Religious Youth Service

Religious Youth Service Heals War Wounds in Northwestern Sri Lanka

Puttlam District, Sri Lanka - In the ongoing process of helping the government and people of Sri Lanka reconcile communities and heal the wounds of civil war, Religious Youth Service organized a project in a northwestern Sri Lanka village  where Muslim civilians found safe haven during the civil war. The 40  participants and staff from five religious traditions spent the week of Dec. 15-21, 2012, in Kalpitiya and Mahawewa working with local villagers and skilled workers to build a new community center and other educational activities.

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“Sustainable Peace for a Sustainable Future” was the theme for this year’s project. Dr. Chula Senaratne, Secretary General of UPF-Sri Lanka, explained that this was the theme for the UN International Day of Peace 2012. This is highly relevant to Sri Lankan scenario since this is what the Sri Lanka is trying to achieve through reconciliation, after 30 years of civil war.

RYS selected the Puttlam District for the 2012 project on the invitation of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hon. Neomal Perera. He was deeply touched by the RYS concept and took time from his busy schedule to grace the opening ceremony and spend the entire morning at the site. The program was initiated with prayers and blessings from representatives of all religions present. This was a simple ceremony with a few speeches explaining the project and included some cultural performances by the village schoolgirls.

Although it was pouring rain during the ceremony, at the auspicious time to dig the first soil and lay the cornerstone for the foundation, the rain ceased and gave an opportunity to start this kind deed with a larger vision.

“We have already done the impossible,” Dr. Chula reminisced, “so the theme this year, Sustainable Peace for a Sustainable Future, reflects our desire to help heal the scars of war in the minds of the villagers and citizens of our country. Therefore, our attitude is to instill the spirit that the responsibility for a sustainable peace for a sustainable future lies in their hands."

In building the community center, the team was responsible for digging 14 holes for the pillars. That may not sound like a difficult job, but heavy rains caused flooding around the area, and underground streams kept filling the holes with water; thus, it was an almost impossible mission. Nevertheless, the never-die spirit of RYS proved stronger than the torrential downpour and unworkable conditions. By the end of the three work days, all 14 holes had been dug and the foundation was laid. The support from the community was overwhelming. Each day grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and even granddaughters brought water, tea, and food for the hard-working volunteers.

The participants were fortunate to benefit from the very experienced UPF educator, Mrs. Ursula McLackland, Secretary General of UPF-Asia. Miss Dinesha Liyanasuriya, an experienced RYS educator, was also responsible for the major share of the education program. Dr. Chula and a renowned trainer on leadership and management in Sri Lanka, Mr. Maxwell Ranasinghe, also contributed towards the success of the education program of the project. The experiential learning process was powerful and varied. The five group leaders were well experienced people who had participated in at least three previous RYS projects.

The day before the final day of the one-week program was dedicated to visiting various religious sites and going to the seashore to watch dolphins and swim. The sight of dolphins was a rare opportunity for almost all participants. It was a wonderful day filled with fun and laughter.

The group visited a Hindu kovil, a mosque, a Buddhist temple, and one of the most sacred and famous Catholic churches in the country with a history of more than 400 years. For most of the participants, it was the first time that they had entered a place of worship of another religion.

Late in the evening, a campfire was lit and most of the participants shared with others reflections on their experiences; the evening ended with music and dance.

On the last day of the project, the morning was dedicated to reflection time, graduation, and the closing ceremony. After declaring the closing of this year's project, everyone parted with goodbyes and promises to meet again before long.

Quotes from participants

Dilshad Niza, 18-year-old Muslim student: ”Being a part of RYS 2012 has been one of the best things I did in the year 2012. I call myself lucky for getting an opportunity to experience such a beneficial camp. Getting to know about other religions, traditions, cultures, the value of love and care, peace and unity, and many other things created a lot of change in me. This camp also helped me out to figure out my weaknesses. Mostly I learned to be a successful leader of society. Last but never the least, this camp gave me loads of sisters and brothers who made me feel loved. Basically, it was one of the best experiences I had in my life. I wish that I could be a part of RYS 2013 as well. I also wish that this RYS camp can continue for decades and decades.”

Abdul Rehman, 19-year-old Muslim banker: This RYS project unquestionably changed every participant’s attitudes and thinking techniques and has opened the doors to a whole new level of mutual understandings, team work, and the importance and value of families and love."

Jinali Pabodha,19-year-old Buddhist undergraduate student: “So many memories we have made together in this RYS project, but I'll not be able to explain all the experiences within few lines. The value of RYS cannot be measured, only treasured. The meditation, education programs, cultural nights, camp fire, and boat tour were superb. And the kind words and guidance of Dr. Chula, Madam Dinesha, the other members of the staff, and team leaders will never be forgotten by me. In building the community center, the RYS team did a great job with the heavy rains. The memories will last forever and will never die. Now I have not only Sinhalese friends but also Tamil and Muslim friends. I think God knows the value of good friends, so He created RYS.”

Faye Dettoedt, 28-year-old Catholic pre-school teacher: "In this RYS, I learnt that all human beings are very special. Each person has strengths as well as weaknesses. We should be able to help them improve their weaknesses, gain strengths, and use their strengths to support the society."

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