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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Getting the young ones involved in fostering peace

We have just got started, says founder of Sri Lanka Unites, Prashan De Visser who was recently awarded the Commonwealth Point of Light in recognition of his work

How can I help? – The catchphrase made famous by customer service assistants has been put into practice by Prashan De Visser for most of his life. Prashan is the founder of Sri Lanka Unites (SLU), a youth movement which has in the past 11 years grown to around 20,000 young people from different ethnicities and religious backgrounds from 25 districts, all working to foster peace and reconciliation in the country.
Prashan De Visser

On Monday, August 13, Prashan was recognized by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, the head of the Commonwealth, as a Commonwealth Point of Light. This prestigious award honours inspirational volunteers across the 53 Commonwealth nations for the differences they made to their communities and beyond. Prashan is Sri Lanka’s 2nd Commonwealth Point of Light and the 65th globally to receive the award.At present SLU has six reconciliation centres in Monaragala, Nuwara Eliya, Kalmunai, Mullaitivu, Puttalam and Matara for young leaders to engage each other and have discussions on promoting peace. The organization also helps youth find employment and higher education opportunities bringing growth and prosperity to their communities.
Humbled and honoured to receive the award Prashan chuckles, “I was the one who took the picture when Kushil Gunasekera received the first Point of Light award.”
But he adds, “ none of us in the movement are doing our line of work to get recognized.”
Hailing from Gampaha, Prashan is a past pupil of Wesley College and credits his family and school for fuelling the flames of his passionate work. “My parents from a very young age always opened our home to anybody,” he shares. When he was young, his parents opened an orphanage so he had “many brothers and sisters” growing up. “They always made sure I didn’t ever look down on a person based on ethnicity, religion, financial status, their ability to speak English or not,” he says.
Receiving a scholarship to pursue his Bachelor of Arts in international affairs at Gordon College, Boston, Prashan was able to study urban communities and the indicators of what creates cycles of poverty and violence.
“When you go to a foreign university you sometimes feel like the outsider,” he states. Proactive by nature, Prashan counteracted the loneliness by thinking of those who suffered more than him. “How can I help them out?”he repeatedly states throughout our conversation.
Bridging barriers wasn’t easy. Not being invited to others’ homes, he invited friends into his dorm through his newly acquired skill of – cooking! “I hadn’t cooked a day in my life in Sri Lanka,” he chuckles “but I started by skyping my mother and watching her.” People got to know him better over a meal and during his four year stint at college “I felt like I had cooked for 500 people,” he laughs.
But Prashan has also been on the other side of discrimination. After the death of his friend’s father in the World Trade Centre bombing in ’97 he honestly proclaims “I remember feeling so frustrated.” Sixteen years old at the time, he recalls going through radical assumptions that everyone in the North was a terrorist.
However his new neighbour, a boy from Vavuniya changed his perspective. “He was a year older than I and was interested in joining the LTTE so his parents sent him to school in Colombo.” “I was very hostile to him as he was to me,” he states laughing“but we still played cricket together. I changed my thinking to, ‘everyone else is bad but this one is ok’.” Joining his new friend on a leadership training mission in the North, Prashan recalls seeing children as young as 13 being recruited in the war – some willingly, some forced.
His emotional experience coupled with the research he did for his final year bachelor’s thesis ‘reconciliation in a world of conflict’ made Prashan “really think”. Coming back to the country in 2008 he organized groups from the North and South to say 10 things about each other. “Nine out of the 10 were always negative although they had never met. At that time we found that 70% of Sri Lankan youth didn’t have a friend outside their ethnicity or religion but they had many opinions about them.”
Prashan comments that roughly 96% of students today study in their own medium of language making them unable to speak with a person from another ethnicity.
SLU emerged as a means to start a conversation. Conferences took place in Jaffna, Galle, Kalmunai, Kurunegala etc. Advertised as the Future Leaders Conference where the best and brightest in Sri Lanka come together, Prashan happily recalls the positive response to the programme.
SLU was able to strategically divide the young participants by ethnicity, race and religion engaging them in sports, discussion etc. By cheering for the same team and sharing grievances the young learnt quickly that “everyone suffered in the war” Prashan comments.
Back home, SLU picked a leader to represent their school urging others to join his/her club and partnering them with another school from a different ethnicity. The students stayed in touch, visiting each other and even staying at each other’s homes some even going on to change their parents prejudices.
But why young people? To this Prashan responds, “It’s very difficult to teach someone who has lived and breathed something for 20 to 30 years. Young people learn and absorb change better. They have built their opinions based on inherited opinions so you can give them a positive experience,” he feels. “If you want reconciliation and peace in Sri Lanka you need a generation to work at it.”
Women leaders were a big emphasis for Prashan. “Women need to be part of the negotiating table,” he states adding that they add more advantages to peace building.
Prashan has four indicators for success. Firstly breaking the cycle of violence which has dogged this country for over 30 years, resulting in a needless loss of life.
The second is creating a better understanding among communities. “At the moment we can’t even imagine a president, prime minister or parliamentarian getting voted by people predominantly outside their ethnicity or religion,” he states, “people will vote for their crook but we want people voting for the good.”
“I want my son to grow up in a country he can be proud of” Prashan smiles counting a success if conflict could be spoken about in the past tense. And lastly Prashan hopes that every Sri Lankan one day sees themselves as a “first class citizen regardless of their differences.”
With SLU “we’re building a proactive, independently thinking, engaging generation,” he shares. “Violence has been seen as a sign of manhood, as a sign or protection,” he explains adding that SLU projects “that violence is a lack of intelligence, a lack of capacity to think independently and a lack of maturity.” Steps taken towards reconciliation will also further benefit Sri Lanka to be seen as a country good for foreign investments.
SLU has been expanded to become Global Unites, including several countries from all around the world aimed at building peace and reconciliation among nations. The movement will also be hosting an investor ‘shark tank’ of sorts in Sri Lanka in the coming months where students from all over the country will be able to present their business proposals to investors who will help finance and mentor them.
Citing the case of a girl who has opened her own bicycle repair shop in Monaragala as one of the many bi-products of SLU, he says, “We make them employable and give them opportunities to let them know that they are supported.”
“We’ve done maybe 5% of what we’re supposed to do,” he shares hoping that his story will encourage others to help their community. “Community service isn’t about taking a selfie and posting it on social media saying ‘oh look at me I’m a nice person’, community service has to be strategic and have a long term effect. You don’t need to know my name. You don’t need to know who I am. But you need to know what we can do for this country.”
What continues to motivate his work? “The job’s not done,” he affirms, smiling “we’re just getting started.”
For more information check www.srilankaunites.org and www.globalunites.org

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Learnings for SLU from WUSC Sri Lanka_Women Friendly Cities Challenge





On the 17th of July, Sri Lanka Unites took part in a workshop hosted by the National Chamber of Commerce and WUSC Sri Lanka
This was a great learning for the two female participants who represented SLU at the event.

Key messages
The discussions at the event were centered around women employment and engaged in industrial occupations.

The key message of the panel was encouraging women participation in sectors such as local government, hospitality, engineering, and other industries that may significantly low numbers of women employees, based on their observations. The panel also shared that industries such as education and health women show relatively better rates of participation unlike their contribution to sectors the political sectors, noting that Sri Lanka is ranked at 109 out of 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap, compiled by the World Economic Forum in 2017.

While introducing the status of women engagement in employment, the forum discussed the principles of women friendly cities. A woman friendly city should ideally consist of elements such as
·         safe transport for women,
·         education,
·         health care,
·         high quality and comprehensive urban services.

Women must also have access mechanisms to guarantee the fulfillment of their right, if  subjected to violence. A key recommendation in terms of increasing new channels of political engagement on the issue is to encourage local governments woman’s issues and perspectives into account when planning and decision making.

Learning for Sri Lanka Unites

The session was an interesting learning point for Sri Lanka Unites. We currently conduct Diploma courses for upto 500 youth per year, at 5 educational hubs in 5 provinces. The diploma courses are provided free-of-charge to young people who cannot afford expenses of any other means of education after their alevels. The courses are in English Language , ICT and Entrepreneurship. The centers are named “Sri Lanka Unites Reconciliation Centers”, which provide peace-building education while students study their courses, producing well rounded, productive citizens who advocate for peace and harmony in their communities while contributing to uplift its economy.

Since introducing the courses in 2012 in Mullaitivu, followed by hubs in Matara, Kalmunai, Moneragala and Nuwara-eliya, many students have secured white-collar jobs or started their own businesses. Sri Lanka Unites is keen to use the learnings from this session to encourage our female students at each center to enter the sectors which lack women participation. We strive to introduce mentorship on these particular sectors to our students as part of their training, so they would pick-up additional skills and be ready to contribute to specific sectors of the workforce when they graduate from the SLU Reconciliation Centers.




Students attending lectures on 
English Language, ICT and 
Entrepreneurship studies (above)
and sitting for exams at the
end of 6 months (left) to
obtain a diploma certificate 
(below).








Tuesday, July 3, 2018

"Counter-radicalization; conversations that work- observations by Sri Lanka Unites"


     SLU at the “International Conference on Trends in Youth Radicalization in South Asia” 

In June this year, Sri Lanka Unites was honored to be given an opportunity to share lessons learnt from our work with youth peace building at the
“ International Conference on Trends in Youth Radicalization in South Asia”  organized by the Regional Center for Strategic Studies (RCSS) and Global partnership for the prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC). We thank RCSS, GPPAC and especially UNOY (United Network for Young Peace-builders) for giving us a platform to share our learnings.




Since the conference was on tends in youth radicalization, the following points were presented by Neluni Tillekeratne, Co-National Director of Sri Lanka Unites at this event as comments to support the conversation. The points which were raised on behalf of SLU at the event are elaborated in this blogpost.

 

Upon understanding reasons for youth radicalization, SLU tried and tested three catalysts for reconciliation.

The transformative process of a racist student is one which we have been studying for a while now, and we have invested a lot of time understanding what it really takes for a young person to reconcile along ethnic and religious lines. In Sri Lanka where the war ravaged across the country for three decades, it is not surprising that Reconciliation does not happen overnight. Based on our experience, there are numerous factors that we must be cautious about when designing modules on peace building for young people.

The following are three factors that facilitate counter-radicalization. Young people are less prone to be radicalized when the following three factors are experienced and understood 


1.      Closure through forgiving and being forgiven
It is extremely important for SLU to share this belief of ours with everyone because we do believe that forgiveness should be mainstreamed as a crucial pillar of youth reconciliation. SLU has been practicing this approach since 2007 and it is by far one of the most powerful turning points in a young person’s journey towards healing and reconciliation. In our experience, we see that forgiving another community for what they have done to your community, while simultaneously asking forgiveness for what your community has done to theirs in the past gives young people new hope and a blank slate to start with. Its easier said that done, requiring hours of very deep, reflective, emotional conversations, but it is possible.  SLU facilitates these conversations at events throughout the year.

In the context of Sinhalese and Tamil youth, after the war, we observed observed that the act of forgiveness becomes some sort of a “truce”, that the older generation failed to come to. However, the inclusion of forgiveness in as an approach to reconciliation does not by any means undervalue or ignore the need for conversations on justice, unanswered questions or addressing on-going grievances. Forgiveness is observed as a means of merging two groups of young people into agreement, giving them a platform off which they could launch to take up each others causes and do what they can to correct the faults and mistakes of the previous generation.

2.      The next most important factor is for young people is to understand the manner in which identity politics fuels conflict
We have observed that a vast majority of young people urgently need to learn how to read politics better and to understand for themselves, of the spill over of politics into religious and ethnic conflict.  We explain to young people how many atrocities and injustices in the past are rooted in the power struggles of politicians and not in the genuine hate of one community towards, another. This is also where we bring in an element if inter-generational dialogue where the older community explains the history of our conflict, by analyzing the role of politicians in brewing it. When young people come to understand the role of political influence in politics, it allows them to breakdown stereo types and prejudices that they hold against an entire group of people just because they mistrust politicians who represent this group.
(Original cartoonist unknown)

3.      The third factor is when they envision a future together and see the possibilities of shared economic prosperity

Reconciliation among youth is extremely different to how older people reconcile, based on our observations in Sri Lanka. We believe, the older generations looks at memorialization and the need for justice as a core-requirement for reconciliation while youth, especially the vast majority in rural areas, seek the assurance of security as they move into the future They question if their counter parts of the same age, of other ethnic/religious groups, could ensure and promise to never allow Sri Lanka to go back into a dark era of conflict We do believe that young people want to trust other young people, and this trust is where hope stems from. 

Racist young people of all religious and ethnic groups share their believes with us. Racist students fear that they are in competition with other racial/religious groups for economic success. They find reason to block the economic prosperity of others given their own insecurities for the future. The rising cost of living in Sri Lanka fuels young people, who in many instances are bread winners for their families, to find someone to blame. Politicians allow the blame to be transferred to other groups instead of to the government.  

When SLU was faced with this question, we tested out envisioning activities. After many years, we confirm that when young people envision a future where all proper and thrive, they are far less prone to radicalization. Once we show them the possibilities of a future with shared prosperity and encourage different groups to prosper by working together instead of against each other, their hope is renewed.





Written by
Neluni Tillekeratne
Co-National Director
June 2018

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

SLU's take on a Youth & Peace Policy - shared at NYS 2018


 SLU at NYS2018

On the 21st of April 2018. Sri Lanka Unites was happy to be part of a panel discussion during the 2nd National Youth Summit organized by Sri Lanka Development Journalists Forum. The theme of the forum was to be a Dialogue for Peace and Sustainable Development.



Supporting the dialogue on a policy for youth and peacebuilding

SLU believes that this discussion and forum is  timely initiative for a platform of this nature to be set up and we are also excited about the possibility of the push for a youth and peace-building policy. SLU believes youth and peace building does deserve attention through a policy We are convinced that the investment is worth it, for national security, for economic development, environmental sustainability and many other factors. Sri Lanka sees a cycle of violence every 18 years, where young people are radicalized, blood is shed, and just as we feel feel we have taken one step forward, we take 10 steps back. 

We need young people to pledge that mistakes of the past, where violent conflict was resorted to as an approach to solving communal issues, won’t be repeated again, as we all work towards shared prosperity. In our experience, youth who are trained to see life through a peacebuilding lens, automatically start seeing injustices in the economic system /political system/ social structures in day to day life. 

Since there are many groups addressing the topic now with a favorable political climate, we believe this policy really is an important investment of time and effort.
Sri Lanka Unites is an Implementing organization and we have worked under the radar for a long time because of political uncertainty. We feel a policy would ensure that neither SLU or any other peacebuilding community would have to function under the radar again, so we do endorse and support this idea. 

The following points were recommendations shared by SLU at the panel discussion. We hope these recommendations would be utilized when drafting the details of the policy. The recommendations stem from 11 years of challenges faced by SLU in the youth and peace-building space. We hope the challenges we have faced with our work would also be used to justify the need for a policy on youth and peace building.

Three challenges faced by SLU which should be addressed through the policy

1.   The first key challenge is understanding exactly what it takes for a young person to reconcile and acknowledging that peace-building requires consistent, tough conversations

We believe that that reconciliation does not happen overnight. Each year we host a 5 day long residential conference, and we know for a fact that this is only the beginning of a young persons journey into reconciliation. We have observed that it takes a very long time for someone to truly and fully be accepting of another ethnic group, given the reality of our past and present . We also however genuinely believe that it is possible for a young person to reconcile despite the time it takes. 

In the process of transforming a young person, we are challenged to always be mindful of the  complexities of human emotions. We were challenged to understand how young people questions the ethnic and religious conflict over time

As they grow older, new questions keep coming up, making young people reconsider their stance on reconciliation. For 11 years, SLU has been studying the transformational process of young people and what we feel is there is a need to have young people engaged in tough, open conversations, systematically throughout their years as young adults, where they solidify how they view the world and other ethnic groups.

If we are to see young people truly transform we challenge ourselves to strategically plan out how we engage our students, without letting them go after just one program. So they continuously engage with us in deeper conversations as they get older. SLU has tested this out and designed programs that engage young people consistently for over a period of a year or two with guide-books, school relation tours and social action projects. 
So in terms of the policy, we hope it will consider  looking at youth transformation strategically, starting from the time they are in school, preferably even though technically they aren’t  youth, right unto age 29 where they are constantly and systematically engaged with the topic. 

2.      The second challenge is that youth peace-building cannot not be achieved by just investing in youth.

SLU has engaged with over 300 schools and over 20 universities in the country, but we know that investing in just the young person is not enough. Teachers/principals/parents are all a part of it. Young people are energized at our conference's, but are demotivated from engaging with the conversation once they go back to their schools with principals and teachers who do not understand the value of reconciliation.  

SLU countered this barrier by setting up a vibrant SLU Teacher’s Department for teachers in-charge of SLU clubs at schools. The teachers act as middle men between the students and the principal, and also the parents. This investment was critical to ensure engagement with schools. We hope the policy would carefully address these barriers. We hope the policy could cover the need to invest in these stakeholders as well.


3.        The third challenge is the need for youth mentors
SLU has observed that once a young person accepts the message of peace building and chooses to reconcile, they are less prone to relapsing when they have a youth mentor, preferably a few years older than them, to look upto. Young people in Sri Lanka don’t have mentors to discus their grievances anywhere in the education system. Through SLU, students who engaged with us have access to trained mentors who were taught to stay in touch with students after conferences and just be their friend. We have seen incredible results. Ex when there is communal tension, the students first instinct is to ask the SLU mentor to explain why tensions take place. The mentors take time to explain to the student of how not to generalize an ethnic group or religious groups based on the actions of a few. This has been an effective buffer because their is constant reinforcement by someone they look unto. We hope the policy in discussion would consider addressing this challenge as well. 




Thursday, January 18, 2018

SLU FLC 9 - A Powerful Reflection from Akkaraipattu

The 9th Future Leaders Conference of Sri Lanka Unites was held in December 2017.   Youth Engagement in Governance, Breaking the cycle of violence, Transitional Justice and Reconciliation were the themes of this conference. 
Over the last 10 years of SLU, the greatest motivation for staff and volunteers of the organization to keep committing our efforts for the cause has been the powerful post-conference feedback. We would like to share an excerpt of a note sent to us from a participant, after the conference.

The following is a reflection from Fawaz Ameer from Akkaraipattu

Before this conference I have heard about SLU but not what they are about. So I had no idea what is going to happen at the Future Leaders’ Conference before I got there. I decided to join SLU after the workshop done by the Kalmunai Reconcilation Center of SLU.

I was very nervous when I got registered at the conference and entered my assigned room. Im bit shy to move around with new people, but I always wanted to be a good friend to everyone and wanted to meet new people.When I entered my room a Sinhala friend welcomed me and gave me some sweet snacks. I was little afraid to receive it because I had a mindset that Sinhala people look at us as enemies. He again told me to take it. So I took some.


After that I went to opening ceremony with my friends,we were divided into teams and I met my new team members.I stood alone behind the team members because I was very shy at that moment. Our team mentors were introduced to us and they taught us a simple cheer- we started to cheer for our new formed team. Still I was little shy to shout in front of strangers, so I kept quiet. After that we played the train game and the rope game so we all got introduced to each other. Only few of them remembered the names of all team mates. Me and some other guys couldn’t remember all the names.  

After that we went to have dinner and went to bed. 

The next day we had our breakfast and went for the morning session. Most of the participants didnt talk to each other but this change when we started playing games.We started to talk with each other. Cheered for them by shouting their names. We wished everyone even when they failed at a game. The best thing of that evening game session was, everyone tried beyond their abilities to get points for the team by winning our matches. I thought to myself “each and every team mate is supporting and believing in me, so I should get them some points. I should not disappoint them". When the mentors asked for our thoughts after the games everyone replied the same. 



We had a team challenge for *SLU TV* where we had to prepare a drama at the end of each day about what we learnt that day. It was like adrenaline to us for those 3 days. It brought the best out of us in a critical situation because we had only a small amount of time after our games to perform about what we learned throughout the day. This was a special experience for me. When we discussed about SLU TV on the first day, I was amazed seeing that people coming with different and amazing ideas. For the first time, we all discussed with each other about what we are going to perform. It made us more closer and that was the day I shared my thoughts and ideas with others. The unbelievable thing is, they appreciated my idea. For the first time in my life, my idea was appreciated by the people who I have never met before. Because sometimes if I get a new idea and tell it to my friends or parents, only few of them will support me and others will make fun of me.

No one ever tried to make my ideas and thoughts better by helping me and no one ever helped me to execute my ideas. But in *FLC* my team mates made my ideas better with the help of all the team members. They came front to execute each and everyone’s ideas and thought. That moment touched my heart. I decided at that moment, hereafter I should appreciate others thoughts in my life and support them. I should come up speak about my thought in the society and friends circle because someone will be there to join with me and give ideas to make my thoughts useful and successful.


Thanks to SLU for giving me a family beyond religion and language. We are not a team now but we are a family. *Pirate Family*


After the conference, I had a chat with my close family about Sri Lankan communities. He argued against other ethnic groups, about the *Re-emergence function* in the north, and the *Sinhala - Muslim clash* , *1983 clash* and much more. He had wrong opinion about these clashes. As a person who participated in the *FLC* I applied what I was taught in there. The thing I applied is *breaking the cycle of hate*. You know what?, it really worked. And I was so happy even I can build some peace and understanding in my family. If a single person can do this, what if we all get together?. So I have decided to work till the end with *SLU* to change my country.

I always wanted to say *IM a SRILANKAN * .



But I was little afraid to say these days because some people say Muslims are outsiders. They don’t belong here.  But I realized not everyone is like that. The family I got in this conference had Sinhala and Hindu friends. But not even one person hated because of our religion or our language. They just looked and took care of us like their own brothers and sisters. And we realized that youth is the only way to change our country. We had a discussion about these things in our rooms in conference days. A big thanks to *SLU*  for giving us this opportunity to move around with the people beyond religion and language and gave us a mindset that *Change is on its way*

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

My Journey with Sri Lanka Unites…



I’m Jeyaseelan Jenogitha from Mulliyawalai, Mullaitivu. I’m in the final year of my studies at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce. Upon completion, I had planned to get some experience and knowledge somewhere. But suddenly I got to know about the Sri Lanka Unites Reconciliation Center Mulliyawalai, Mullaitivu through my friends, so I thought joining this center would enhance my skills and experiences.

We were the first batch of students from the Reconciliation Center Mulliyawalai. My first involvement with SLU started in 2013 and it was a life changing experience for me. I’m very much thankful to HSBC for providing me the sponsorship to get a free education through SLU. I had already completed my Diploma in Professional English Programme-2013 and Diploma in Information Technology with E-Commerce by Esoft Metro Campus. At that stage these courses were very much helpful to improve my English Knowledge and IT skills. We have a lack of resources to get this knowledge in our region so I hope this knowledge will improve my career and my University studies as well.

During that time, some of us got the opportunity to participate in the Sri Lanka Unites’ Future Leaders Conference-5 that took place in Galle. This was the best opportunity of my life because it was the first opportunity that I had to work with people from different backgrounds in Sri Lanka. This helped me to have a better understanding of how people are in the real world apart from my imagination. My previous thoughts changed as a result of my experience at the FLC.
 I learned about reconciliation, leadership, and how to respect and to accept the values and traditions of different people in Sri Lanka which is important for a person from a diverse country. The leadership qualities that I learned from SLU are helping me in my day to day activities. I’m so thankful to SLU for providing me this opportunity. In addition to that, some of us got another chance to follow the Hairdressing and Beauty Therapy- Certificate level program in Colombo. This was a different experience to improve our Personality skills.

In the more than one and a half years of my journey with SLU, I have met so many different people with different characteristics, who are still role models in my life. Through them I have obtained a wealth of good advice, technical skills, communication skills, languages skills and so much more. These benefits have led me to make better decisions in my life and career and I believe that will continue. I even had the opportunity to work for SLU for 6 months as a kid’s program trainer. This was a very nice experience to have with them.

SLU gave me a platform to start my University Studies in Colombo, and now I feel very thankful to SLU because if I had not joined the Reconciliation Center, I would have lost many amazing opportunities and experiences. I hope in the future to contribute in various ways to the success of this Reconciliation Center in Mulliyawalai.

I want to thank the management of the SLU for establishing this Reconciliation Center in our region, because they provide opportunities for youth in our community to improve their English, IT and entrepreneurship skills.

I wanted to express my gratitude to the management of SLU and to all who have engaged with SLU. I’m proudly saying that you are the people who have helped us achieve our goals and have helped us to stay in a good position in society.