Monaragala - a hotbed of talents

Monaragola, Sri Lanka

Sometimes fate takes an unusual path. This is what happened in 2005, when Hilti employees wanted to do something to help victims of the tsunami. Because large amounts of financial aid were suddenly available, but there were very few sensible projects to invest in along the coasts of Sri Lanka, Hilti decided to finance a vocational school in the jungle. Ten years later, more than 1000 people have acquired a diploma that has changed their lives.

The journey is eight hours by bus, and just as long on a tuk-tuk. All those who don’t have the opportunity to travel by car must use a mountain path to reach Monaragala. At least the road was paved in the last three years, and it now even has two lanes. But what remains are hundreds of curves and steep inclines, lined by white, rubber tree trunks. Cinnamon trees and pepper grows in the shade of host trees. At higher altitudes, the jungle becomes less dense and the hillsides are covered with tea scrubs. Here, women work side-by-side, stooping with the weight of the picked leaves. Rice is planted at lower altitudes, which is also strenuous for the workers. Every single rice plant is planted manually, many thousands of times over, stretching to the horizon.

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For people in the west, Sri Lanka is a holiday paradise. For the hill country population living 180 km east of the capital, however, daily life is an entirely different story: a monotonous, endless grind. They not only have to deal with poverty, but also the consequences of the civil war, which ended only in 2009. The war left many people dead, as well as orphaned, disabled, and traumatized. It challenged the principles of mutual trust and destroyed the education of an entire generation. How can one learn to read and write, if panic and the constant need to be ready to flee are part of everyday life?

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In 2000, the combination of poverty and civil war resulted in the opening of the SOS Children’s Village in Monaragala. The need for a caring home for orphans and children, whose parents were no longer capable of coping on their own, was immense. Four years later, the demand once again increased dramatically. The seaquake caused nearly 40 000 deaths in Sri Lanka, leaving behind countless orphans and half-orphans. «Of course we asked ourselves what would happen with Sri Lanka’s children once they become adolescents», said Divakar Ratnadurai, Deputy Director of SOS Children’s Village Sri Lanka. «We were confronted with the problem that Monaragala offered no education beyond primary school, in association with implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child.» In Monaragala, people are very poor. They have neither money to send their children to another city, nor the means to finance higher education.» In 2005, when an employee of the Hilti Group traveled to Monaragala for the first time to engage in the vocational school project, only the building’s foundation existed. Continuation of the project had failed due to insufficient funding. Who would have thought that, ten years later, the depressing building site would accommodate an institution known for setting national standards and offering underprivileged youth such excellent vocational training that employers across Sri Lanka acknowledge the Monaragala diploma with a nod when they see their application letter? «An increasing number of wealthy parents contact us with the hope of enrolling their children in our educational programs», explains the headmaster, Rohan da Silva. «But this is not possible, as we only accept adolescents from families who hold a state poverty certificate.»

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Springboard for remarkable careers
For once, the poor have a privilege from which they can benefit. In the past ten years, the SOS Vocational Training Center Monaragala has managed to provide jobs for more than 1000 young adults, allowing them and their families to lead a dignified life.

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It was not unusual that the idyllic, live-in campus turned out to be a springboard for remarkable careers. Many alumni have become self-employed, despite being short of seed capital and the necessary equipment. R.M. Tneekshana Dilshan, a automobile mechanic, explains how he managed to become his own boss: «I started working as a car salesperson, but wasn’t satisfied with the salary. When I found a damaged motorcycle, I said to myself: ‹You can repair cars, so you can also fix a motorcycle.› I bought it for not very much, repaired it, and sold it for double the price. In the end, I earned 20 000 rupees (140 USD) and was able to buy my first tools.» Others, after gaining work experience in their jobs and saving money to further their education, managed to get white-collar jobs. And people like Danushka Nikalas have already passed on their knowledge to others. The very young pastry chef of an international catering company pursues clear principles when training new employees: «When my employees make a mistake, I always ask them: ‹Are you really interested in learning?› And if they really want to learn, I give them everything; other- wise, I don’t.» 

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Opportunity to express oneself
The SOS Vocational Training Center’s success is not only the result of its high teaching quality, but also of the school administration’s emphasis on personal development of its pupils. The training program is short and certainly not easy. To acquire one of the coveted diplomas to become a baker, automobile mechanic, welder, wood craftsman, electrician or computer applications assistant, much is asked of the students: engagement, discipline and the willingness to shape their own personality. «Most of the youth come from squalid homes. We teach them how to keep both workplace and home clean and tidy. It is also important to us that the students contribute to society and take responsibility for others. This is the reason why it was so important to build the event hall, which was also financed by Hilti employees. Here, the student’s forum holds weekly sessions, in which the students learn to phrase and constructively pre- sent their concerns. Furthermore, the theater group also offers them an opportunity to express themselves», explains Rohan da Silva.

Youth under pressure
Due to his unique sensitivity, da Silva nominated K. Dinesh Kumara as an apprentice supervisor – after all, he is a humorous, kind-hearted man with many talents, and the most trusted by the young people on campus. The computer expert studied psychology, has an education in hypnosis and, as the husband of a bank employee, has a good under- standing of finances. «For the young people here it isn’t always easy», he says. «When they go home for the weekend and see how their parents have to double their efforts and exert themselves in the fields, they suffer terribly. Some parents reproach them because, in their opinion, they don’t work enough. The youth are often unhappy, and weighted-down by homesickness – and it is then that they confide in me.» Kumara encourages the adolescents not to abandon their training. He provides them with advice, guidebooks, advises them financially and bolsters them when they are scheduled to attend job interviews. «The youth come from the lower end of the social ladder. They are used to being looked down upon. They are like country bumpkins and incredibly shy when approached by strangers. I show them how they should hold their head high, maintain eye contact and be polite and self-confident», explains Kumara, who also manages the alumni database. Even after completing their education, the school keeps in touch with former students and supports alumni when, for instance, employers exploit the graduates’ inexperience.

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Developing self-confidence
The need to defend themselves is an experience many future professionals already learn during training. The school concept requires stu- dents to complete an internship between training and the final exams. If students drop out, it usually happens in this «hot» phase. The reasons are manifold. Some employers exploit the apprentices by offering in- adequate housing, payment and treatment; by making them work up to 18 hours per day; or by simply making them do things that are not in line with their job description. Only when the apprentices communicate these issues, can the school respond. Although these types of companies are blacklisted, the youngsters often keep silent, either out of embarrassment or fear of never being offered another internship again. It is equally problematic when interns quit their education, because they can- not resist the temptation of money and let themselves be lured away by companies. Many students do not understand that, without a diploma, they become dependent on their employer, and in turn, obstruct their own future by becoming cheap laborers. The Vocational Training Center is in a dilemma with respect to this issue, because the concept of occupational training is comparatively new in Sri Lanka. The school still has much work to do to convince companies to offer internships. Craftspersons are in high demand in Sri Lanka, but not all companies are prepared to train young people and thereby further the country’s educational system. The government is active and undertaking great efforts to ensure an adequate supply of qualified craftspersons. The showcase project SOS Vocational Training Center Monaragala is working closely with the government. «We hope that one day there will be a law that prevents employers from hiring in- terns during their training period,» hopes Divakar Ratnadurai, who says he is deeply optimistic. Looking at the ten-year success story of the SOS Vocational Training Center in Monaragala, creates hope that someday this problem will be solved.

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