Sri Lanka: From Bombs and Bunkers Back to the Classroom

Sri Lanka class

Tamil children learn letters, numbers, songs and dances at a preschool in northwest Sri Lanka. Jesuit Refugee Services runs several such preschools with funding from Catholic Relief Services. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

By Laura Sheahen,

“When the bombing was bad, we didn’t go to school. We were in the bunker,” says 10-year-old Anthony.* “I put my fingers in my ears to shut out the shelling.”

Huddled in a hole dug quickly in the ground, with sandbags to protect them from blasts and tree branches screening their “bunker” from view, Anthony and his mother waited hours with their neighbors until the bombing stopped. Across northern Sri Lanka, thousands of children were doing the same thing, over and over, day after day.

A decades-long civil war in this island nation near India brought tremendous suffering to both sides. It also robbed children of an education. Bombardments destroyed schools and frequent evacuations uprooted students. Eventually, even makeshift classes held under trees became impossible.

Eager to learn

“Kids in the lower grades lost some critical years, especially in terms of basic literacy like reading, writing and math,” says Michelle Markey, former program manager for Catholic Relief Services in Sri Lanka. “And their families lost everything—loved ones, houses, farms, a limb.”

When the war ended in 2009, people began returning home after months or years on the run. “Now that they’re back in their villages, they’re just trying to survive—trying to get shelter and food—so education could be a secondary concern,” Markey says. “But many parents really sacrifice to send their kids to school. They say, ‘We’ve lost all we had, but we can give our children education.’”

It’s not just adults. The children themselves are eager to learn. “I wake up at 5 to study in the morning. I like to study,” says Anthony. “There’s no electricity, so at night, I study by the light of a kerosene oil lamp.”

Child learning

Jesus, age 10, goes to after-school catchup classes funded by Catholic Relief Services and run by Jesuit Refugee Service. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

CRS and its partner, Jesuit Refugee Service, are making sure children of war can catch up on the schooling they missed. In over 100 villages in northern Sri Lanka, JRS runs afterschool classes that offer kids specialized attention and homework help.

“The education isn’t of good quality in the public schools,” says a father whose child is part of the JRS program. “There are too many kids, not enough personal attention. Sometimes the teachers don’t come.” The JRS classes reinforce what children learn in public school and make it stick.

Doing better with JRS

The CRS-JRS program trains teachers, provides the afternoon classes, and pays for other essentials like books for families who can’t afford them. The program also takes into account local needs and dangers, trying to prevent any situation that would keep kids from coming to school. For example, because poisonous snakes are common and shards of war-damaged houses are everywhere, CRS has distributed shoes and socks to thousands of students.

In southern India where families who fled Sri Lanka are still in refugee camps, CRS and JRS offer similar catch-up classes and teacher training. The refugee camp programs organize “student parliaments” where high-school students work together to solve camp problems like standing water, which can breed mosquitoes. Students learn about social issues like AIDS and domestic violence.

Though living in difficult conditions, many children in India’s refugee camps are doing remarkably well in their studies. “Compared to the outer community, the students here at the camp do better in school because of JRS’ help,” says a woman who is part of a parent-teacher association that JRS formed. “If there was no JRS or PTA, there would be no future for our children.”

In Sri Lanka, “JRS picks the most remote and difficult places to support the village schools,” says Markey. “They often pick villages 15 to 35 miles away from the nearest town, because those villages are often more forgotten in terms of school. The distance also makes it harder for families to rebuild, so the kids need more help.”

A more equal playing field

For the youngest survivors of war, CRS has funded the construction or renovation of over 40 preschool buildings for kids ages 3 to 6. In each school, two dozen children learn songs, poems, and the alphabet from JRS-trained teachers. CRS provides the tables, chairs, and educational supplies like posters and crayons.

CRS also pays for uniforms. “The poorest kids—their clothes are very ragged,” says Markey. “Getting them a uniform creates a more equal playing field.”

Five-year-old Aswini vaguely remembers the school she attended at a camp for people who fled their homes. “I like our preschool better,” she says. “I like our teacher.” She also likes the mung beans that the preschool serves; CRS provides a noon meal of rice, beans, and coconut, all cooked by parents.

The land where Aswini and her friends live was cleared of landmines and bombs before they returned. In some cases, however, small children live close to mined areas.

The preschools are a safe place for them to learn and play. After reciting a poem about slipping on a banana peel, Aswini demonstrates the frog-hop that won her a prize at a sports meet: a schoolbag and a drink bottle.

Committed to Education

The program also trains teachers in how to counsel traumatized children. In some cases, “if the roof bangs in the wind, the kids freeze,” says a JRS preschool teacher. In others, “children who have missed a lot of school think they can’t learn,” says a grade-school instructor.

Teachers spend extra time with children who lost loved ones: “One boy saw his father die in a bomb blast,” says his teacher. “Every day I talk to him, and he’s doing better.”

Children whose fathers lost limbs in the war, or died, are economically vulnerable as well. CRS offers scholarships to these children so they can pay for books and exam fees.

Ten-year-old Joseph’s father died when he was small; his mother sometimes gets work on other people’s farms. The $5 a month CRS gives them pays for school supplies, and the afternoon classes are helping Joseph make up for the two years when he couldn’t go outside because of gunfire and bombs. “I need JRS’ extra help,” he says.

Though it might make her own life easier to put her son to work, Joseph’s mother Rachael is committed to his education. “If he studies now and earns money later, he will have a good future and not have to suffer,” she says.

Thanks to the program, over 5,000 children who lost everything in a bitter conflict do not have to lose their chance for an education.

“The kids play at war,” says one JRS teacher. “They shout, ‘The bombs are coming! Grab your things and run!’”

Her fellow teacher nods, but adds, “When they act that way, we say, ‘That’s the past. That’s over.

“’Now it’s time to study.’”

* All names have been changed.

Laura Sheahen is a former CRS regional information officer for Asia.

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One Response to “Sri Lanka: From Bombs and Bunkers Back to the Classroom”

  1. theresa Dawson Says:

    Very heartwarming. Thank you for helping me regain my feelings for those accross the world, as I recover from surgery.My problems now seem miniscule.

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