When They Came for Us: Freedom to Write in Sri Lanka

“… when you are compelled to leave your … family, your work, your country, and your life as you knew it, that’s when you realize you cannot give up. You have to do more, you have to speak louder, write bolder. And now, it’s personal.”   ~Sonali Samarasinghe

“When They Came for Us: Freedom to Write in Sri Lanka,” was the title of Sonali Samarasinghe’s talk at Ithaca City of Asylum’s 2012 Voices of Freedom event at the Tompkins County Public Library on Sunday, September 30. Samarasinghe is an award-winning journalist and human rights activist who had to flee her home country of Sri Lanka after her husband was assassinated and she and her household were threatened. During Voices of Freedom, Samarasinghe read excerpts from selected works, including her article “When They Came for Us” and her letters to the president of Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka Samarasinghe was the editor-in-chief of the Morning Leader, a mid week national newspaper, and the consultant editor of The Sunday Leader. She has been recognized nationally and internationally for her journalism and human rights work, including awards from Amnesty International, the NGO Initiatives of Change, the International Federation of Journalists, and the Global Investigative Journalism Conference.  Samarasinghe received the 2009 Oxfam/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression in recognition of her work in covering human rights and freedom of the press and was also presented with the Award for Print and Digital Journalism by the organization Images of Voice and Hope, after the launch of her website, LankaStandard.com. She created the website in May 2011 after arriving in the United States, and it quickly gained credibility as a reliable and balanced news source, devoted to truthful coverage of events in Sri Lanka and to freedom of the media in that country.  To learn more about Samarasinghe, a film about her work is available for viewing on the Human Rights Watch Film Festival website.

Samarasinghe, Ithaca City of Asylum’s fifth writer-in-residence, is a visiting scholar in residence within the Honors Program in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Ithaca College. During her stay in Tompkins County, she will teach at Ithaca College and continue work on a book that details the recent history of media and the government in Sri Lanka.

One of only four cities of asylum in the United States, Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) is a community organization that works closely with Ithaca College, Wells College, and Cornell University to provide sanctuary to writers whose works are suppressed, whose lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing, or whose languages are endangered.

Voices of Freedom is an annual event as part of Freedom to Read Week and is sponsored by ICOA in partnership with the Tompkins County Public Library. Additional support for this event was provided by Amnesty International Group #73 in Ithaca, Gimme Coffee, Mia Restaurant, Taste of Thai, Vista Periodista, Wegmans, Wells Dining and the Inns of Aurora, Wells College, and ZaZa’s Cucina Restaurant. ICOA, affiliated with the Center for Transformative Action, is also appreciative of Ithaca College’s major support of our mission.

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