By Nandasiri Jasentuliyana
The writer is former Deputy Director-General of the United Nations.
LOS ANGELES (IDN) — The earliest Sri Lankans to enter the United States were classified as “other Asians.” Immigration records show that between 1881 and 1890, 1,910 “other Asians” were admitted to the United States. It is unlikely that many of these were from Sri Lanka. In 1975, immigration records classified Sri Lankans as a separate category for the first time. That year, 432 Sri Lankans immigrated to the United States.
The numbers increased since the outbreak of the civil war in Sri Lanka, with an average of 400 Sri Lankans immigrating to the United States each year and doubled as Sri Lankans began entering as winners of the DV-99 diversity (Green Card) lottery. Sri Lankan Americans are highly educated and affluent, having completed some college, and many have advanced degrees (with a median income of $84,000).
That being the case, Sri Lankan Americans have been able to make a significant contribution to American society despite being a small community from a country with a very small population. However, as the number of Sri Lankan Americans who have made a difference is too numerous to list by name, only a sampling of people is mentioned in this article.
Perhaps, more than in any other field, Sri Lankan Americans had an impact in the field of education. Beginning in the seventies, when there was enormous growth in the American preschool system aided by federal and state funding and support, waves of Montessori teachers began arriving from Sri Lanka to work in existing preschools at first and eventually to establish schools of their own.
Their students are today serving at all levels of public and private enterprises in America. At the higher end of the scale, the number of Sri Lankan American academics who have made a substantial contribution to American society is also proportionately very high.
One of the leading Sri Lankan American academics is Dr. Sivalingam Sivananthan, Director of the Microphysics Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Recognized as a “Champion of Change” at the White House, Dr Sivalingam was also awarded the “Outstanding American by Choice” award by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2013.
Other academics honored in different fields are Dr Ananda Guruge, a professor at many universities, including the State University of New York and Cal State Fullerton, and Dean at the University of the West and the author of 53 books; Prof. Asoka Mendis, Professor Emeritus, University of California San Diego, world-renowned Astrophysicist honored as a “planetary pioneer” and recognized for his contributions to the development of the theory of “Gravitoelectrodynamics” the most influential theory in this field.
Other scholars who have contributed to the American space program are Dr Sarath Gunapala, a Senior scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), inducted into the United States Space Technology Hall of Fame for his pioneering work in inventing and developing instruments for the use of space exploration; Dr Cyril Ponnamperuma, the principal investigator for analysis of lunar soil brought to earth by Apollo as a member of the NASA at Ames Research Center.
Sri Lankan Americans have also made a notable contribution in providing medical care to the populace. They have been at the cutting edge of technology, creating medical devices and techniques to treat patients. Among them are Dr Tony Chandraratna, Chief of the Division of Cardiology and Professor of Medicine, University of California, Irvine, who created several devices holding patents for Ultrasound Transducer Device for Continuous Imaging of the Heart and other Body Parts, and a screening Device for Cardiovascular Disorders; Ashini Weeraratne, Professor of Oncology and Chair, Department of Biochemistry Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who also serves on the National Cancer Advisory Board of America.
Among those who have made outstanding contributions in the field of engineering and information technology are; Yasantha Rajakarunanayake, with more than 90 patents working for Broadcom, and leader of the team that invented patents for the chips in iPhone and Android phones, and Shahani Markus, the founder of three IT companies in the Silicon Valley one of which also operates from Sri Lanka.
Among Sri Lankan Americans who have been very successful entrepreneurs at the higher end of the scale contributing to the private sector and stand out as philanthropists are; Dr Walter Jayasinghe, who at one time established and operated six medical clinics and three large health insurance companies and founded the Sri Lanka Foundation International as Founder President to serve the worldwide expatriate community; Mohan Chandramohan who founded the American Reprographics Company (ARC) which is the largest reprographics company in the United States; Chamath Palihapitiya Venture Capitalist and Facebook Engineer and Founder CEO of “Social Capital,” a successful entrepreneur is a part owner of a national NBA team. and Raj Fernando, Political Fundraiser, Doner, Philanthropist Chair and CEO’ Work Storm.’
There are many other professionals such as accountants, and lawyers who have served as judges and prosecutors or in private practice like Rohan Weerasinghe who served as General Counsel of City Bank Group and the Senior partner at the Wall Street law firm Shearman and Sterling, the largest in the world with over a thousand lawyers with offices in every continent.
Sri Lankan Americans have also contributed to the Arts. Among them are best-selling historical novelist Rosemary Rogers; Romesh Rathnesar, Author, Deputy Editor of Bloomberg Business and former Deputy Managing Editor Time Magazine; Thalif Deen, UN Bureau Chief of Inter Press Service news agency and Editor-at-Large, IDN-InDepthNews, Berlin; and Journalist Jayam Rutnam, Chandran Rutnam with credits to dozens of films and documentaries; Bernie White, screenwriter, and Director; Tanya Gunathilake, operatic singer at the New York Opera; Dilon Jay, a well-known singer, rapper, and actor; and Hussain Jiffrey, Grammy Award-winning Musician.
More dramatically, Adrian Ebell has promoted women’s Rights, which led to the establishment of Ebell Clubs for women, which have currently spread across the country, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Curator Boston Museum, and Jinaraj De. Silva, the fourth President of the Theosophical Association of America, significantly impacted the theosophists of America through over fifty books he published.
The Sri Lankan Buddhist monks led by Bhante Henepola Gunaratna have established hundreds of temples and meditation centres all around America have made a difference among the many Americans who follow meditation practices.
It is heartening that the younger generation of Sri Lankan Americans, notably the 46% born here, are continuing to do their part in carrying on the traditions as Naomi Munaweera, a recognized award-winning novelist, and entrepreneurs like Dilip Jayasekara, Founder Chairman and CEO of Meditech Data International and Elife breaking new ground using IT and AI in the medical field have demonstrated.
While the Sri Lankan Americans mentioned above have made a significant difference to American society using their academic and creative skills, there is a considerable number, particularly among the late arrivals with limited fluency in English, who have also enriched many echelons of society, such as those in the real estate, insurance, travel and hospitality industry or as operators of small-scale businesses such as Seven Eleven convenience stores, gas stations, grocery stores, and restaurants.
No matter the level of education or the social standing of individual members as a community, Sri Lankan Americans should be proud of their collective contribution in enriching the society in their adopted country. [IDN-InDepthNews — 25 January 2023]
Photo: Outstanding achievements of Sri Lankan Americans are recognized at the Sri Lanka Foundation Award Ceremony held at the Baltimore Hotel in Los Angeles. Credit: Sri Lanka Foundation.
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