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Religious Youth Service

Religious Youth Service Promotes Peace in Ratnapura, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one of the places where Religious Youth Service (RYS) has invested heavily since 1992. Having embarked on peacebuilding initiatives during the civil war period, we could not attract any youth from the North or East for the first project because of the fierce fighting that had been going on between Tamil militant groups and the government forces for almost two decades.

The project was carried out in Ratnapura, and it brought together about forty local and foreign young people to build a community center for the villagers. Since then, a number of two- to three-day national and local level projects were organized and kept the momentum going.

By the year 2000, the need for inter-religious and inter-racial activities became quite apparent. The RYS formula seemed useful and healthier in the context of the problem, as it was a good platform to bring different ethnic groups together for healing. The organizers identified the need and decided to build upon past successes, recognizing the need for more and more regular activities in Sri Lanka in support of the healing and reconciliation process.

The first project in this series was held in the upcountry area in the year 2000. This was the very first opportunity RYS got to blend the main two ethnic groups, Sinhalese and Tamils, but RYS could not get any participants from the North due to logistical difficulties.

The project held in 2001 in the South attracted a few from the North and East, thanks to the cease-fire agreement signed between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation of Tamil Tiger Eelam (LTTE). Owing to this, people could move somewhat freely from the South to the North and vice versa with the opening up of the main roads to the public. This project was a good opportunity for the young people from both parts to get to know each other and understand the sentiments and temperaments of the two communities. All of them were happy to get this opportunity after more than 15 years, especially the youth in the North, who were an isolated and marginalized group with meager resources and opportunities.

The organizers felt the social demand for grass-root level organizations like RYS to fill the gap between what political solutions could bring about and what was acceptable and desired by both parties. Meeting people at the level of heart is a must, and RYS has proven capabilities to do that.

This paved the way for projects in the North. Two projects were organized in the North in 2002 and 2003, and some youth from the South got the opportunity to visit the Northern part of Sri Lanka. For most of them it was the very first opportunity to visit that part of the country and be with their fellow countrymen in that territory. In these two projects, Southern participants got the opportunity to visit various places, including some historic spots in the North, resulting in some rich understandings and experiences about the Tamil culture and the hardships people experienced during the war. Foreign participants from various countries added an international flavor, and local participants were glad for the opportunity to meet and associate with their foreign counterparts. Most of them developed everlasting bonds.

At the end of the project held in Jaffna in August 2003, it was decided that the participants should take the lead in organizing the following project. With much deliberation, they chose a very poor village of more than 200 families in the central part of the island. Neither the villager nor the village school had a library. The project was to build a library in the temple premises. The Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace (IIFWP) and RYS International sponsored the project. IIFWP Youth and Sports Director, John Gehring, accepted the invitation to be the trainer. Organizers of the Mister and Miss University Program selected this project for their 2003 winners to participate in, and they added hue and color to the project.

On April 19, 2004, about forty enthusiastic participants from seven countries arrived at the project site. There were more than twenty from the North, including a few RYS alumni who recruited their friends. A similar group joined them from the South. John provided a solid start with the staff and participant orientation for the project. Participants were eager to get started with the work. The day began with meditation, followed by breakfast. For a few days, the mornings were dedicated to physical work. Participants worked with technicians to build the library. The place being a remote village, participants had to undergo a lot of hardships. It was a rough ride for most of the participants, but they enjoyed the company of their friends from the North and South in an international gathering.

The education program during the afternoons and evenings gave participants a lot of practical knowledge. A sightseeing tour was organized to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and visit the religious sites. Everyone enjoyed bathing in a waterfall and visiting the indigenous (aboriginal) leader and his community.

The project concluded on the night of April 24, and participants left the site in tears with a strong determination to meet each other again. Surely they will cherish the rich experience and the lasting bonds they created for a longer period of time.

RYS is eager to contribute more and more in the future to build up a united Sri Lanka.

For a map of project sites, click here.

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