Tim Chai's Blog

From Civil War to Peace - Tea Leaf Trust Bringing Education to Sri Lanka

The island of Sri Lanka is the world's fourth largest producer of tea, and the industry still remains one of the main sources of foreign exchange for the country. Affecting more than one million Sri Lankans, the majority of the workforce, where the minimum working age is twelve, are young women. These young women are subject to some of worst conditions imaginable, socially and economically, and many of their children are sucked into this cycle of poverty because there are very few opportunities out.

Enter Tea Leaf Trust, whose mission statement is to “improve opportunities and promote ethnic cohesion through education.” In Sri Lanka, education, particularly English language skills are prized. For children on the tea estates, there is a severe lack of opportunity to learn these skills, if any at all. However, English is key to gaining employment off the estates and easing their family’s poverty.

Beyond teaching English, what’s really cool about Tea Leaf Trust’s program is that it combines classroom instruction with ethnic cohesion as a way to massage the after-effects of the recent 26-year civil war. From a variety of clubs incorporating mixed groups of Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils and Muslims, all of the students arrive having never studied together and leave with lifelong friendships that know no ethnic boundaries.

The Tea Leaf Trust was created to target the unmet need of employable skills in the tea picking communities. It began on founders Tim Pare’s and Dr. Yasmene Shah’s honeymoon trip to Sri Lanka, which exposed both of them to the horrors of life as a tea picker. In Sri Lanka, approximately a million people (mainly women) pick tea. Most live in squalor estates providing only one room per family (normally 6 to 8 individuals) to sleep, eat and live in. Most will have no electricity or hot water and typically four families will share one toilet. In order for tea pickers to earn a monthly wage of just over £35, they have to pick between 16 to 18 kg of tealeaves everyday for at least 23 to 26 days of the month. If they don’t, their pay is severely cut. Sometimes, there aren’t enough good leaves to pick, so they lose out through no fault of their own. In addition, the poverty and squalor in these tea estate communities lead to a huge raft of social issues. 85% of the males are alcoholics, and a staggering 83% of women on Tea Estates have been subjected to physical violence by men. Women turn to behaviors such as self-harm and substance abuse to try and cope, and in the worse cases suicide when they can’t.

Under investment in estate schools and the use of under-qualified teachers in many subject areas mean that many students left school with little or no qualifications, destined to a life of tea picking or demeaning casual labor. As a solution to this problem, Tim and Yas created the Tea Leaf Trust to provide further education opportunities for the youth of the tea-picking communities as a means to arm them with the skills needed to obtain sustainable, salaried employment.

Tim and Yas’s biggest achievement thus far is the Tea Leaf Vision Centre for Professional Education. Last year they had 101 students graduate from the one-year diploma course. Many could not speak a word of English at the start of the course. However, through courses in English, business and IT, the students started to feel more confident in their ability to learn new things. Other classes like “Success and Ethics” and “Emotional Health” helped increase the students’ self-esteem, and extra-curricular activities like the Talent Show, Speech Conference and Business Fair allowed the students to put into practice everything they learned in the classroom. Tea Leaf Trust also runs an amazing outreach project from the center called the Community English Programme. This outreach project targets children aged 7-12 years in and around Maskeliya. As part of the diploma course, the students at Tea Leaf Vision teach children a basic English language course in their own communities. Last year, Tea Leaf Trust conducted this program at 23 locations, directly engaging almost 700 children.

Tim and Yas hope to continue to expand their key programs to satellite centers located on the most remote tea estates. Join us in supporting Tea Leaf Trust, and check them out at www.tealeaftrust.com - keep checking back at Givology because we will soon have student and project listings from Tea Leaf Trust.

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