Former ICOA writers-in-residence Sonali Samarasinghe (2012-2014) and Raza Rumi (2015-2017) recently told their stories to the podcast Asian in Ithaca: Stories of Race, Culture & Identity. The podcast is produced by WICB, the student radio station at Ithaca College. You can listen to the episode here on Spotify and here on Apple Podcasts.
In an emotional and far-reaching discussion, journalist, human rights lawyer, and diplomat Samarasinghe recounted the events that forced her to flee her native Sri Lanka.
She was working for a newspaper that was critical of the government’s conduct of a 26-year civil war that took 80,000-100,000 lives. She and her colleagues also called out cases of corruption and official misconduct. “The government saw us as traitors to the nation for speaking truth to power,” she recalled.
In 2009, she married Lasantha Wickrematunge, her newspaper’s editor. A few weeks later, men on motorcycles surrounded Wickrematunge on his way to work and bludgeoned him to death. Samarasinghe soon received death threats of her own and fled to the United States. In 2012, she found an invitation from ICOA in her spam folder with an offer of a teaching job at Ithaca College. She agreed to come.
“I was dealing with a lot of trauma from the violence that happened to my husband [and] the fear of the death threats. And also having to flee so abruptly and adapt in a few short months,” she recalled. “I had lost my husband after only a couple of months of marriage, and I had lost everything else. I had lost my home, familiar faces, family. I had lost my right to choose to work in my chosen profession, journalism. So I had lost not only my self worth, but my livelihood.”
Her stay in Ithaca would turn out to be “a lifesaver,” she said. “ICOA provided refuge for me in more ways than one. Housing assistance, yes. A two-year paid job, yes. But most importantly, professional, personal, and emotional support.” During her two years in Ithaca, she said, “I felt so welcome and so safe.”
Raza Rumi was a well-known broadcaster, editor, columnist, and policy consultant in Pakistan who spoke and wrote widely about the dangers of religious extremism. “I was condemning it every day on television, and also holding different authorities to account,” he recalled. He also argued for peace with India, which is “not a popular opinion” in Pakistan.
In March 2014, the car he was riding in was riddled with bullets from automatic weapons. Rumi survived but his driver, a family friend, was killed. The attack was later found to have been orchestrated by a militant group affiliated with the Taliban. He fled to Washington, then held several temporary positions before receiving an invitation from ICOA.
ICOA helped arrange employment at Cornell and Ithaca College, allowing him not just to advance his career, but to maintain his connection with his country. “I still get those threats and I still get those hate messages,” he said, but “I am very much engaged back home. I still write for publications, I was still editing a newspaper in Pakistan. I didn’t stop my work.”
In 2018, he became director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. He also serves on the ICOA board. “ICOA is an amazing organization. Frankly speaking, I think there are very few organizations like that, even across the world,” he said.
“We need to remind [people] how important it is to have organizations like ICOA survive and do well. Because we must have this space available for writers and journalists and artists who might be feeling the heat in their own countries or contexts…. We need to protect those who deserve protection.”