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CALENDAR OF EVENTS

November 2017
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Religious Youth Service

Decades of Religious Youth Service Build Bonds Among Sri Lankan Youth

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.  Here is a sampling of reports through 2011. [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 interreligious site 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 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 service 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 in Sri Lanka.

IIIukativakanda, a rural village

Twenty-four participants worked on road construction in a small rural village from December 22-24, 1995. This was one of a series of collaborations between RYS, the Women's Federation for World Peace, and the Sarvodaya movement.

This project brought youth from Colombo's urban middle class to stay in the homes of local villagers and get a sense of what life is like for so many of their countrymen.

Koskandawala, a rural village

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 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, the 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, "RYS should be spread all over our country, teaching through example the role of tolerance and the hope of cooperation."

Bogahawatte, 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 Bogahawatte, 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.

Among the staff were a number of RYS alumni, and the orientation prepared 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 designed to help create team solidarity from a religiously and cultural diverse group. Participants develop team vision statements and designed 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 each other. 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 and the cooperation among the young people from so many different ethnic backgrounds.

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.

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 agreed to help in the running and maintaining of the school. Also, the Lions Club of Elvitigala, one of 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, the sponsors, and the 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 respected. Everyone felt a renewed spirit.

The ten participants from eastern Sri Lanka (where the civil war was active) were especially enthusiastic about learning ways to resolve conflicts. The civil war had 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.

Gampaha, Western Province

An April 16-21, 2001 project in Gampaha was organized together with the Sarvodaya organization. The hall of the village temple was renovated together with the help of the villagers. Veteran RYS educators Dr. Ron Burr and Dr. Sherry Hartmann-Burr from the USA were the education directors for this project. After this program, a Train the Trainer program was conducted for the potential RYS youth leaders April 22-24 in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Ms. Dinesha Liyanasuriya, who is the Secretary General of RYS-Sri Lanka and a very experienced RYS educator in Asia, joined this project for the first time. She continues to give her full support to RYS Sri Lanka.

Manresa, on the east coast

Thanks to a cease-fire between the government and the Tamil insurgents in December 2000, roads were opened to the public and people could begin to 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. Also, animosity had increased among the Muslims because the 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 highlands of Bogahawatte. Dr. Henry Victor of Eastern University had sent five graduate students from the Comparative Religions Department to work there with the RYS international and interfaith team. The students were deeply moved, and when they returned to the university they 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 as an opportunity to get to know one another 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 led a morning meditation. The Franciscan Community sent two young nuns. Also joining the program under the direction of the Sufi Muslim maulavi (mullah) were three participants from Kathankudi, which is close to the mosque that had been attacked by insurgents in 1990. The support of such a wide range of religious leaders indicated a growing understanding and appreciation of RYS’s work and its contributions.

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 firsthand about the faiths of others.

However, in July, while preparations were being made, the Tamil insurgents attacked the Bandaranaike International Airport and the Air Force Base, destroying or damaging half of the air fleet and sending the country into a state of shock. The limited participation of Buddhist Sinhalese in the project was due in part to the heightened tensions in the region after that attack and their reluctance to travel there. Also because of the 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 participant who was a maulavi (mullah) on the rooftop under the clear blue sky with birds flying in groups and monkeys playing in the treetops.

After breakfast, participants were assigned to 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 expressed doubts 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, 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, a video was shown 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 youth.

Although some had wanted to postpone the cultural night, group leaders encouraged participants to gather on the rooftop, where emergency lights illuminated 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 talked about 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 and learning to people from other cultures and learning to appreciate their different viewpoints. One person expressed hope 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 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 when they returned to their 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

A new prime minister and government were elected, and they issued a Memorandum of Understanding with the Tamil insurgents. With international mediation they signed a cease-fire agreement on February 22, 2002. Government officials 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, RYS 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 was 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 they 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 time to visit that part of the country, learn about the Tamil people and culture, and gain insights into the hardships experienced during the war.

Even with the hopeful political developments, people from both the north and the south faced considerable 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 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 was strenuous, and people passed work materials from hand to hand, in human chains. The villagers happily joined in the work because they wanted to be part of the process. Village children crowded around to watch.

The final work day 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 schedule featured visits to religious sites: an internationally famous Catholic church, a notable Hindu kovil (a distinct style of Hindu temple with Dravidian architecture), 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, 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 eyes of a Buddhist monk 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 does 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 were tangible evidence of the potential for building a lasting culture of peace.

Yogapuram, in the north

As the months went by, it became possible travel back and forth without much hindrance, and people began visiting friends and relatives who in some cases they had not seen in 20 years. Although there was increased travel 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, and the Jaffna peninsula on the northern tip of the island 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, the Tamil heartland, August 9-13, 2003. It was the first RYS project held in this 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 benefitted 144 families.

The program was highlighted by a variety of interreligious programs including joining pilgrims in the Allure Festival. The community was deeply moved by the heart and spirit of the volunteers who worked on the local school. The cooperation became a substantial model of the peacebuilding 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, a village in the central mountains

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

This project helped integrate the Tamil alumni from the RYS projects in the North with their fellow countrymen. Those from the North had suffered greatly in the long civil war and had very few contacts or opportunities to travel outside their region.

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. These included more than 20 young people from the North, including a few friends recruited by RYS alumni, and a similar group from the South.

After staff and participant orientation, people were eager to get started on the task of providing the children with a library. Each day began with meditation and breakfast. The mornings were spent in the 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 time for most, but they enjoyed the companionship of people from the North and South and other countries.

The education program took place 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. The young man from Lebanon and young woman from Taiwan worked hard side by side with the other volunteers and showed a model of beauty through their selfless service of others.

Returning to the capital, participants met with the prime minister, the former prime minister, and the mayors of Colombo and Dehiwela. They also met some governors at a formal afternoon tea. When the project concluded, participants departed in tears with hopes to meet each other again.

Tangalle, on the southern coast

The tsunami of December 26, 2004 hit the southern coast of Sri Lanka very hard. About 225 kilometers from the capital city and eight kilometers from the southern coastal city of Tangalle is a model village called Ruvin Gama. The local government, with the assistance of NGOs, constructed this 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 interreligious 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 they joined in educational programs and other exciting activities. A leadership training program helped them to learn more about themselves and encouraged them to strive to become people of good character who can build a peaceful society. Working together with people of different backgrounds challenged participants to solve conflicts between races, religions, and cultures and to seek the path to achieve peace.

RYS alumni also linked with the Asian German Sports Exchange Programme and Aspiring Youth to develop an Intercultural Peace Sports and Recreational Centre in Tangalle. A major portion of the funds came from the Asian German Sports Exchange Programme and well wishers in Europe. Aspiring Youth is an organization headed by Namal Rajapaksa, the eldest son of Sri Lanka’s President, H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa, The vision is to build sports and recreation centers in four parts of the country struck by the tsunami.

After the tsunami, most children had developed a fear of water. The sports center includes a swimming pool where children can learn to swim 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 an 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 on a national level.

The centers are part of a long-term plan for supporting the peace process in Sri Lanka by giving children opportunities to meet children from other communities and learn about their cultures.

Nuwara Eilya, a village in the mountainous tea region

The 2006 project held in Nuwara Eliya, entitled “Celebration of Life,” included a Buddhist priest 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 also included youth from Germany, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand mingled in a spirit of camaraderie, exchanging their respective views during activities designed to encourage harmony among people of different religions and ethnic groups. Rehearsals for skits encouraged an exchange of ideas.

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

Early the next morning after meditation, everybody proceeded to the worksite in Kandapola. The Methodist College there, with approximately 1800 students, had no water supply except a badly maintained well without a cover. 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 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 assigned to certain areas and work responsibilities. As the project continued, the participants enjoyed interacting with the students from the school and distributing toys to them.

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 football tournament was organized with the assistance of the Ministry of Education and the Football Federation. The sports competitions brought together teams of different backgrounds and were designed to promote harmony among the diverse groups. 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. 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 between the different religious and ethnic communities were disappearing.

Ratnapura, in central Sri Lanka

To promote a future in which Tamils and Sinhalese could live together peacefully, RYS built connections with programs bringing together children from Sri Lanka’s diverse communities. A work project in Ratnapura August 18-24, 2007 involved building a study hall and repairing and upgrading the play area of the local orphanage, which housed 22 boys who were less than 12 years of age. Five boys were Tamils, and the others were Sinhalese. The children had been sent to the orphanage by the government because either they were abandoned or their parents were in jail. The orphanage was 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.

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; some of the participants also did landscaping. They also enjoyed visits to a Buddhist temple and took part in a Hindu ritual. They visited a gem mine and finished their time together in the rain forest.

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

“Although I’ve participated in several youth projects, this is the first time I was able to really be ‘interreligious’ — this was unique,” said the head of the Lyceum International School in Colombo.

The son of the president of Sri Lanka, Mr. Namal Rajapaksa paid a surprise visit, greeting the participants and offering his good wishes.

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 on August 23, 2008 to begin a one-week project to build a new preschool where Tamil children could study along with Sinhalese children. These children came from very low-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 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 sense of family.”

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 sites, and sweating together as they worked for the benefit of the children of Colombo. On the final evening, the participants gathered around the campfire after dinner to sing, dance, and reflect on their project together.

On May 19, 2009 the President of Sri Lanka officially claimed an end to the Tamil insurgency following a campaign that led to the death of its leader, Velu Pillai Prabhakaran, and much of the Tamil Tigers’ other senior leadership.

Maamunai

In the process of reconciliation, Sri Lanka has benefitted greatly from the concepts of RYS and UPF. The 2010 RYS project focused on the people who had been internally displaced due to war. Around 370,000 people in the north were displaced in the final stages of the war. They have been gradually resettled in their original homeland, with only around five percent still needing to be resettled.

The work project took place December 11-17 in the resettlement village of Maamunai in the northeast Vadamarachchi region of Jaffna. This fishing village was under the control of the rebels, and the area was very affected by the war. The preschool building had been badly damaged, and the four teachers were conducting classes for their 90 students under the trees. The RYS participants joined skilled workers in repairing the building and also gave financial assistance for the work materials. The project theme was “Strength of Unity,” in the hopes that after the war, the Tamil and Sinhalese communities can unite for the development of one Sri Lanka.

A group of 35 youth and 7 staff members participated in the project. As planned, groups from the south and west met in Colombo and were joined by a foreign delegation, which included one staff member and two participants from Malaysia. From there they traveled north for ten hours, arriving about 6:00 am. They joined participants from the North and East. The travelers did not have much time to rest before attending the opening ceremony at the Chavakachcheri Hindu Primary School.

The Chief Guest was the Mayor of Jaffna, Mrs. Yogeshwari Patgunarajah. Religious dignitaries representing Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity were also present, along with military leaders from the area. The children from the school entertained the invitees with several cultural performances, and the mayor commended UPF and RYS for coming forward to help the people affected by the war, adding that it was difficult to accomplish everything that needed to be done with the financial support of the government only. Dr. Chula Senaratne led the orientation, explaining the norms and vision of RYS, and the day’s events finished with dinner.

The first work day began after the religious observances. The RYS group together with the Sri Lanka Army cleared the preschool building and the surrounding area, which had been badly damaged by the war. Everybody worked hard in groups to clear the area and enjoyed their work.

In the afternoon, the education program was conducted by the Education Director of the project, Mrs. Shanta Shaffer. She was ably supported by Ms. Dinesha Liyanasuriya, Secretary General of RYS-Sri Lanka. The Muslims in the group presented the cultural program that night.

The second day of work involved repairing the road with sand and rubble collected from the surroundings with the help of the army. The motto of “Strength of Unity” among the participants helped make the physical work interesting. The evening activities included an educational program, and Hindus of the Tamil community performed the cultural program.

The final work day of the project involved repairing the road with sand and rubble collected from the surroundings along with sand from the beach, which was brought to the work site with the help of the army personnel. Everybody worked very hard, and the work was finished before lunch time. Lunch was provided by the Area Military Commander at a beach near the lagoon. All the top brass joined the youth for lunch in appreciation of their work. During lunch two calypso bands provided by the army performed. Everybody enjoyed the time together.

The next morning everyone rose early to go on a field trip to a mosque, a Catholic church, Nallur Kovil (one of the most significant Hindu temples in Jaffna), and the Nagadeepa Buddhist Temple (believed to have been visited by Gautama Buddha to settle a dispute between two warring kings). Everyone returned for dinner and reflections about the personal impact of the project and how participants might put into practice what they had learned.

“RYS teaches so much value. It helps people in need with its great heart,” commented Mr. Azeez Abubakr, a Muslim. “RYS is a very useful project which helped the people who really need help,” said Ms. Dilini, a Sinhalese Buddhist.

Around a campfire, many talked about how they enjoyed the RYS project and what they had through it. New participants talked about their conviction that the “strength of unity” can truly help the community.

After breakfast, participants spent time in the Chavakachcheri Hindu Primary School, where the opening meeting was held, writing reflections in the garden. “This RYS project is excellent,” said Mr. P. Anthony Paulson, a Tamil Hindu. “Please continue these kinds of service projects since RYS services are needed for the nation in its effort of rebuilding.

Polonnaruwa

The village of Polonnaruwa, in the north-central part of the country, found itself in the middle of a civil war where some of the most intense and brutal fighting took place. The Secretary General of UPF-Sri Lanka and National Director of RYS–Sri Lanka, Dr. Chula Senaratne, said this village was selected as the venue for the RYS project this year preciously because it suffered so much during the conflict. Forty-three participants and staff from three nations and four religious traditions spent the week of December 16 to 22, 2011 in Polonnaruwa working with local professionals to construct a new community center.

 Partners supporting this project included Tharunyata Hetak (literally, Tomorrow for the Youth), a non-profit organization supporting education, social service, sports, environmental, and cultural programs for youth. It is chaired by Hon. Namal Rajapaksa, who participated in a Religious Youth Service project in 2005 and is the eldest son of the Sri Lankan president, H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa. The National Lotteries Board also provided financial support and generous in-kind donations. Member of the Parliament for the Polonnaruwa District,  Hon. Roshan Ranasinghe, and his staff provided local support and coordination.

 “The Impossible Is Nothing” was the theme for this year’s project. Dr. Chula explained. We seek to help heal the scars of war in one of the areas of the island most affected by the conflict. So we should imbibe the spirit that ‘The Impossible Is Nothing.’” That theme was prophetic.

 In building the community center, the RYS team was responsible for digging 14 holes for the pillars to be set. Not a big job in and of itself, but with the heavy rains and underground streamlets that kept filling the holes with water, it was almost a mission impossible. However, the never-die spirit of RYS proved stronger than the torrential downpour and unworkable conditions. By the end of three days, all 14 holes had been dug and rod irons in six pillars were set in place.

 Support from the community was overwhelming. Each day grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and even granddaughters brought tea and snacks for the hungry workers. The head priest of the village temple, Ven. Ambagaspitiye Ananda, who attended the Opening Ceremony and has lived in the village for 35 years, came to the construction site to see how things were going. One farmer brought a whole crate of mangos.

 On the final day at the worksite, four community leaders including the president of the Village Welfare Society, Mr. Jayathilake, came to thank participants for their work. He explained, “More than building a new community center, this project has helped to rebuild the spirit of our community. Thank you for having this project here.”

 The learning experiences for the participants were powerful and varied. Sajideen Sarrajh, a teacher in a Muslim school in Northern Province, was on his fourth RYS project and was a team leader. He brought several students from his school to Polonnaruwa. “I keep coming back again and again,” he said, “because through RYS I can really serve my community. We need to rebuild our nation; we need to be able to maintain our religious heritage and at the same time transcend the divisions of race, religion, and caste. RYS can do this.” The most memorable part of the program for Sarrajh was the education component where he learned about the importance of marriage and family, which was explained using Holy Scriptures from all the world’s religions.

 Shifan Siyam Mohammad, 15, was one of the youngest participants this year. Like him, six other participants had never entered a Hindu temple before. He learned about the way they prayed and their rituals. “RYS enabled me to understand more about other faiths,” Shifan said. “I’m thankful this project gave me this opportunity.”

 “I was serious about being with other people who really want to help make their community better,” explained Omika Damayanthi. “RYS allowed me to experience a larger family, to play, to learn and to live with others as brothers and sisters,” she recalled; “I’m so grateful.” She was especially touched to see how hard the younger participants worked during the service project. Omika, 24, is the only child in her family, living with her grandmother and parents. Now she has many new brothers and sisters.

 Tika Raj Bishwaarma is from Nepal and has been living in Sri Lanka for nearly half a year. He earned the reputation of being one of the hardest working participants in the service project, a trait he inherited from his parents, especially from his mother. “RYS can educate youth to serve; it can teach them the joy that comes from doing something for others,” he said, adding, “This program is very special. We can really create a world of peace through this experience.”

 On the final day of the one-week program, a day dedicated to visiting various religious sites, an unexpected opportunity arose to achieve another impossible task. The bus, a massive red public transportation vehicle, got stuck in the mud as it tried to drive around another vehicle, blocking the main road. After many, many attempts to get the bus out of the mud it just went deeper and deeper into the water-filled hole. The back bumper was scraping the ground.

 Villagers who had gathered to watch and help, along with RYS staff and participants, told Dr. Chula repeatedly, “It is impossible. You had better get a tractor. You’ll never get it out.” But with the heart and spirit to never give up, RYS participants finally managed to push the red monster out of its impossible predicament.

 There is a Buddhist text from the Dhammapada that says our selfish craving is so deep-rooted it is like an elephant stuck in the mud, and the elephant is so big and heavy no one can help get it out. RYS, however, found a solution: working together with a selfless motivation of living for others and a never-die spirit in which "the impossible is nothing.”

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