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Religious Youth Service

Sri Lanka Religious Youth Service Project Proves That 'Nothing Is Impossible'

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka - The Religious Youth Service (RYS), a project of the Universal Peace Federation, continues to help the government and people of Sri Lanka reconcile communities and heal the wounds of war. For nearly 30 years northern LTTE forces fought the Sri Lankan army based in the south. 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.

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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 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 that this topic was chosen because projects that RYS and UPF had previously done in Sri Lanka seemed impossible at the time.

In August 2007, UPF conducted a Leadership and Good Governance program inside the parliamentary premises in Kotte, Colombo. This was the first time a parliament venue was used to conduct a UPF program for parliamentarians anywhere in the world. Such an event had not been envisioned before.

A previous mission impossible occurred when RYS brought 203 Sri Lanka athletes to Korea for a week-long peace and sports festival in 2005. This is the largest delegation of athletes sent to an international event from Sri Lanka coordinated by any organization except the National Olympic Committee.

During the seemingly endless Sri Lankan civil war, RYS and UPF continued holding interfaith and intercultural peacebuilding programs, leadership training seminars, character development and family-values based educational programs throughout Sri Lanka in both government-controlled areas and the heart of the Tamil insurgency in the north. (In 2010, the RYS service-learning project was in Jaffna, the northern-most city in this island nation.)

“We have already done the impossible,” Dr. Chula reminisced, “so the theme this year reflects both the past achievements as well as the current project. 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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