IT IS two months since the "tsunami" ravaged our island and her people, without any distinction, effectively shattering our illusions of segregation. Immeasurable loss of life and lifestyle has left us reeling in a wasteland bereft of the sum and substance of joy and self-worth.
St. Joseph's College too, has not been unaffected, for we have lost three of our students and a part-time volunteer violin teacher, as well as two parents. Furthermore, we as educationists are shattered and grieved over the immense loss of students and children the nation over.
Shedding light on how we often take our comfortable lives and our relationships for granted, this natural disaster has opened our eyes to the fragility and vulnerability of modern man in relation to the vast and indiscriminate power of nature.
Visible through this catastrophic cloud of chaos and misery, however, was the silver lining of brotherhood and togetherness displayed by our people.
For just one brief shining moment, in the chequered history of our land, all our people rallied together as one, without any of the short-sighted, man-made distinctions of class or creed. What neither scripture nor sermon, nor project nor plan could do, this natural disaster appears to have achieved.
We have been brought closer to each other in a free-spirited brotherhood as a united nation. The Irish poet W. B. Yeats once said that, "man needs reckless courage to descend into the abyss of himself."
Similarly we require great courage to give up our conceited ideas of superiority due to race, religion, caste and class that divide our country into many fragments.
It is also commendable that positive leadership was displayed by the media, spearheading the initiation and co-ordination of immediate and effective rescue and relief operations.
The absence of their usual negative attitude of casting aspersions and pointing fingers of blame was very heartening at a time when there was little else to lift our drooping spirits.
In what has been described as the biggest ever relief and rehabilitation operation, unlimited funds and goodwill are now being offered to us.
Together with the unprecedented goodwill now extended to us in our hour of grief, it is hoped that the funds and resources made available will transform this disaster into the great opportunity that we ever received to rebuild our nation as one.
A pertinent question demanding close attention and careful consideration is the resettlement before the victims grow accustomed to the culture of refugee life and the attendant dependency syndrome. The best option would be to use a large participatory methodology, whereby the victims are also involved, consulted and empowered.
Conversely, the usual techno-bureaucratic process imposed from above by the State and international donor agencies can hardly heal and transform the lives of the victims in a sustainable direction, without their active involvement.
As educationists, our attention must also be directed to the multi-faceted problems faced by the youth and schoolchildren. Official statistics released by major related international agencies place a figure of one-third of the total number of dead as being children.
The European Union, in a resolution passed recently has called on the international community to "pay special attention on the 1.5 million children affected by the disaster."
In Sri Lanka alone, 176 schools have been rendered beyond repair or completely wiped out. As for child survivors, they have to come to terms with the loss of their parents, family members, homes and all that was familiar to them.
The inability to face such stark realities has caused a great majority of them to experience related phobias. Personal safety is of prime importance to young girls and boys as 'human vultures' make use of them for nefarious purposes, due to the mechanisms of law and order not being fully operational in the affected areas.
Prior to the disaster, they would have enjoyed some sense of Security and purpose in life with hopeful dreams for the future. They have been now deprived of all such dreams and hopes as well as the stability and security of family units.
We are thus constrained to seek extraordinary solutions to an extraordinary problem. We cannot sit idly while children of school going age roam about uncared for in areas where there is no trace of school building and other infrastructure.
An encouraging feature is the immediate commencement by UNICEF and a few other donor agencies of a specific number of schools, which they expect would be model schools in those areas.
The educational institutions in the island, in carrying out the paramount responsibility of this nature, can be in contact with UNICEF and Save the Children organizations, who are already engaged in nation-building activities, for further assistance in the second and third phases, where in the long term development is considered. This may include activities such as:
a) continued reconstruction and rehabilitation of schools,
b) promoting the involvement of children and young people in development projects in schools and communities and
c) reduction of child and youth involvement in armed conflict through education and peace programmes.
Assistance also has to be directed in effective ways to meet the varied needs of the traumatized children. Teachers can encourage students to speak of their experiences, thereby releasing their innermost fears and anxieties.
Where students are reluctant to speak of their experiences, thereby releasing their innermost fears and anxieties. Where students are reluctant to speak of their experiences, they can be encouraged to express themselves through an art form, e.g. song, poetry, painting etc.
In the course of this year, we propose to take our students on a visit to some schools in the affected areas and entertain those children through such aesthetic activities, in which our school has gained excellence, and thereby encouraging the children to share their traumatic experiences with our students.
We believe that this is one form of effecting a healing process, while also contributing towards building a strong Sri Lankan identity and brotherhood.
I am happy to announce here that St. Joseph's College too has obtained permission from the relevant authorities to rebuild a school, Diyalagoda Maha Vidyalaya in the Kalutara district and continue supporting that school until it can function independently.
The generosity, compassion and commitment of the Old Joes, supported by our parents, teachers and students empowered and encouraged us to venture into this multi million Rupee project of providing a model school to the affected children. It must be borne in mind that the future of any country depends on its youth and children.
For it is the young generation who are the leaders of tomorrow, and it is only they who have the power to take their nation forward "into that heavenly freedom where knowledge is free, and it has not broken up into fragments, where the mind is without fear and the head is held high" (Tagore).
In order for this vision to be properly initialized, it is absolutely imperative that they receive a solid education. History only remembers those who swim against the tide.
In this great endeavour, therefore, the educationist, philanthropists and specialists in all spheres who love children, can team up to work wonders with and for the children affected by the tsunami.
We can make a difference. We should never forget that education, indeed, the most profitable investment in terms of dividends.
The school we build may house future leaders; the healing we bring in and the hope we infuse in them can cause us to be creators of leaders.
As the Josephian family, we can go that extra mile to do something for our country, for our children, who have endured so much. We can then look back with satisfaction on our contribution, however small, to this worthy cause.