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Growing from strength to strength 

By Ramith Dheerasekara

Selvaraj Ramesh is a revolutionary teacher who works on “post-war education” with students affected by the war. Below are experts of the interview with Ramesh conducted by Ramith Dheerasekara and his students.

Tell us why you started working with Child Action Lanka foundation.

Child Action Lanka started on 23 September 2006 with eight children in a basement rented from the Baptist Church on Dalada Veediya, Kandy. We are an organisation that works with street-connected, war-affected, and poverty-marginalised children and families across the island of Sri Lanka. Our aim is to provide the best form of holistic education, quality health, and nutrition and to protect children who are entrusted in our care. We currently work with a little over 1,500 children in eight out of 25 districts through 12 child development centres in Sri Lanka.

When did Child Action Lanka in Kilinochchi start?

It was in the year 2012 that work at the centre commenced. Because I was from the upcountry, which is my hometown, I faced many challenges when I started working at the centre. Some of the challenges were based on the difference in the climate, the Tamil dialect, ethnicity, class, and the background in which I was brought up compared to Kilinochchi. It took me nearly one-and-a-half years to adjust myself and adapt to the changes I encountered in Kilinochchi which I now call home.

How has your experience been working with children? 

When we began working with the children who started coming to the centre, they realised through the Tamil dialect that we spoke that we were not locals to Kilinochchi. For this very reason, they were reluctant to trust us and be a part – and I do not blame them, given their history of having faced a 30-year civil war. This was very evident from the day the centre opened. Whenever we spoke to the children, they didn’t smile or show any positive response to us.

However, when we observed them interacting with each other, we saw a completely different character and personality in each of the children – something that wasn’t shown to us. From this first encounter with the children, we realised that the children had not had the experience of interacting with outsiders. Therefore, in order to build a relationship with these children and to make them feel more comfortable to move with us, we organised various sports activities and we also visited the children and their families in their homes. These sports activities and home visitations were our initial strategy in getting closer to the children prior to commencing programmes which cater to their educational development.
A common language that we spoke was cricket! We organised a game of cricket. At first, not many participated or showed an interest to join in. This is when we got two or three children interested in the game and with whom we had got close to. We set a regular time with them and continued playing cricket as planned. Over a month of playing both cricket and badminton with these children broke the boundaries and brought us to a common ground and amazingly brought about the relationships we see today, which have grown from strength to strength.

How did things proceed from thereon?

Once the number of children increased, along with their interest and their growing trust in us, it came to a point where even though we were late to play cricket, which would be at around 4 p.m, the children on their own would show up early and prepare everything for the game  by 3:30 p.m. This change in the children’s rapport with us gave us the impetus to begin teaching English, Sinhala, and computer studies. We still remember the experience we had when teaching computer studies to the children because we only had three old laptops, which we had to keep on the floor, and had around seven children who sat around these laptops.

When it came to the educational activities that we organised for the children, we observed especially with the older children that some of them were not familiar even with the basics of reading or writing. There were some who were academically inclined, but all the children were affected by the insecurity of having an unstable education due to the war. Because of the war, these children’s studies were affected and schools were not opened regularly with stable teachers or resources. Therefore, even when it came to the studies held at the centre, the children did not have faith or the assurance that this would continue regularly.

When we carried out our educational activities, we did not follow the traditional teaching method of chalk and blackboard; instead, we taught them certain lessons through various activities such as roleplays, sports activities, and games to teach, for example, a lesson on leadership.

Currently, there are 108 children studying at your center. Could you tell us a little about their backgrounds?

When the children first encountered us, they did not know how to move and interact with outsiders. They showed a lot of fear and restraint in engaging with outsiders because of the experiences they had had due to the war. The children had been through a tragic experience where they were only used to protecting their family and themselves. And this was the reason behind their withdrawn behaviour from us during the initial stages after opening the centre because when the centre was introduced in Kilinochchi, it had only been close to two-and-half years since the war ended in 2009. Therefore, the children needed time to adjust to the changes taking place after the war, which included meeting and engaging with outsiders.

It was not only the children who displayed this withdrawn behaviour with us. We encountered this same issue even with parents and the community that lived in close proximity to the centre. We did not receive their support nor their welcome when we started out the centre. But as mentioned above, it was through our strategic activities of playing sports with the children and visiting their homes that we slowly began to gain their support as well as involvement with us.

We had a few children who still believed that their parents and siblings were alive and were only missing, even though they had not heard any news about them after the war. It was not only the children who believed this; there were some parents involved at the centre who also believed that their sons or daughters would return home, even though there was no sign of them after the war. It was this generation of children who struggled through the tragic experiences of war that sat for the GCE Ordinary Level (O/L) examination between 2014 and 2019. This reflected a very poor result in the District of Kilinochchi, ranking last in the island. Nevertheless, the Government has made provisions to slowly establish a stable educational platform for them through which these children can have a chance to move forward from their past and face the future with hope.