Since joining UnitingWorld in June of this year, I’ve already had the privilege of visiting a few countries to get a little more understanding of the depth and diversity of the work of our partners and the communities they seek to serve. In September I visited Sri Lanka to observe the work of our partners.
This work embodies, for me, the most important of UnitingWorld’s values: genuine inclusion. They do this by working with people left disabled after the war to improve livelihoods; getting kids with disabilities into schools and promoting Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. This brief but informative trip was very special to me for both personal and professional reasons.
Having lived on and off in Sri Lanka for the past 15 years, I am somewhat familiar with its diverse regions. A lot is packed into this comparatively tiny country. Yet in all the time I lived in Colombo, I had never travelled to ‘the North’ – the region most affected by the long-running civil conflict that ceased in May 2009. In the late 1990s and early 2000s it was always thought to be too dangerous for foreigners, so Colombo-based expats (and locals) would talk about what it must be like in the North.
Friends and colleagues who had family in Jaffna and other parts of the North would share stories of their earlier life there. The red soil, reminiscent of that in Central Australia; trips to the Jaffna library; riding the black, Indian-made Hero bicycles to the temple, to school, to everywhere. These are some of the evocative images shared by friends from the North.
The stories had a romantic quality perhaps made more poignant by the devastation of the conflict. The red soil crammed with land mines, the Jaffna library flattened and young men on bikes threatened, assaulted, recruited, disappeared, tortured, murdered.
The war was in the North yet it frequently entered my comfortable Colombo life through bombings in the city and stories told to me by my partner at the time.
He worked for Quaker Peace and Service as a community worker in the country’s North and East. His father was from Jaffna, his mother from the South.
The work affected him deeply. I recall him returning home from work with tears in his eyes as he told me what he had witnessed and heard in his work. He was often overwhelmed yet remained committed to working with people affected by the war.
I was overwhelmed simply by listening to these stories.
So in September I was finally able to visit the North, as part of a field visit with UnitingWorld’s Sri Lankan partners, the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka (MCSL).
“The A9 is very good these days … you will enjoy it,” an old friend from Colombo told me. The A9 is the main road to the North, a highway badly damaged by the fighting.
Now the A9 is rebuilt and, symbolically at least, has enabled the opening of the North to the more prosperous South.
MCSL and partner DeafLink, with UnitingWorld’s help, work with people in Killinochi and surrounding villages to improve education for children with disabilities. This involves lobbying school authorities to acknowledge the importance of including children with disabilities in mainstream education and providing specialist training for staff.
This is being done in a society still recovering from the multiple traumas of war.
MCSL works with people disabled by the war to develop new skills and opportunities to improve their lives through work. So far, MCSL has trained and supported people to establish mobile phone repair shops – a business with significant markets in a part of the country with poor landline communication infrastructure. There is another group of people with disabilities who are now making candles and incense for sale in the local area and hopefully, in the near future, beyond.
After we left the communities in the North we travelled a few hours south to Anuradhapura, a city I’d visited many times in the past to go to the ancient temples, especially during Poson Poya.
It was here in Anuradhapura, that we were to attend a meeting of the local district inter-religious council. The concept and resultant project aim to unite the country’s diverse religious and ethnic groups at local and national levels through working together on issues that affect all communities. It is important and risky work.
Sri Lanka is currently suffering an increase in sectarianism and religious intolerance.
The Anuradhapura District inter-religious council meeting was held in the local Methodist Church. About 20 people had already gathered on the pews. As I entered the church I was greeted by the local minister, who welcomed me to sit at the front. I was struck by seeing three Buddhist monks, fanning themselves, seated at the front and talking with others. This image filled me with joy. Near them were seated a Hindu priest, an Anglican priest and a couple more Methodists.
The meeting started and by the end I had more awareness of some of the issues confronting communities in and around Anuradhapura, which is suffering from drought. There are similar councils in another nine districts. The councils have big ambitions yet the mere coming together from diverse backgrounds is an ongoing achievement and resists current predominant discourses of religious suspicion and intolerance.
I will continue to visit Sri Lanka for personal and professional reasons. My PhD thesis topic is located in Sri Lanka, I have long-standing relationships with many Sri Lankans from various religious and ethnic communities. To now work for UnitingWorld and partner MCSL in such important work in post-conflict Sri Lanka is both a great responsibility and great privilege.
Matt Tyne is UnitingWorld’s associate director of Relief and Development.