2009 was a very important year for  Sri Lanka. A war which ravaged the country ended. There were celebrations in many parts of the island, but in one home in Thalawathugoda, there were also a lot of other emotions. On seeing the plight of the people in the north of Sri Lanka affected by the [...]


Seeds of unity growing from strength to strength

Unity Mission Trust, that began as a couple’s effort to help youth affected by the war, celebrates 10 years

2009 was a very important year for  Sri Lanka. A war which ravaged the country ended. There were celebrations in many parts of the island, but in one home in Thalawathugoda, there were also a lot of other emotions. On seeing the plight of the people in the north of Sri Lanka affected by the theatre of war, Shyamala and Bertal Pinto Jayawardena felt moved to do something for them.

The first steps: Donating school shoes to children at a school in Kayts in 2009

The couple collected money and donated aid, organised medical camps and looked into how they, as Sri Lankan citizens, could help their brothers and sisters in the north. Particularly sad about the plight of youth whose energy and vitality was stolen by a war they had no choice but to live through, Bertal felt the need to show them a world beyond the war while also planting in them the seeds of unity and integration.

These ideas resulted in the birth of Unity Mission Trust (UMT) which today, celebrating its 10th anniversary, has touched the lives of some 10,000 youth across the country, working towards fostering unity and ties of friendship. UMT, a not-for- profit legally established Trust is now guided by a Board of Trustees who work closely with Bertal and Shyamala, the founder Trustees.  Former Army chief of staff Gen. Lohan Goonewardena is Chairman of the Trust and other trustees are from different professions and disciplines all contributing their expertise-Chandra Schaffter, Rukshan Perera, Nirmali Wickremasinghe, Ramola Sivasunderam, N. Vasantha Kumar, Reyaz Mihular, Kushan D’ Alwis, PC, Anushya Coomaraswamy, Dushyanthi Thuseetharan, Jeyakumar Thangavelu, Sanath Weeratunge, Prof. Rohan Guneratne, Dian Gomes and Dr. Wimal Karandagoda.

Staying the course: UMT co-founders Bertal and Shyamala Pinto Jayawardena. Pic by Priyantha Wickramaarachchi

Initially starting off with regular Unity camps held in different parts of the island, the UMT now has a strong network of 17 regional councils working on separate peace building projects carefully monitored by Bertal. Other initiatives like Power One Hundred (where 100 students who have just left school are taught leadership skills to help make the transition from school life into adult life easier), a national conference where discussions on the progression of Unity Mission Trust and practical and theoretical issues within the organisation are discussed and resolved have also been very successful.

Bertal is also interested in giving youth coping skills not just to recover from the trauma they have faced living in war time, but also to face an increasingly complex and globalised world. Issues such as addiction to alcohol, drugs and pornography to sexual and cyber exploitation of women are dealt with during UMT programmes. Self-reliance is taught not only through motivational speeches about how to face challenges in life but also by empowering youth to conduct programmes by themselves. The development of the UMT regional councils, run by the youth for the youth, has been a testament to this.

Breaking barriers and forging friendships: Young people in a group activity at a UMT camp.

Has it been an easy road? Bertal and Shyamala say no, it definitely has not. Convincing schools to send their children for the camps, the mistrust and suspicion with which their efforts have been viewed at times to the enormity of organising a camp which brings hundreds of students to one location for four days, for instance have been very challenging. They are very grateful to the Army, Police and the Education Ministry for the continued support they have received, Bertal said noting with satisfaction a comment by an Education Ministry official from the North who said that UMT had gained a name as a positive organisation which helps students.

Both Bertal and Shyamala have stayed committed to the cause despite demanding careers: Bertal, as Chairman of Spectrum Trainers and Corporate Consultants (Pvt) Ltd. and Shyamala, as principal of the Shyamala School of Art, initially collecting school supplies to send to the children at Menik Farm, later using art as a way to heal from trauma. Through it all, it is persistence that has kept them going – Bertal says that he does not see the point in looking at the mountain and despairing; he would rather just keep climbing, step by step, planting the seeds for a harvest of peace that future generations of Sri Lankans will sow.

“We are not looking at now – we are looking at what can be seen 25 to 30 years from now. We may be no more then or so old that we would using walking sticks but we hope to have planted a seed that grows into a large tree which bears a lot of fruit.”

The Unity Mission Trust is always looking for corporates and caring citizens who care to join hands with them – by dedicating their time or resources. Their contact details are as follows

Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/UnityMissionTrust/

Contact number – 0766043913

This year’s project
This year’s social work projects involve the regional councils reaching out to a small, financially challenged community within their region to help by empowering them with resources and skills to improve their living standards. The regional council will attempt to help them continuously for at least a few years.
The second phase of the project will involve a regional council from the opposite end of the island visiting the community and joining the effort.


From unforgettable experience to regional leaders
Young people who came to UMT camps not knowing what to expect have gone on to be strong advocates of their work:

Sinthulan Pathmanathan from Vavuniya joined UMT in 2011 because he wanted to have a fun time at a camp, but also wanted to see what the other races were really like. “We were told that the majority people were not good etc and I wanted to see if that was true.” An army officer explained the purpose of UMT to Sinthulan – an experience he notes as the first time he interacted with an army officer in a ‘cool way’.

At the camp he was amazed to see that no-one treated him differently and he has since made many friends and developed his English and Sinhala skills. He wants to help change the pre-conceived notions people have about others. “There are no barriers here – if you really want a united Sri Lanka, please join with us because we have a good structure to develop our country,” he says. Sinthulan is now a Co-ordinator for Northern Sri Lanka and National Leader, Unity Mission Trust.

Nizhad Mohammed from Gurutalawa joined UMT in 2012 from Camp 5 in Kandy. He was moved by the strong bonds he formed at the camp. “All of a sudden, I felt tearful when we were leaving because I felt sad to say goodbye to these people I got to know over four days and I didn’t feel that way about some people I had known for years. That’s when I realized that UMT is something special,” he says.

Co-ordinator for Western and Central Sri Lanka and National Leader, Unity Mission Trust he says firmly that their only language is unity.

Ashan Palihawadana is Co-ordinator for Southern Sri Lanka and National Leader, and joined UMT for Camp 6 in Kilinochchi. He was sent from his school (St. Thomas College, Matara) because he was a prefect and didn’t have a great understanding of what the camp was about. Since that camp he has since been working for UMT, focusing on developing their work in the south of Sri Lanka. “We have become stronger and more independent and our leadership skills have developed through UMT,” he says.


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