I was pleased to participate, on 15 November 2007, in the official opening of the Don Bosco Skills Training Centre at Ahungalla, near Galle, in the south west of Sri Lanka, where Catholics are about five per cent of the population and the remaining 95 per cent is Buddhist.
This region of Sri Lanka was devastated by the 26 December 2004, tsunami.
The Salesian priests and brothers in Sri Lanka were heavily involved in post-tsunami relief supported by funds collected throughout the world and sent to them via Salesian headquarters in Rome. Their assistance to victims of the tsunami included:
* construction of more than 700 new homes and apartments;
* manufacture of 284 new boats for individual fishermen;
* purchase and distribution of 248 sets of fishing nets, 210 bicycles and 244 engines;
* the repair of 32 boats and 99 engines; and, now,
* the Skills Training Centre at Ahungalla.
There were more than 1,500 at the opening. Among the special guests were Dr Greg French, Australian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Minister for Vocational Training and Apprenticeships, Mr Piyasena Gamage, Freemason, Mr Bruce Bartrop and his wife Adela from Ballarat, Victoria, and ten Buddhist monks.
The Centre was substantially funded by Australian donors with the largest contribution of $440,000 being provided by the Freemasons of Australia (and New Zealand). A further $175,000 has come from donations to Salesian Missions for tsunami relief.
The Centre will be fully equipped and furnished as funds become available and initially will have facilities to teach dye and mould making (which implies welding and machinery training), information technology (computers) and inboard and outboard motor repairing.
An open hall and classrooms alongside the Centre are used almost daily by more than 1,000 local primary and secondary school students (Years 6-10) for tuition coaching free of charge and as a quiet study venue to do homework. (Parents feel almost compelled to send their children to private after-school coaching to prepare for examinations - a very expensive undertaking for poor families.)
Sporting facilities, including a basketball court and a volley ball court, will be added to the Centre when funds become available for their construction.
In his speech during the opening, Mr Piyasena Gamage, Minister for Vocational Training and Apprenticeships, expressed delight that a Don Bosco Technical Centre was being established in Ahungalla. The Don Bosco schools were, he said, the best providers of technical education in Sri Lanka.
Two Buddhist monks, in their addresses, reflected on their past highly co-operative working relationship with the Salesian priests and brothers for the benefit of young people in Sri Lanka.
Adjacent to the Centre is a boarding house/hostel, with funding from Italy, to cater for 50 orphans and semi-orphans, and 50 students undertaking skills training.
Ahungalla is a coastal fishing village, part of the Divisional Secretariat of Balapitiya in the district of Galle. Population in the local district is about 70,000, with more than 10,000 under the age of 18.
It is an agricultural area with rain-fed paddy cultivation, coconut cultivation in the coastal areas and rubber and cinnamon in the interior. Cinnamon is regarded as the main economic crop within the Division. More than 4,000 people have been traditionally engaged in fishing and fishing related industries.
The rural environment of the region does not offer many opportunities for employment. Many young people, recovering from the trauma of the tsunami disaster, welcome the opportunity for technical and vocational training.
The Don Bosco Centre Ahungalla has the potential to make a really significant contribution to thousands of young people in south west Sri Lanka. I am personally very grateful to the Freemasons for their support of this project.
The Salesians in Sri Lanka are working with impoverished people, many of whom are the poorest of the poor. Through their centres of education they are building bridges with local communities by providing the young people with skills to secure employment and earn an income to support their family.
Brother Michael Lynch heads the Salesian Mission Office in Australia.