How the Facing Difference Challenge is impacting youth in Sri Lanka

Posted by CARE on
Fri, 04/13/2018

Read how the participation of students from all over the world is making an impact through the Facing Difference Challenge! Hear the powerful story of Ilangaineshan Antony Ithujan; a young man from Sri Lanka, and how his life has been impacted through the programs run by CARE and supported by the Challenge.

Ilangaineshan Antony Ithujan, age 16, lives in the village of Anthoniyar Puram, Mannar district, in northern Sri Lanka. He is one of many young Sri Lankans whose lives were marred by the civil war that raged for three decades, ending in May 2009. Ithujan’s community – like many in northern Sri Lanka – was entirely cut off from the rest of the country during the conflict, which pitted the Sinhalese ethnic majority against Tamil rebels.

Ithujan was brought up by his grandmother. As the fighting dragged on, they were displaced multiple times between the ages of 5 and 7. In the final stage of the war, Ithujan was forced to flee with his parents and had to leave his grandmother behind. Once the family had settled in an internally displaced persons camp in a safe zone, they heard the unfortunate news that his grandmother had been killed in a military attack. Ithujan, who had a very close bond with his grandmother, was deeply traumatized by the loss.

After living in three consecutive camps including the infamous Menik Farm – considered the largest of its kind in the world – Ithujan returned to his village during the last months of 2009 and slowly but steadily his life took on a sense of normalcy. However, the loss of his grandmother had affected him deeply and he had developed an extreme fear of the military. The fact that Tamils in the rural North remain largely cut off, barely interacting with Sinhalese communities, does not help to heal old wounds.

“When we returned to our village, our house was completely destroyed and we were asked to stay in the school,” Ithujan recalls. “Daily my parents would visit the house and clear up the land. The terror of war had a strong impact on me. The first ever Sinhalese I came to know was a military person, and after what I had experienced with the war, I firmly believed that all the Sinhalese people were like them.” Ithujan struggled emotionally to explain his strong prejudice towards the majority community of the country.

Ithujan had a unique opportunity to confront those fears through the Twinning Exchange peace program, part of the YOUth Create II (Students Rebuild Challenge) project – funded by the Bezos Family Foundation and implemented through CARE’s Sri Lankan affiliate, Chrysalis. The project focuses on utilizing the power of performing arts to foster sustainable collaboration between youth who have been separated by conflict, culture and belief systems.

Ithujan was one of 10 children from Mannar between the ages of 14 and 17 who took part in a recent exchange program, traveling to the community of Ratnapura – the first time any of them had visited southern Sri Lanka. The visit allowed Tamil and Sinhalese youth to spend three days experiencing each other’s life history, living patterns, social environment, food habits, leisure and hobbies, and to visit culturally important historical places. The interactions were facilitated through theater activities and games, through which the young participants learned how to communicate, respect each other, listen empathetically and integrate with each other peacefully.

This was the first time Ithujan had a chance to interact with Sinhalese civilians. They gradually found ways to communicate with each other, even without knowing each other’s language. They listened to stories and experiences and slowly gained mutual respect for each other.  

Ithujan now cherishes the memory of his time in Ratnapura and the friends he made there. “After interacting with Sinhalese youth, I realized that when we treat them with respect, they also respect us back and treat us equally,” he observes. “I had a truly amazing experience being with the Sinhalese youth. We ate, we laughed, we played and we shared our stories with one another.” Ithujan speaks with tearful emotion as he recalls his bad experiences from the past and condemns war and the separation it brings. He says he would like to become a catalyst who can understand the differences in people and encourage a peaceful coexistence among all communities in the country.

While it may take many more years for Ithujan and others like him to rid themselves of all prejudice built up over years of conflict, the cornerstone has been laid. Ithujan returned home with a shift in his perception of the Sinhalese, and openly shared his experience with his family and friends. The entire group of youth who met in Ratnapura now keep in contact with each other and there is a visible shift in their perceptions of the opposite community.

The negative images that were imprinted in their minds during decades of war have been replaced, and they now see the possibility of living together, working together and sharing their stories together to contribute to a peaceful and prosperous future.

You can find more information on the Facing Difference Challenge here.