The Words of the Gehring Family

Decades of Service Build Bonds Among Sinhalse and Tamils

John Gehring
November 5, 2010
Religious Youth Service-Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was torn by civil strife from 1983 to 2009 between the minority Tamils in the north and east and the majority Sinhalese population in the rest of the country. Religious Youth Service has been countering this ethnic strife by providing an environment wherein youth can rise above doctrinal differences, unite in activities of service and learning, and develop leadership abilities that enable them to help create a culture of peace. Since 1992, it has been offering Sri Lankans a model of how ethnic, religious, and even political differences can be bridged. [For a map of project sites, click here.]

Ratnapura -- A multi-cultural city

The first Religious Youth Service project in Sri Lanka took place December 4-11, 1992 in Ratnapura, a city of about 45,000 people located 100 km southeast of the capital, Colombo.

World-famous because of its gems, Ratnapura abounds in natural beauty, and its rain forest attracts many tourists. It is also a key inter-religious because of the nearby Sri Pada Mountain, which has special meaning for Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. A distinctive rock formation near the summit is believed by Buddhists to be the footprint of Buddha, by Hindus that of Shiva, and by Muslims that of Adam.

On this service project, municipal leaders and police cooperated with religious and service organizations. It launched a collaboration between RYS and the Sarvodaya movement. Originating in India, Sarvodaya is an international non-government organization that promotes Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of peace and nonviolence. It has built more than 4,000 schools throughout rural areas in Sri Lanka. Participants included both Tamils and Sinhalese, people from a variety of cultures and faiths, including some international youth. Participants stayed at a Sarvodaya training center and provided services in cooperation with the movement. The major part of the work was building a small community service center at a Buddhist center; it became an emergency shelter during a tragic landslide caused by heavy rains. Participants also conducted health surveys in a poor, religiously diverse community under the guidance of the Ministry of Health. This helped the youth get to know the community in which they were working. Ten local police officers joined the RYS in a tree-planting ceremony.

These collaborations became a model of how religious cooperation and service can break down political, ethnic, and cultural barriers.

Koskandawala -- A rural village

Recent bombings in the capital city of Colombo had put fear, anger, and mistrust in the hearts of many Sri Lankans. However, RYS brought together youth in a service-learning project as a spiritual antidote to the hostility and tensions.

Twenty-four participants from three nations joined to repair a school and clear a playground in the rural village of Koskandawala March 15-17, 1996. For the first time, Hindu Tamils from the war-ravaged region of Jaffna in the north participated, worked, worshipped, and sang together with their Buddhist and Christian co-participants.

The RYS project was jointly sponsored by the Women's Federation for World Peace and the Sarvodaya movement. The women moved the hearts of the villagers and young volunteers by the quality of their heart and service. The Sarvodaya movement informed participants about their rural self-help programs.

Group discussions gave people from different religions opportunities to reflect on their own beliefs and learn about the beliefs of others. Topics included "Is there life after death?" and "How and when am I accountable for my actions?" In addition to planned cultural activities, there was spontaneous singing in multiple languages at the work site and while riding vehicles. Time was also set aside to visit a local Buddhist temple and learn more about Buddhism, predominate faith of the country.

The roles and value of religion were re-examined, stimulating new insights and understanding. Religion could be seen as a source of enlightenment, a treasure that should never be used as an excuse for division and distrust.

For many people, this experience provided a new vision of how peace is possible in a multi-religious community. For some it served as the stimulus to make a personal commitment to peaceful change.

One Buddhist monk who participated in the project said, "This project was the most memorable time in my monastic life." In the words of one Sri Lankan youth, "The RYS should be spread all over our country, teaching through example the role of tolerance and the hope of cooperation."

Bagahawatte -- in the central tea-growing district

From January 10 to 14, 2000, nearly 50 youth and staff from six nations and all regions of Sri Lanka assembled for a service project in the deep green mountain area of Bagahawatte, part of the tea-growing district of Nuwara-Eliya. Participants lived together and contributed their labor and services to the community while joining in a wide variety of cultural programs and discussions on issues relating to peace, faith, and development.

RYS organizers researched communities that had educational needs and chose to work at the Bogahawatte Tea Estate in Pattana because the working mothers needed a nursery school for their children. Most of the women pick green tea leaves and haul them to the factory. To provide better opportunities for their children, they asked for help building a nursery school. A playground was also built for the children to use during study breaks.

Although the work included digging and moving rocks, roots, and soil, the beautiful scenery and the cooler mountain air provided extra stimulation for many who were used to the heat of the lowlands. Each person had various jobs to do, and as the school building got closer to completion the feelings of accomplishment grew.

Among the staff were a number of RYS alumni; orientation focused on preparing them to guide the participants through the RYS experience.

The two senior staff belonged to the ethnic groups that are in conflict: Rev. R. Thillairajan (Tamil) and Ravi Galhena (Sinhalese). They created a strong bond of unity and cooperation that was critical for the success of the project. As participants observed their cooperation, many commented on how it provided a model for establishing a solution for ethnic, cultural, and religious issues in a multi-ethnic community.

During orientation, participants were taken through a learning process that is designed to help create team solidarity from a religiously and cultural diverse group. Participants develop team vision statements and design posters that depict their vision of RYS. Through brainstorming and other team activities, participants got to know one another well, and they come up numerous creative and innovative ideas.

Participants who were initially skeptical started to open up during this process. A Sinhalese Buddhist monk and a Hindu Tamil became very friendly and developed a caring relationship towards one another. The tone set at the orientation helped make everyone feel responsible for the project. It is one of the reasons everyone could work so hard with a feeling of being part of an extended family.

Upon completion of the orientation process, the group went to the work sites, which were a 40-minute drive through mountainous roads with numerous waterfalls and rustic scenes.

Work included paving and fixing playground equipment at the primary school. Two teams did landscaping, and a third team removed a small hill and filled in a steep area in order to enlarge the play area. This work was very strenuous, but everyone accepted the challenge. The young volunteers worked very hard with enthusiasm and dedication on both sites, and both community members and the estate management were touched by the dedication the cooperation among the young people from so many different ethnic backgrounds.

Each day started with morning devotions led by a participant from each of the faiths represented on the project. After work and a period of free time, the participants took part in team discussions, group activities, and discussions about various aspects of community building. Free time was often filled with song and friendly sharing.

On the final evening, there was a cultural program and a meeting to hand over the building and the play equipment to the local community. The Sarvodaya Society, an international NGO based on the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, agreed to help in the running and maintaining of the school. This volunteer organization takes care of thousands of Sri Lanka's local schools. Also, the Lions Club of Elvitigalawhich, one the project sponsors, presented new furniture for the preschool.

The excitement and emotional level deepened as participants shared their testimonies with the community and performed some dynamic songs and dances. Leaders from the community expressed appreciation to RYS, sponsors, and volunteers. The evening was a special time to share, celebrate, and appreciate the time together.

The following morning was a time for spiritual reflection and commitment. Participants were given an opportunity to offer reflections and evaluations of the project as well as express their personal commitments to build peace in their family and community. Graduation certificates were presented.

As people prepared to depart, the flow of tears was uncontrollable. People felt respected as persons and also that their ethnic origins and their religions were also respected. Everyone felt a renewed spirit.

The ten participants from eastern Sri Lanka (where the civil war is active) were especially enthusiastic about learning ways to resolve conflicts. The civil war has marginalized many young people and reduced opportunities available to them. They were very happy to associate with other people from their nation and with international participants of their age. They had the opportunity to experience some of the good things that have been happening around the world. These exchanges helped them feel more optimistic about the future of their country.

Manresa -- On the east coast

Thanks to a cease-fire between the government and the Tamil insurgents, roads were opened to the public and people could move somewhat freely around the country. However, even though there was a political will to settle deep-rooted problems, no effective mechanism had been created to bring people together to meet in heart and reconciliation.

The eastern part of the country is special for its many lagoons and lovely waterways as well as the diversity of religions. The Tamils in the area include Hindus, Christians, and Muslims. There are differences in language and opportunities for employment among the religious groups. For example, Muslims have their own distinctive way of living. Animosity had increased among the Muslims because of government was using Israeli intelligence officers and insurgents had and killed worshippers in a mosque.

The idea of working in this zone of violence started to take shape during the RYS project in the peaceful high country area two years earlier. Dr. Henry Victor of Eastern University had sent five graduate students from the Comparative Religious Department to work with the RYS international and interfaith team. The students were deeply moved, and when they returned to the university they fervently promoted the need for the ideals of RYS in their war-torn region.

Fr. Saminathan of Eastern University worked with project directors to plan a project to take place August 23-26, 2001.

After nearly two decades of conflict, people were happy for an opportunity to get together, especially the youth in the North, who were isolated and marginalized with limited resources and opportunities.

The service-learning project appealed to young people from diverse groups to get to know each other and understand the sentiments and temperaments of the various communities. Organizers and students from Eastern University worked hard to recruit a strong interfaith participation. The Ramakrishna mission under Swami Ajarathmagananda sent several participants, and they led a morning meditation. The Franciscan Community sent two young nuns as participants. Also joining the program under the direction of the Sufi Muslim maulavi were three participants from Kathankudi, which is close to the mosque that had been attacked by insurgents. The support of such a wide range of religious leaders indicates a growing understanding of RYS's work and an appreciation for its contributions. The limited participation of Buddhist Sinhalese was due in part to the heightened tensions in the region due to the attack on the air force.

The qualities of the participants helped make this project very special. While they came from religious and educational backgrounds, most had been involved in previous community service activities. Students of comparative religions were especially eager to learn first hand about the faiths of others.

However, while preparations were being made, the Tamil insurgents attacked the international airport and the Air Force Base, destroying or damaging half of the air fleet and sending the country into a state of shock. Because of heightened tensions, organizers driving from the capital to the work site were delayed at a checkpoint. Officials were suspicious of them and their van filled with project supplies, but two hours of discussions convinced officials of the spiritual motivation of the project organizers and they let the organizers through.

The first night of the project, participants introduced themselves, and the following day everyone participated in the 6:30 am Islamic meditation. It was conducted by one of the participant who was a maulavi (priest) on the rooftop under the clear blue sky with birds flying in groups and monkeys playing in the treetops.

After breakfast, participants were assigned into three groups, each guided by a capable leader and assistant leader. Group members were very enthusiastic about their discussions and were very eager to express their ideas.

In the afternoon, project coordinators went to the work site to make final preparations for the next day's work. Dr. Ganesh, a psychiatrist, had asked RYS to help create a garden for the patients in the front and back of his psychiatric hospital. Other requested tasks included making a pond and hut and landscaping the area. When they saw the scale of work, some of the staff were doubtful that the tasks could be accomplished by 30 volunteers in such a short time. The evening activities back at Manresa included orienting the participants about the next day's work.

The rooftop meditation the next morning was led by Swami Ajarathmagananda. He spoke in a pleasant, spiritual, and intellectual manner, answering questions posed by the participants. He said afterwards that he enjoyed the encounter.

After a quick breakfast, participants went to the work site. The area needed to be cleaned, the cleaned, a hut built, a brick pathway laid, soil prepared for gardening, and seeds planted. It took considerable time to remove garbage, weeds, and stones and then level the soil in preparation for landscaping. Participants lined up to pass sand and bricks to the site. Lunch was ordered from the neighboring shop and served with much love and care by the doctors and nurses from the hospital. At the end, some participants commented that they had never worked like this in their life, but it felt easy when they did it together. One of them said, "When we united and worked together, not only was the work made easier but I felt love and compassion for all the participants regardless of what religion they came from." Around 5:00 pm, participants met with the hospital staff, and each group expressed appreciation to the other.

After returning to Manresa to wash up, we saw a video about children's folk dance troupes from North Korea and South Korea who made exchange visits and performed traditional dances for local audiences. The beauty of the performances and the significance of the encounters between the divided peoples on the Korean peninsula energized the tired young people.

Although some had wanted to postpone the cultural night, group leaders encouraged participants to gather on the rooftop, where emergency lights lit a space for showcasing the hidden talents in the group. One after another, individuals performed until 11:00 pm, even though lights were supposed to be out by 10:00 pm.

An Anglican priest, two nuns, and the Christian youth led morning devotions the next day. It was a lively time, with Bible readings, songs, and prayer. After breakfast there was an opportunity for reflections. In their discussion groups, the young people reflected on their vision for peace and how much had been accomplished during their time together. After a ceremony awarding certificates, lunch was served.

In their written reflections, many people reported that they had gone through profound changes by listening to and learning to appreciate people from other cultures with different viewpoints. One person expressed hoped that misunderstandings between religions could be rectified since each religion seeks to guide people to become a better person by showing compassion towards others. One Christian said he had realized that the other religions are not opposed to Christianity.

Participants reported significant experiences of (1) overcoming shyness, (2) developing feelings of brotherhood, (3) learning a great deal about others in a short time, (4) dissolving resentments against people from other religions that grew out of recent conflicts, (5) gaining a positive viewpoint about people with very different personalities than their own, (6) deepening their understanding of their own religion and others through participating in morning meditations, (7) understanding more about mental illness through listening to the psychiatrist and talking with the patients at the hospital, (8) women gaining self-confidence by realizing that they could work as hard as the men, and (9) learning that when people unite they can accomplish difficult tasks.

Some people expressed a desire to do small service projects on their own in the villages. An assistant director of education who came to the work site was moved to see people from different religions working together in harmony. When he asked how he could help, he was encouraged to organize local high school students to do similar programs.

Vavuniya -- Gateway to the North

The new prime minister and government elected in 2002 issued a Memorandum of Understanding with the Tamil insurgents and with international mediation signed a cease-fire agreement on February 22, 2002. They were very interested in engaging in dialogue to promote a peaceful solution to the civil war that had been especially destructive in the northern region of the country.

With its experience in bringing diverse people together through service learning, RYS organizers approached Sri Lanka's Prime Minister and the Ministry of Youth Affairs about holding a project in November in the northern part of the island. With the minister's advice, it teamed up with the National Youth Services Council, which has a good organizational and administrative network in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. RYS partnered with the Rural Development Foundation because of their success as an NGO in the area.

The ongoing conflict had caused many Tamil villagers to leave home and move to resettlement communities. People in such communities often suffer from poverty, unemployment, and neglect.

One such community is Vavuniya, the gateway between southern and northern Sri Lanka. Its resettlement area of Maravankulam, with its nearly 600 families pulled from various areas, was selected for the work site, which involved building three culverts on roads so it would be passable during the rainy season.

NGOs, university student associations, and RYS alumni publicized the project. Participants from all parts of the country signed up. People from the south were attracted by the opportunity to visit the northern part of their country, including some historic spots. For most of them, it would be the very first opportunity to visit that part of the country, learn about the Tamil people and culture, and gain insights into the hardships people experienced during the war.

Even with hopeful political developments, people from both the north and the south had to overcome obstacles in order to reach the project site. In the southwest, a curfew in areas of Colombo, growing out of the strife between Buddhists and Muslims, forced many participants to take alternate routes to the project site. In the northeast, the Tamils from Jaffa had to register with both the insurgents and the government armed forces before being allowed to enter Vavuniya.

The 48 participants from throughout Sri Lanka included Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, and Muslims. The diversity of religious leaders working side by side encouraged everyone. Participants from different backgrounds shared sleeping quarters at the Rural Development Foundation training center.

The opening ceremony attracted a large gathering of local religious leaders, administrators, security officials, and journalists. The project vision was explained, and people from different ethnic groups talked about their communities and offered words of encouragement.

There was much concern about language barriers. During the educational sessions, presentations in English had to be translated into Tamil and Sinhala. Overall, barriers melted because of the enthusiasm of the participants who eagerly sought to learn each other's languages. Furthermore, there were many opportunities to communicate across language barriers through gestures and signs, and these extra efforts to reach out to others helped break down barriers and create feelings of closeness.

The initial reluctance to mix soon broke down as it became clear that people had been waiting for this opportunity for years and their yearning had been suppressed by the ethnic conflicts.

Morning devotions each day were led by religious leaders or project participants from Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, and Muslim traditions.

Following orientation about communication, team-building, and community needs, participants worked for three days in Maravankulam, building culverts and cleaning a playground for the community center. The work on the culverts strenuous, and people passed work materials hand to hand, in human chains. The villagers happily joined in the work because they wanted to be part of it. Village children crowded around to watch.

The final workday occurred on the Hindu festival of Deepavali (Diwali), November 14. Participants from other cultures were able to experience the festive atmosphere first hand with firecrackers and fireworks exploding all around. They also enjoyed traditional Deepavali sweets. On the same day, one of the participants from Jaffna treated everyone with sweets in celebration of his 20th birthday, and in return, RYS staff surprised him with a birthday party with cakes and candles. To see everyone feeding him cakes and offering him numerous hugs inspired a sense of brotherhood.

In preparation for the cultural night, participants practiced hard and improvised costumes for their songs, dances, dramas, and martial arts exhibitions. Most of the presentations were based on the theme of peace. Beyond that, the fact that people of different ethnic groups and religions performed together provided a living demonstration of peace.

The program featured visits to religious sites: an internationally famous Catholic church, a notable Hindu kovil, and a Buddhist temple. Since the church was in an area controlled by insurgents, to reach it the group had to register with both the government security forces and the insurgents. A trip to Mannar, 80 km away, allowed participants to relax on the beach and visit historic sites.

The final day of testimonies and reflections was very emotional as people wept and embraced each other. At lunch, the Buddhist monk's eyes filled with tears as he watched the young people feeding each other. The normally reserved Muslim girls were touching the hands of the young men whom they learned to consider like their brothers as they said goodbye. These were rare sights in Sri Lanka. After getting to know one another through these days of service learning, participants were able to express their feelings of oneness without any restrictions or barriers.

Simply signing treaties or having governments proclaim peace will not release people from the webs of resentments spun by past injustices. Lasting peace comes only from a change of attitude and heart. The simple expressions of selfless service generated through the spirit of RYS are tangible evidence of the potential for building a lasting culture of peace.

Yogapuram -- in the north

The signing of the ceasefire agreement between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government of Sri Lanka paved a way for people of South and North Sri Lanka to travel back and forth without much hindrance. People began visiting friends and relatives who in some cases they have not met in 20 years.

Although there was travel between the two provinces and a political will to settle deep-rooted problems, no effective mechanism had been created to bring people together to meet in heart and reconciliation. RYS decided to fill this vacuum can chose Jaffna peninsula was chosen as the location for the project.

Religious Youth Service participants helped construct a preschool and playground for young children from Yogapuram, in Urumburai South August 9-13, 2003. This was on the Jaffna Peninsula in the Tamil heartland. It was the first RYS project held in the former war zone.

Young people put up walls and painted them, built a small room, and laid the roof of the preschool. In addition, they donated furniture and play equipment for the school, repaired a fence, planted trees, and set up a garden. This benefited 144 families.

Participants from various countries added an international flavor, and local people were glad for the opportunity to meet and associate with their foreign counterparts. Many of them developed lasting bonds.

The schedule featured a variety of inter-religious programs, including joining pilgrims in a festival. Local people were deeply moved by the heart and spirit of the volunteers who worked on their school. This cooperation offered a substantial model of the peace-building spirit and reconciliation.

The program was highlighted by a variety of inter-religious programs including joining pilgrims in the Allure Festival. The community was deeply moved with the heart and spirit of the volunteers who worked on the local school. The cooperation became a substantial model of the peace-building spirit of reconciliation so needed in this nation.

At the end of project, it was decided that the participants should take the lead in organizing the following year's project.

Hunnasgiriya -- village in the central mountains

With much deliberation, Sri Lanka youth chose to focus on Hunnasgiriya, remote mountain village of more than 200 families in Bambarabedda, the central province. Neither the village nor its school had a library. The April 18-25, 2004 project was to build a reading room that would serve as a library in the temple premises.

This project helped integrate the Tamil RYS alumni from the North with their fellow countryman. Those from the North suffered greatly in the long civil war and have had very little contact or travel outside their region.

On April 19, about 40 enthusiastic participants from seven countries arrived at the project site after a long, winding bus ride up the mountains to the remote Buddhist monastery that hosted the community school.

There were more than 20 young people from the North, including a few RYS alumni who had recruited their friends. A similar group joined them from the South.

After staff and participant orientation, people were eager to get started with the task of providing the children of the countryside with a library. Each day began with meditation and breakfast.

The mornings were spent in physical work of construction that often involved moving earth and carrying heavy loads. Technicians guided the volunteers through the different stages of construction. It was a rough ride for most but they enjoyed the company of their friends from the North and South and from the other participating countries.

The education program continued in the afternoons and evenings, bringing a lot of practical understanding to the participants. A sightseeing tour offered a way to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and visit the religious sites. Everyone enjoyed bathing in a waterfall and visiting an indigenous leader and his community.

Among the participants were the winners of the international Mr. and Miss University competition from Lebanon and Taiwan. This young man and young woman worked hard side by side with the other volunteers and showed a model of beauty through the selfless service of others.

In the capital, participants met with the prime minister, the former prime minister, and the mayors of Colombo and Hitawali. They also met some governors at a formal afternoon tea.

At the conclusion of the project, participants departed in tears with hopes to meet each other again.

Tangalle -- on the southern coast

The southern coast of Sri Lanka area was the hardest hit by the tsunami of December 26, 2004. About 225 kilometers from the capital city and eight kilometers from the southern coastal city Tangalle is the model village called Ruvin Gama. The local government, with the assistance of NGOs constructed the village as a place to resettle families affected by the tsunami. However, the village had no community center where families could go for health clinics and other activities. Therefore, RYS decided to build a community center.

About 40 participants joined the project that took place September 16-24, 2005. Seven participants were from southern Sri Lanka, 14 from northern and eastern Sri Lanka, eight from Germany, and one from Thailand.

Morning meditations helped participants understand each other's religious traditions and rituals. Local participants had the opportunity to live within an international community, which encouraged the dynamic of inter-religious education and intercultural exchange. During orientation, this was presented as one of the goals of the project as well as something worthwhile for every young person to strive to fulfill.

For four days, participants worked together with local people on the community center, learning to know the people and their situation. After this initial work the joined in educational program, and other exciting activities. A leadership training program helped them to learn more about themselves and strive to become people of good character who can build a peaceful society.

Working together with people of different backgrounds challenges participants to solve conflicts between races, religions and cultures and to seek the path to achieve peace.

RYS alumni linked with the Asian German Sports Exchange Programme and Aspiring Youth, an organization headed by Namal Rajapaksa, the eldest son of President of Sri Lanka H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa, to develop an Intercultural Peace Sports and Recreational Center in Tangalle on the southern coast. A major portion of the funds came from the Asian German Sports Exchange Programme and well wishers in Europe.

The vision is to build sports and recreation centers in four parts of the country struck by the tsunami. This center is part of a long-term plan for supporting the peace process in Sri Lanka by helping children learn about the cultures of other communities. This grassroots peace process will enable children to be in contact with children from different communities.

After the tsunami, most children developed a fear of water. The swimming pool in the sports center can teach children and participate in competitions on behalf of their district. An indoor stadium consisting of courts for badminton, table tennis, basketball, and volleyball as well as adventure playground is planned.

Training in good sportsmanship can help develop good athletes and good citizens of a peaceful nation. The sports centers in different parts of the country can host competitions, and local winners can compete at a national level.

Sports and recreational centers exist in Nattandiya in the west and Mullativu in the north. One in Neelaveli, in the Trincomalee district in the east, is still under construction. The proposed center in Tangalle will be the southern center.

Nuwara Eilya -- a village in the mountainous tea region

The 2006 project held in Nuwara Eliya, entitled 'Celebration of Life,' had a Buddhist priest as one among nearly 50 participants from the north, south, east, and west of Sri Lanka.

The participants in the August 27-September 3 service project in Mt. Lavinia Seaside Park, included Sri Lankans from all parts of the country. In addition, youth from Germany, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia mingled in a spirit of camaraderie, exchanging their respective views in activities designed to bring about harmony among people of different religions and ethnic groups. Rehearsals for skits encouraged and exchange of ideas.

Orientation began early in the day and ended with the opening ceremony in the evening. Many distinguished invitees attended. There were many activities, including speeches, a video presentation, testimonies and some dancing and singing.

Early the next morning after meditation, everybody proceeded to the work site in Kandapola. The Methodist College there, which had approximately 1800 students, had no water supply except a badly maintained well without a covering. The project involved helping to provide a running water facility for the area as well as upgrading the primary section of the school. All participants and leaders were welcomed by the head principal and her staff.

RYS collaborated with the Y's men's club of Nuwara Eliya in carrying out the project.

The participants started the day's program with a prayer and then worked in groups, each designated to certain areas and work responsibilities. As the project continued, the participants enjoyed interacting with the students from the school and distributing toys.

Educational programs were scheduled for the afternoons and evenings. In addition, there was a hiking expedition in the Horton Plains and the World's End, a very beautiful part of the district. Later, they enjoyed a tour of a tea factory and also tasted a cup of unfermented tea.

Upon completion of the service project, a soccer tournament was organized with the assistance of the Ministry of Education and the Football Federation. The sports competitions brought together teams of different backgrounds, designed to promote inter-racial harmony. Five school teams participated in this tournament. The teams came from Mannar (North/Tamil), two teams from Colombo (Western/Sinhalese and Muslim), Talawakele (Central) and Nuwara Eliya. The RYS participants enjoyed cheering for all teams regardless of race, religion or caste.

The project reflection was held at the beautiful St. Andrew's Hotel. We were told that the school was so inspired that they did some more painting and upgrading with the help of the students soon after the RYS departed.

The emotional goodbyes were evidence that barriers of isolation and mistrust were disappearing between the different religious and ethnic communities.

Ratnapura -- in central Sri Lanka

The son of the president of Sri Lanka, Mr. Namal Rajapakse paid a surprise visit during the RYS project that took place in Ratnapura August 18 to 24, 2007. He greeted the participants on the first morning and offered his good wishes.

The work project was to build a study hall and to repair and upgrade the play area of the local orphanage, which houses 22 boys under 12 years of age. Five boys were Tamils and the others Sinhalese. The children were sent to the orphanage by the government because either they have been abandoned or their parents are in jail. The orphanage is managed by the Buddhist Society of Ratnapura, which depends heavily on the donations of well wishers. However, the donations the orphanage receives are barely enough for the day-to-day care of the children.

Some enthusiastic participants arrived at the field to work hard at digging up the earth for the foundation and pillars and pouring concrete for the children's study room, while a few other participants did landscaping. They also enjoyed visits to a Buddhist temple and also took part in a Hindu ritual. They visited a gem mine and finished their stay in Sri Lanka in the rain forest.

Daniel, a school teacher from Jaffna in the north, thanked RYS for the wonderful experience he had because it for changed his idea about the Sinhalese in the south. Tamils such as Daniel generally assume that the Sinhalese discriminate against him.

"Although I've participated in several youth projects, this is the first time I was able to really be 'inter-religious' -- this was unique," said the head of the Lyceam International School in Colombo.

Colombo -- the capital

In the city of Colombo, in the midst of impoverishment, a large crowd of people of mixed origins and ages gathered for the ceremony to open the 2008 project to build a new preschool where Tamil children could study along with Sinhalese children. These children came from very poor income families, their basic income being about US$1.00 a day. Former Speaker of the Parliament of Sri Lanka and the current Cabinet Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Hon. M. H. Mohamed, graced the opening ceremony as the Chief Guest. Performing for the event were a few past pupils of the preschool.

When the work began, the enthusiastic group took only a few minutes to demolish the former preschool building before commencing the heavy manual labor involved in laying the foundation for the new school. As the service work continued throughout the week of August 23 to 30, the RYS trainers also presented the education program, which taught leadership skills to the 41 local and foreign participants. These leadership skills are meant to guide the participants in working together beyond racial, religious, and national barriers.

A Muslim undergraduate student from Eastern University, M.H. Yehiya, who was participating in his second RYS project, said: "Although I have participated in many community service projects, RYS is totally different. It really builds up the family sense."

As an international family, the participants shared their unique religious observances each morning with the whole group. In addition, they shared meals, cleaning, down time, sightseeing, listening to special speakers, visiting religious sights, and sweating together as they worked for the benefit of the children of Colombo.

On the final evening after dinner, the participants gathered around the campfire to sing songs, dance, and reflect on their project together.


On May 19, 2009 the President of Sri Lanka announced an end to the Tamil insurgency following the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran and many of the Tamil Tigers' other senior leaders. A major challenge has been to find permanent homes for the approximately 300,000 displaced Tamils. RYS project for 2010 involves rebuilding a school for relocated Tamils. 

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