Although the civil war in Sri Lanka recently ended between the government and the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (aka Tamil Tigers), a return to normalcy for most families has yet to occur. Passage through to the north of Sri Lanka is heavily monitored and individuals need special government clearance just to visit the area. The road to the war-torn Mannar District in the Northern Province, where Room to Read has been invited to work, is freshly tarred and empty of traffic except for an odd military truck or a land rover. Police check-posts are replaced with military check-posts every 50 yards and the road is fenced on both sides with barbed wire, indicating that the areas beyond are still mine-ridden. This is the story of one recent visit to three schools in Mannar.
The Tamil community here is tight-lipped and wary of strangers. Many of them still continue to stay in the guarded government-run "internally displaced people" camps ("IDP camps"), a stark indicator of their refugee status in their own country. Others have been allowed to return to their villages.
“The two main concerns for the people here are health and education. The priority for most families is to send their children back to school,” says Mary Matilda Pillai, the principal of a school in one local village in Mannar which will soon be receiving Room to Read’s support for classroom libraries.
Unlike earlier times when the Catholic Church or missionaries managed most schools, now all the schools in Sri Lanka are under the control of the government—which is actively encouraging children to go back to school but the lack of basic infrastructure and safe buildings poses a big challenge. As a result, many nonprofit agencies have been invited by the government to help contribute to school and educational system improvements.
Room to Read launched operations in Sri Lanka following the devastating tsunami in 2005. Last year, we moved into the war-torn Mannar District to work with 43 schools and local communities in three villages. Here, we are providing libraries, books and in some cases, building schools and classrooms.
At one local school, the staff and teachers are elated with the books they received from Room to Read this past January. The colorful books are all prominently displayed in a corner library where the children, for the first time, have story books in their own language. In fact, several students decided to spontaneously read their favorite stories aloud to show off their reading skills to our visiting staff.
“Before Room to Read gave us books we just had nine books in our library and the tragedy was, despite our children being able to read, they did not have access to any books!” says principal J. Wijeykumar. “Now both teachers and students are excited about taking books home and there is a noticeable improvement in their class work.”
“Scholastic books like ‘Seven Wonder’ and the ‘Magic School Bus’ has made teaching easy and interesting and I depend on some of these books to teach,” says the senior school English teacher. Adds the science teacher, “The community is happy with this facility because they realize that their children have a better future if they are educated.”
At another village school, the excitement is even more palpable. The children take us to a room where the new school furniture is stacked high and one student points to the pile and says animatedly, “Soon we will have a new classroom with new tables and chairs so we will not have to sit on the floor anymore!”
Their school principal, Mr. Robert Amalathasan explains, “Room to Read is supporting us at every step of this construction. After years of misfortune, the children have something to look forward to. We are going to make the best use of this opportunity and make this school a happy place for the kids.”
While students in these two schools are celebrating, at another nearby village, students and teachers are anxiously waiting for Room to Read to arrive. According to Patricia Ammal, a senior teacher, “This school was established in 1932 and was a thriving school until the war breached its walls. Today, the school looks more like a dilapidated military barrack and as a result, parents prefer to send their children to other schools."
But Ms. Ammal is optimistic that once they have a new library filled with child-friendly books in the local language, there will be a big change. Sharing her final thought, Ms. Ammal says, “Our hopes are now pinned on Room to Read’s support. For the displaced people here, education is the only way forward.”
Learn more about our programs in Sri Lanka.