We hit the ground running as soon as we arrived, bleary-eyed, in Sri Lanka after days of travel. Participants in Vandu Paaru — an immersion program whose name translates as “come and see” — our group of three included Saint Mary’s Sociology Professor Cynthia Ganote, Instructional Technology Manager Carmel Crane and me.
We spent our first five days in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo seeing the Christian Brothers’ mission in action — from nursery schools, elementary and high schools to vocational training for the poorest Sri Lankans — and getting a sense of the country’s culture after the 28 years of civil war that had ended just two years before. The Sri Lankan Brothers, whether newly minted or long-committed, had a unique energy rooted in the positive impact they make every day in the lives of children who need them. Damian, one of the Brothers in Colombo, reminded me of our own Brother Camillus Chavez — cool, wise and insightful. (He regaled us with tales of his years living in a tree house in the Sri Lankan jungle with wild animals as pets.)
Our main assignment was to teach English in Mannar – a small, predominantly Tamil district in the north of the country. Long-standing political rancor between the minority Tamils, who speak Tamil, and majority Sinhalese, who speak Sinhala, was at the center of the long civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009. The Sri Lankan constitution now identifies both Sinhala and Tamil as the nation’s official languages, with English as the link language. Government business and university education are both carried out in Sinhala or English, which severely limits the lives of the Tamil people unless they learn English.
Contrary to reports I’d heard in the United States, there were no good guys in the war that ravaged Sri Lanka. Crimes were committed by both the Sri Lanka Armed Forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, particularly during the final months of the conflict in 2009. Both sides attacked civilians and civilian buildings; there were shortages of food, medicine and clean water for civilians trapped in the war zone; and children were recruited by the Tamil Tigers.
Our eight-hour trek by van to Mannar took us to St. Xavier’s Boys’ College, serving grades one through 13. My typical day included four very different groups of students: mornings were spent with the LaSalle Kids’ Campus nursery school, where I taught a group of 2- to 4-year-olds and another group of 5-year-olds, followed by an instructional session with their teachers. Then lunch time to prepare for my afternoon class with the boys at the LaSalle Children’s Home. The boys there — all war orphans who had lost one or both of their parents — were the silliest, most wonderful group of boys I have ever encountered. Despite their struggles, they were awe-inspiring, radiant and beautiful, exuding a sweetness that is, no doubt, both cultural and influenced by the Brothers.
Even though the war ended two years ago, the effects are still very present for Brother Santhiyagu and the boys he serves as the deputy principal of St. Xavier’s Boys’ College, as head of the hostel where the 100 boarding students reside, and as director of the Brothers’ community in Mannar.
“The boys and many people have walked over the dead bodies. [Sri Lanka Armed Forces] have destroyed their properties, everything. We have lost everything,” he said.
Brother Santhi’s village, where his family still lives, was in the line of fire in the conflict. “My family is on the front line of the battlefield of the LTTE and the army — my village is in between battlefronts. So my village is completely destroyed. We have lost our house. They have bombed our church. They destroyed the schools. The children are learning under the tree, no classrooms. My own family is staying in a temporary shelter. From zero level they have to start their life. They are farmers. They don’t get a salary. They are just ordinary people. So they have to start from the beginning.”
Brother Santhi and his family have been waiting for government support to rebuild their village since the end of the war, but that support has still not come. “The government is promising, OK, we will give you a house, for the Tamils. But in practice, it’s nothing,” he said.
Brother Joachim Stanislaus, now deputy director of education for the Mannar District, had served during the war as the principal of St. Xavier’s Boys’ College. The willful and determined Brother Stani, as he is affectionately known, stood up to the LTTE during the conflict. When they asked for a percentage of the small tuition each child pays to attend the school, he told them, “I’m very sorry. I cannot pay you even a cent.” When two of his students were conscripted as soldiers, he rode a motorbike to the LTTE’s center of operations, where he camped out for three days and agitated the Tamil Tigers until they released the boys.
Perhaps the most visible and lasting effect Brother Stani had on St. Xavier’s Boys’ College was instituting morning meditation as a way to calm the boys and ready them for learning.
“Before, they were a little more boisterous. [After starting the meditation program] they could handle things for themselves. That’s another important aspect of this meditation. The child is the leader of himself. Power is not money or a gun or ammunition. Let the child know there is a power inside him. Let the child come to know there’s a purpose. And this purpose cannot be viewed from outside.”
After the war ended, Brother Yohan Soysa wanted to do something to ease the pain his region had suffered. He visited welfare centers to help the thousands interned there. He collected and delivered rice donated by local families to offset food shortages. And he brought into his care a group of older boys he’d been told were orphans. He didn’t know that they also had been child soldiers.
“They were given training, arms training, and some were involved. Because of that, the government didn’t allow them to go out of the camp,” he explained.
In all, 25 former child soldiers have been living with Brother Yohan since the end of the war. They have attended school, gotten necessary documentation and, in some case, vocational training and licenses.
In January 2011, Brother Yohan found a way, through the support of a nongovernmental organization in the UK, to take in another group of 25 boys in what is now called the Lasalle Children’s Home. In their struggle to survive, it is striking how Brother Yohan and these boys have made a family.
“We found them. They had no father or no mother, and they lost everything. And that is where we started. Let us do something for these children.”
Each child had a sad story to tell. “They had even lived for days and days without food,” Brother Yohan said. One boy lost his arm and a leg when shelling from enemy forces struck him and his family while they stood in line for food. “His father got killed, mother was injured, brother was injured, and he was found in a pool of blood. He was lucky enough to survive. They had to amputate the leg and the arm.”
When asked how he found the courage and strength to take these boys in, Brother Yohan quickly dismissed the credit. “I am still proud to say it’s not me. It is God who has used me to do something good. I see a lot of changes in them."