Paving The Road To Reconciliation

by Sadhana Senanayake

In this busy world, many of us find it hard to find time to manage our own day to day lives. Therefore, to think about others is almost inconceivable. But to care about your fellow man, and to give to others, is something that has been preached by every faith across the world. The Lord Buddha said “Give even if you only have a little.” The Holy Bible says, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother is in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”

While most of us have seemed to have forgotten these words, there are a few who have, such as Bertal Pinto-Jayawardena, his wife Shyamala and their daughter Kshyahla, who started Unity Mission Trust with the aim of helping those in need. Kshyahla explains that her parents were led to start the trust in 2009 after the war ended when they witnessed that so many people were in terrible conditions. They sent the word out to their friends and family to start collecting milk foods, followed by sanitary items for expectant mothers, sarees and clothing for women, fresh towels and soap, etc.  All these items were packed and taken to the Menik Farm and distributed among the war refugees. This was the start of Unity Mission Trust.

Following their visit to the Menik Farm in 2009, they visited two very poor schools in Kayts and with the help of The Asia Foundation and Bata, took gift packs of books and shoes for the children. “We were told by sources that footwear was a major need, and when fitting the shoes on, a little boy asked our volunteer what they were and what they are used for. He had never seen or had a pair of shoes in his life!”  says Kshyahla, “This experience made us realise the heartbreaking extent of the needs of our own people who had suffered so much because of the war. This realisation opened up a whole new world to us and we became immersed in putting together programmes and travelling to various parts of our nation all out of sheer need to help heal the wounds of the past!”

They went on to hold three day medical camps in Mannar, Mullaitivu, and Kayts, where they had over a thousand people coming in each day at all three camps. These programmes were held with the help of Lanka Hospitals and medical professionals who volunteered to come on board.  Between 2009 and 2010, they had got together a group of close friends, who expanded very quickly and linked up with authorities to make it possible to hold such large scale programmes. It was at the end of the year 2010 that the concept of Unity camps was brought to life. “500 students from the North were brought down to Colombo for the first time in their lives,” says Kshyahla, “They had never seen anything beyond their shell stricken neighbourhoods and had grown up in the thick of the war, so travelling down to Colombo was like visiting a completely new world! We wanted these children to know that in the south of this country, we ‘Sinhalese’ cared for them, that this ‘new world’ in fact belonged to them too, that they too were a part of one nation, in fact, that we were all equal. It was at this point that it became very clear to us as an organisation what our goals, vision, and mission was going to be.”

In terms of reconciliation, Kshyahla says they have been extremely successful in bridging gaps between the different ethnic groups. “With the camps, we have always found that when the students arrive the first day and are separated from their friends and when they grouped with other youth from different parts of the country, with barriers such as language, the youth are all apprehensive of having to work together and live in at the residential camps. But by the end of the camp, they are all hugging each other and crying, sad to be separating!” They have had many success stories since starting the Trust. One simple moving story is that of one of their female leaders from the North.

When she joined in 2010, she did not know English or Sinhala and started to learn English through SMS messages exchanged with the Founder Trustee, Bertal.Then she went on to get herself an English teacher. In 2011, she addressed an audience of 500 at the SLFI speaking English and Sinhala, and today she is a final year undergraduate student at Batticoloa University. “Another example is that of our Jaffna Youth coordinator who resented Sinhalese until he became a youth leader at the Unity Camp.  Today he counts many friends in the south, and there is close co-ordination between Jaffna Regional Council and the south and in particular, Elpitiya Regional Council. Many former campers ended up as Head Prefects in their schools and they are today dedicated Youth Leaders of  Regional Councils,” adds Kshyahla.

Kshyahla says the previous government, as well as the present government have expressed much interest in their work. “We received covering approvals for all of our programmes from the Northern Governor and other area Governors.  Education Ministry has approved all of our camps. We do not normally involve politicians at our programmes other than the Provincial Ministers of Education.”

The future seems bright for the youth at Unity Mission Trust, and Kshyahla says they are now systematically consolidating the efforts of eight years by strengthening the bridges of friendship between the 12 Regional Councils.

In the recently concluded project, these Young Leaders created awareness within their communities at a local level on what UMT stands for and believes in. “She says, “In this manner, it is hoped that the messages of unity, equality and the bridges of friendship that UMT has established across Sri Lanka will be strengthened further, and that the labour of love and care that has been invested in for eight consecutive years with a consistent message will take root and be accepted into the deeper thought.”

For more information on the Unity Mission Trust, check out their Facebook: www.facebook.com/Unity-Mission-Trust or their website: www.unitymission.lk

 

 

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