southeast Asia? Maybe.

Because the children, whose innocent minds had not thus far been fully awakened to the fact that society made them different to us, accepted our friendly overtures spontaneously without inhibitions. There were no intangible human barriers between those little children and the RYS (Religious Youth Service) team.

The 30-odd youth representing Southeast Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Singapore and Malaysia were in Madurai, in southern India, to build an additional story in the overcrowded orphanage for Harijan children. The new room would serve as a classroom for residential primary school.

Work involved moving huge mounds of sand and bricks to the upper story. Tough labor. But with spirits soaring high, 30 youth in the prime of life did not find the manual labor daunting until...the burning noonday Madurai sun beat down mercilessly on them, and scorched them to a deep nut-brown, sapping their energy in the process.

At the end of the first day's labor, all bones in 30 bodies creaked and ached. Some were open and honest about their pain and discomfort and took timely medication while others did the same furtively.

"This is only the first day; how am I going to last five days?" must have been a thought entering unbidden into the minds of most. Somehow, mind won over body as every single participant set their mind to accomplish their mission in true RYS spirit.

Accidents (thankfully minor) were many. When passing pans of sand, cement and bricks (each weighing a couple of kilos) became too tedious, participants switched to tossing them. Those with butterfingers, or those who were simply too tired, missed catching them and injured themselves. Dropping bricks is a human trait, but amazingly few bricks were dropped by the hands of a human chain that wended its way up to the second floor during those five days.

The staff at the orphanage, dedicated young Madurai women, diligently prepared refreshments for the team at break time. Somehow their vadai and tea tasted sweeter, better. Water never tasted more divine as the participants took short intervals between grueling work for a quick gulp.

With all this, sometimes morale was at a low ebb. Then there was our project director Hasgawa with his own brand of humor and our worksite coordinator Pips, with his deep concern to pep up the sagging morale. A group song or a short, timely break was all that was needed to revive the group spirit.

As the five days of work drew to a close, and the four walls that would soon become a classroom for our little friends had almost miraculously come up, two emotions ruled the hearts of most participants: a deep sense of accomplishment, and relief!

No doubt the Harijan Sevak Sangh's gratitude to RYS for its service would have been immense, but the experience to RYS participants individually and collectively is immeasurable.

Accomplishment of worksite tasks also signaled the end of another RYS international project, its 36th to date. Projects have so far reached 16 countries around the globe, where young men and women from all parts of the world join hands in unity to serve the needy and the underprivileged.

As the participants sweated willingly, ungrudgingly at their task to help the "untouchable" children, the RYS spirit of caring and sharing gently invaded their minds and souls.

RYS discussions and exercises were experiences in understanding ourselves and each other, lessons in deep soul searching and honesty. In learning to be truthful initially to oneself and to others.

In a world where leisure is a rarity, RYS gave its participants the precious opportunity to reflect upon oneself, life, brotherhood, religion, culture, family, career, development and future.

Living in close proximity with 30 people from different cultures, countries, economic backgrounds, religious beliefs and convictions, food habits, languages, accents and dress, was a solid lesson in tolerant understanding.

No experience is complete without its share of lightheartedness and fun. RYS games, sightseeing, outings and special meals strengthened the foundation of camaraderie among participants.

RYS is an experience in gently but firmly breaking down inhibitions, transcending hidden barriers and learning to think and live globally.

RYS is an enriching experience. It has enriched me.

For more information on RYS please contact them at 4 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036.


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