Lessons taught and lessons learnt

First Colombo school effort to hold classes in displaced village
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Seated on the uneven but mat-spread ground, the faces are upturned with enthusiasm. The heat is scorching, with a dry wind swirling up the sand, but within four cadjan-thatched huts, no one fidgets, no one whispers. In the pin-drop silence, they listen and pore over the papers, bending uncomfortably to write furiously.

Intense concentration………lessons in a “displaced village” in a jungle-setting in remote Ullukulam, 10 km interior off the Mannar Road--lessons, however, of a different kind not only for the children but also for the teachers.
Displaced but thirsty for knowledge

For the band of teachers, 11 in all, including three nuns and one master who had taught children in Colombo amidst the best of facilities it would be an experience of a lifetime. Memories that would remain seared in their minds, the most poignant being the plea: “We don’t want food, just teach us.” A plea echoed and re-echoed by the hundreds of children there.

The revision seminar from August 24 to 28 was held in Dharmapuram, a displaced village set up by the army in a freshly-cleared but well-planned area in Mahakongaskade, explains the Principal of Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya, Sr. Chandani Jayasuriya who led the group of teachers to take up this challenge.

Dharmapuram along with Veerapuram and Sumathipuram has been established to ease congestion in the zonal camps in Chettikulam, the Sunday Times understands. The three villages are home to 4,750 families including 4,818 children, of whom 390 will be sitting the O/L examination this December while 42 are preparing for the A/L next year.

“The 189 teachers and 97 volunteer teachers in the villages are doing good work and we went to support and strengthen what they had taught,” explained Sr. Chandani.

How did it all begin?

It was at the height of the military campaign to rid the Wanni of terrorism and the hapless civilian victims who had been caught in the vice-like grip of the Tigers, were flooding Vavuniya. Hearing the needs of the displaced men, women and children, Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya joined the numerous people in the south of the country who were frantically collecting stuff to be sent to them.

“Our children and teachers collected daily needs such as toothpaste, tooth brushes and soap in March-April and sent this stock to Vavuniya through SEDEC, Caritas, Seth Sarana and Dr. Palitha Mahipala, the Deputy Director-General of Public Health,” says Sr. Chandani, explaining that the next stock comprised food and clothes and women’s requirements.

The second time round, rather than sending the items, especially the essentials for women and infants, they decided it would be better to visit the camps. May 1 saw the HFC nuns at Menik Farm at Chettikulam.

Then on July 26, on the request of the Good Shepherd nuns who are working in Dharmapuram, the HFC nuns along with a group of Grade 12 students paid a visit taking with them stationery, supplementary books for various O/L subjects and other stuff worth over Rs. 100,000 and also mats.

When at Dharmapuram, realizing that the students there did not have desks and chairs, the school once again chipped in and sent a lorry load of furniture. “We were being asked exorbitant rates to transport the furniture and were wondering what to do when Harsha Fernando volunteered to take them free of charge,” said Sr. Chandani.
Collections being sorted out at HFC

It was then that they also felt the acute need of the O/L students in Dharmapuram with requests from the children themselves. “They were thirsting for knowledge and support,” she says.

Back at Bambalapitiya, the idea of a revision seminar being embraced with enthusiasm not only by Tamil stream teachers but also by the others and the students, the project slowly took shape. Study notes, model papers, past papers and other material were meticulously prepared with the floor beneath the HFC office being turned to a hive of activity. “Can you imagine how time-consuming it is to put sets of papers together and staple them,” she smiles.

Come August 24, while sending 14 gunnies and two boxes of stationery along with several white boards through a transport service, the nuns and teachers of HFC, foregoing five days of their August vacation climbed into a van along with seven more gunny-bags of stuff. The others on the team were Sr. Dominica Swamipillai, Sr. Theodora Hettiarachchi, Ms. Maureen Selvamohan, Ms. Dharaka Babu, Ms. Vahini Sritharan, Ms. Joyce Christy, Ms. Agnes Anthony and Mr. A. Kunasingham.

Living in Neriyakulam with only basic necessities -- squatting toilets, no proper showers and thalagoyas crawling on the wall just below the roof while they were sleeping – they would go to Dharmapuram and be there the whole day, stopping only for a quick lunch and continuing until evening, with the only other interruption being the stops to take a sip of water in the unbearable heat.

Knowing that it would be difficult for the children to go back to their homes for lunch, food was part of the programme with breakfast, lunch and tea-time eats being provided. “The whole programme cost us about Rs. 500,000,” explains Sr. Chandani, who remarks that she started with nothing in her hand, only faith in God and belief in Providence.

The first to get into action to collect funds was Sr. Canice Fernando, a former Principal of HFC herself, who mobilized her friends. The HFC teachers and students joined in holding food fiestas and handicraft sales and also keeping humble tills in classes for coins to be dropped in. Nestles provided 250 Milo cartons and parents walked into the HFC office to contribute their mite.

For Sr. Chandani it was like the miracle described in the Bible how with just five loaves and two fishes, Jesus Christ fed the multitude. The funding just swelled, she says with wonder.

And that was how the classes began, with a target group of 250 children, divided into six classes. But the army officers manning the area felt the need was greater and suggested they include children from the other two villages of Veerapuram and Sumathipuram as well….and the numbers rose.
First it was 420, then 450 and finally 491.

At Dharmapuram, Sr. Chandani picks out the support given by Colonel Sarath Perera, Colonel Kumaranayake and Major Jayasena and, of course, the “channel” Sr. Remoshini and Sr. Chrishani through whom this education project became a reality.

The children were disciplined and committed and many were the tiny gestures on their part to show their appreciation – the moment a teacher sat, a boy or girl would come running up with a file to fan them and even before they could sit for lunch they would rush to get them some water.

There was laughter too, with the sole male in the team, the math master, being dubbed the “superstar”, for the moment the lessons ended at 5.30 p.m., the children would trail behind him seeking answers for problematic questions.

Calling it the “most fruitful week in our teaching careers”, Sr. Chandani simply says that this was a practical and tangible way for “us from the south to show that we care for them and that they are one of us”.

Mission accomplished, as they laid their hands on the children’s head, wished them luck for the exam and bade them farewell, the tears had flowed, the girls unabashedly weeping but many a boy trying hard to keep their lips from trembling.

The many acts of kindness

Many are the acts of kindness, unheard and unsung, that had moved Sr. Chandani during her visits to the camps.

It was noon one day at the time there was a flood of displaced people during the last-ditch battles and the soldiers had just been given their packets of lunch. Some bedraggled small boys in the camp had come running towards them and as Sr. Chandani watched, unseen, the soldiers had unhesitatingly handed over their food to the little ones and moved away.

Many are also toiling in the area to make a difference in the lives of the displaced people. In Zone 1, Mannar SEDEC had provided meals to 15,000 people under the guidance of Fr. Murali and Fr. Peppy, after getting volunteers to cook at the Chettikulam church, says Sr. Chandani while many groups of nuns, from several religious orders of the Catholic Church, are even now going to Vavuniya on a roster basis.

“Staying in rented homes in Chettikulam, they are tending to people not only in the camps but also in the hospital in different ways – setting up nurseries, sewing classes and helping patients including feeding those who have lost their limbs, she explains.

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