Inspiration and Hope: The Youth of Sri Lanka

by Greg Buie

As I prepared for my summer adventure in my comfortable Southern California home, I had a hard time imagining what sorts of experiences I was in store for in Sri Lanka.  Yet, in a state of unchallenged enthusiasm and naiveté, I excitedly boarded the plane to this country, whose troubled past and present and uncertain future were unbeknownst to me.  No expectations, no pervasive stereotypes in mind, I landed in Sri Lanka with my mind a blank canvas.  Little would I realize at that time that the one month I would spend in this foreign land, those fleeting 30 days, would leave an impression on me far greater than any other previous international experience I have had thus far.  Touched by the children whom we came to meet and help realize their potential, inspired by fellow volunteers and their commitment to bettering the world we live in, and altogether moved by the perseverance and the determination of the society as a whole to meet the challenges and struggles of everyday life with such vigor, I understand so much better the harsh realities that exist in this corner of the world and hope with all my heart that tomorrow will be brighter.

Destroyed school building on A-9 road

The thought of civil war in a far-off country while reading a newspaper or watching a news broadcast seems so unfathomable to most Americans.  We, as Americans, know freedom well.  We know relative peace.  We know economic prosperity and a high standard of living, compared to most.  We are not without our own problems, but the freedoms, the opportunities, and the privileges to which he have been privy are oftentimes overlooked, taken for granted, or held as almost standard.  How else could one live?  Yet, this is not the case for so many of the people of this world, Sri Lanka included.

As was to be expected, the standard of living and the average GDP per person were noticeably lower in Sri Lanka than in the West.  But what was shocking, almost outrageous, to me was the glaring drop in living conditions during our 15 hour drive from Colombo to Jaffna when we first entered an area inhabited by persons of Tamil origin.  Deplorable conditions seemed to characterize the majority of the area through which we passed until finally reaching our destination city of Jaffna.  As I sat in the van listening to my fellow volunteers and the man who took responsibility for getting us to Jaffna tell me in an impartial and complete way of the hardships, the struggles, the oppression, and the violence which so much of this country has had to endure, I watched the scenes of a nation divided, a nation plagued by civil war pass me by.  Here I was, a visitor, a mere passerby, making observations and trying to understand what these people have been through.  It touched me in a way that made me think deeply.  The words I was hearing coupled with the views rushing past the glass windows of our van were enough to make tears swell in my eyes, as I struggled to comprehend this shocking reality.  And this was only the beginning.  This was my arrival, my introduction.

Passing through a number of military checkpoits, at one of which we were detained and questioned for several hours, it dawned on me that, although a ceasefire may exist, it is an uneasy peace, an uncertain and temporary solution in place for the time being.  One can only hope that it holds until a permanent solution that is accepted by all parties is in place.

Until then, these checkpoints serve as a constant reminder of the conflict, of the division, complicating the freedom of movement and creating further barriers between the people of Sri Lanka.  Imagine a world free of these checkpoints...

My time in the North was a unique experience.  Sweating and fending off mosquitoes and ants larger than any I have ever seen, listening to the resounding calls of birds every size and color, closing my eyes to allow the warm ocean breeze blow over my body and interrupt the humid and draining summer heat.  A simple room with a bed and mosquito net and running water, everything so much simpler than what I am accustomed to.  But this humble setting made me a great deal happier.  There are few distractions, no headaches over your laptop crashing.  Humble but full, my experience rich.

VISIONS Volunteer Greg Buie and children

at Jaffna Hindu Board of Education

VISIONS--the reason I came to Sri Lanka. Back at my home university I, by sheer chance and accident, found myself listening to a speech being given by fellow student Alissa Sears about the situation in Sri Lanka and the action she and others were taking to ameliorate the conditions there.  After only 10 minutes I was moved greatly by what she had to say.  Fast forward 3 months, and I find myself in Sri Lanka, here to help with the VISIONS program.  I barely had any idea what we would actually be doing, but I was eager to help and to meet the youth about whom I had heard so much.  I was told that, to these youth, VISIONS would be an unforgettable and life-altering experience.  I was told I would most likely help change thier lives in a very powerful way.  After having finished the program, I believe this is true.  But what was even more powerful and incredible was the way in which they unexpectedly touched my life and the way that I think.  The program itself may have lasted only 10 days, but the impact of it all is forever enduring.  I grew so attached, so proud and fond of these young people that I had trouble letting go.  Even after I left Jaffna, I thought constantly of them and wished desperately that I might go back.

Final Day Talent Show

Each day we ran activities on a pre-planned but flexible agenda.  We taught English and showed them leadership skills, allowed them to express themselves in a creative manner through art, helped them to build confidence through games and activities, helped them see their own potential to better their society and themselves, made them believe in themselves and their abilities, and challenged them to follow their dreams and make a difference.

What can be more powerful than showing a child he/she can achieve his/her goals?  Or helping to give him/her the tools necessary to make it all a reality?  The idea behind the program is, as stated in the name, for volunteers to help inspire students from this troubled region of the world, one that most Westerners know relatively little about, if anything at all.  I am proud to have been a part of it all, and I am even more proud of those who organized everything, making it all possible.

Certain moments or memories cannot be forgotten.  The way little Tharsan greeted me every morning with a giant smile from ear to ear, and a "hello, suh (sir)!"  The way Ananthi or Mayuran always proudly stood up to share their thoughts with the group.  The way Satheesini told me one day that she thought of me as a brother.  The way the boys would play football with incredible energy at the end of each day, on a field of dirt and rocks that was far from adequate or safe.  The way Kamalathasan, the older jokester, would clown around with everyone, including me, in a language he knew I simply could not understand.  The way all of the participants gathered around our van on the night we left to say goodbye, to share their tears and their smiles with us, to let us know that they appreciated us being there and that they would miss us.  They all had come to mean so much to me in such a short time, more than I could have imagined.

One of my most favorite memories was Beach Day, when we crammed everyone onto one bus and took the students out of the usual tiny environment to which they are perpetually confined (the school and children's home).  Finally we broke the walls of the camp and took off on an excursion.  An adventure for all to remember.  We made stops at the beach, a Hindu temple, a Christian church, and a medical center.  Dressed in their best uniforms, black socks and shoes with black pleated shorts and white button-up shirt for the boys and nice dresses for the girls, they all looked quite cute and innocent when they eagerly greeted us in the morning.  We drove through Jaffna for an hour, passing remnants of old buildings or homes either ridden with bullet holes or bombed out (or both), and one older man who joined us for the day pointed out all of the places along the way where fighting had occurred.  Yet, through it all the students sang loudly and danced in the back of the bus, enjoying themselves and not allowing the bright smiles on their faces to fade, though they know all too well what this land has been through.  Once at the beach, we played in the water which was warm and salty and full of seaweed.  Time flew by that sunny Jaffna afternoon, but all seemed to have a great time. Children being children--the way that it should be...

The very next day we went out into the town again, and I had this to say about our day's adventures in my journal: "I saw something today that made me proud--the kids stepped up as leaders and good, caring citizens, and they did it all on their own...At a home for the elderly, roughly 35-40 men and women filed into the room where we were all seated. The students performed a few Tamil and English songs, and a few of the elderly people sang for all of us in return.  It was really special when the kids met with them and shared the cards they had made for them.  I sat on the floor and "spoke" with a few of the older women through Jebanithy, who acted as my translator.

Visit to Shanti Ilam, a home for the elderly

All of the elderly people were so sweet, and the kids were so outgoing and well-behaved.  A beautiful sight for sure."  At this moment we all saw the effect that VISIONS was having on these students, how they were growing as leaders.  During the course of our stay, I noticed a great deal of improvement on the part of these students.  At the beginning, the group to which I was assigned to help teach English was distant and almost non-communicative with me.  One week later they were eagerly approaching me, ready to engage in conversation and show off all that they had learned.  Constant exposure to English, as I speak no Tamil, was surely frustrating at times, but enabled them to pick up some of the language quite rapidly.  I was more than impressed with the improvement of my group, and the larger group as a whole, made by the time the program came to an end.  I was also equally proud of the level of confidence they all seemed to evoke.  When we first met the group, they were mostly shy and reserved.  Naturally they opened up, but day by day they grew noticeably more confident in themselves and their abilities.  Certain individuals would stand up and take charge during activities or participate during group discussions. I t was a great pleasure to witness this obvious change.  While I, as a volunteer who cannot speak Tamil, felt limited in my ability to help all of the time, I was glad to have had the opportunity to help out.  I know that VISIONS was a success this summer, and I hope it continues to grow and improve in the coming years.  I know that I wish to be a part of it all again next summer, as well.

Shanti Ilam

Now I sit in the comfort of my home, where I have lived my whole life, writing my thoughts.  I have grown up in a middle/upper-class neighborhood where everyone has a car, the level of education is high, safety is a low concern in terms of violence, fresh food, clean water, and access to healthcare are a given, air-conditioning and a hot shower are not seen as luxuries, I can walk down the street or to the store with complete freedom, there are no real concerns of war or violence in the neighborhood, and most individuals (more or less) have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.  Growing up the question was never, "will I go to college?"  Rather, it was "where will I go to college?"  It was never, "what can I realistically achieve?"  But, instead, "what can I NOT achieve!?"  Almost anything is possible in this environment, and I have been truly blessed in my 20 years.

What is upsetting to me is the vast disparity between the life that I lead and the opportunities available to me, and the daily and life battles and lack of opportunities for the youth of Sri Lanka.  No child should have to grow up without parents or proper guardians, and no parent should have to abandon their children for lack of resources or ability to care for them.  No child should have to duck bombs or dodge bullets.  No child should watch family members perish, victims of war.  No child should have to crowd into a children's home that is already overcrowded and struggling to meet the needs of all, nor receive an education that leaves much to be desired.  No child should have to feel like his/her place in this world is unimportant or uncertain, due to a lack of opportunity and a constant fear of death. No child should have his/her childhood stolen.  "True peace allows children the freedom to be children."  Life is too precious for these young souls to have to struggle physically (because of malnutrition and lack of healthcare), emotionally, and mentally on a daily basis.  Why must they suffer in silence, while I have been given almost everything that I could have ever dreamed of?  What act of malfeasance, what incorrigible deed have they committed that has indentured them to a life of struggle and hardship?

These are only children, scarred, reminders of the appalling consequences of war.  It is a tragedy that this is the only life these beautiful souls have known, and I can only hope that they reach their potential and attain their goals.  This is why VISIONS is such a unique and important program, as it is of great importance to uplift the youth of a society which desperately needs leadership and productive citizens who will help rebuild Sri Lanka.

No longer a distant and unfamiliar spot on the map, Sri Lanka is now a part of me.  So many warm and curious faces now bring life to that mark on the globe.  I cannot imagine how I would feel if anyting were to happen to the incredible individuals who shared their lives with me.  Each of them has his/her own story.  Granted, some are worse than others, but none are desirable and all are unjust.  They have been through so much at such a young age that it is hard, especially for me, to understand.  All I can do is hope for the best.  Hope their dreams become reality.  These youth, these life warriors from the most afflicted areas, are the light of the future, the way out of the darkness.

Needless to say at this point, my experiences this summer were extremely meaningful and quite emotional.  And I have developed a deep sense of affection towards all of the participants.  I had my eyes opened to an ongoing chapter in the world's history that I didn't even know existed, and it has touched me in a powerful way.  I hope and believe strongly that this is only the beginning of my involvement with these amazing youth and with the society at large...

- Greg Buie (horio619@hotmail.com)

3rd year student at University of California, San Diego

For more information on the VISIONS program, please visit www.tamilyouths.org/visions.htm or email mpathmar@yahoo.com

 

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Posted October 5, 2004