SLANY: A Virtual Lifeline to Pioneering Expats in the 1970s
By Thalif Deen, Senior Editor and Director, Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency based at the United Nations.
Mr. Thalif Deen was presented with a special award at the SLANY Christmas Dinner Dance 2019 on December 14th, in recognition of his contributions to journalism , SLANY and the Sri Lankan community.
UNITED NATIONS — It was a breezy, cold afternoon in early October 1971. I found myself an uninvited guest at the historic inaugural meeting of the Sri Lanka Association of New York (SLANY), the first such organisation of Lankan expatriates in the US at that time. I was there by sheer accident, not by design.
The Association made a world of difference – both to me, as a newly-arrived, home-sick student, and to scores of pioneering expatriates, mostly original settlers in the US, who were seeking out their compatriots in the tri state area of New York-New Jersey-Connecticut in the early 1970s.
I had landed in New York in mid-September to do my Master’s Degree in Journalism at Columbia University on a Fulbright grant. The letter from Columbia said I was the first student from Sri Lanka to gain admission to the Graduate School of Journalism. I was hoping I wasn’t the only Sri Lankan in the entire sprawling campus on Broadway and 116th Street which would have added further anxiety to my perceived isolation.
That isolation was aggravated by the fact that I was single —while most expats arrived with their wives. My mother did warn me that I should take a wife along with me, but I told her, in typical home-spun idiom, that taking a woman to New York was like carrying rambuttans to Malwana.
I arrived with a degree of trepidation because my colleagues at Lake House, the newspaper office I worked in, cautioned me, perhaps half-jokingly, that Fulbright grants were given only to “half-bright students”. Mercifully, it wasn’t so.
I had arrived armed, amongst other things, with a packet of dry cashew nuts to Dr Gregory and Marie Sathananthan. I had never met them before. The cashews, which survived Customs inspections in Bombay (now Mumbai), Beirut, London and JFK, were a gift from Marie’s mother, a family friend from our neighborhood in Borella.
Since I was terribly scared of venturing into New York’s crime-infested subways, I held onto the package until the Sathananthans arrived at International House, my resident dorm at 500 Riverside Drive, on their way to the first SLANY meeting. So, I found myself, willingly or unwillingly, on a ride to the Sri Lanka Mission that Sunday afternoon.
The early history of SLANY, which has survived for 48 long years, would not be complete without the multiple anecdotes which were widespread in the community. As a newspaperman doubling as a raconteur, I was quick to pick them up.
And as the only accredited New York and UN correspondent for the Ceylon “Daily News” and the “Sunday Observer” in the 1970s, I provided extensive coverage – the positive, the negative and the hilarious — because there was never a dull moment in the formative years of the Association.
When Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was a fledgling member of the United Nations back in the late 1950s, the Lankan expatriate community in New York was apparently minuscule, estimated at a measly 300 compared with a head count of about 6,000 to 8,000 today.
I was told, that if ever there was an association of Sri Lankans in the pre-1971 era, it could have held its inaugural meeting in one of those oversized phone booths at the Grand Central station—an event that would have found its way into the Guinness Book of World Records in an age of “phone-booth cramming.”
Meanwhile, one of the stories, as recalled by expatriates who landed in the shores of this country in the early 1950s, was that even the Sri Lanka Mission to the UN was so woefully understaffed they were desperately looking for Lankans to boost the delegation to the annual General Assembly sessions, September through December.
According to one anecdote, Sri Lankan diplomats were seen hanging around the corner of First Avenue and 42nd street, right across from the UN building, determined to grab the first Lankan who crossed the street– and forcibly anoint him a member of our delegation.
When SLANY hosted its first Sri Lanka New Year in 1977, I filed a story for the Sunday Observer which ran with the headline: KIRIBATH AND LUNU MIRIS IN NEW YORK.
When the validity of the SLANY elections was challenged in a court of law in 1979, the headline read: “HORA VOTES” BY LANKANS IN USA. The “hora votes” was a direct quote attributed to a former SLANY secretary who filed the legal challenge because of allegations of ballot-stuffing at the elections.
And when two expatriates were engaged in a bout of fisticuffs, beating the daylights out of each other, at an annual general meeting at a school auditorium in the Bronx, a New York city borough, the lead paragraph in my news story read: “When Sri Lankans want to enjoy some fun and frolic, they either go to the Barnum & Bailey circus at Madison Square Garden or the annual general meeting of SLANY – whichever comes first.”
Meanwhile, a one-time SLANY President, Sydney Silva, gifted with a vibrant sense of self-deprecating humour, once told a stunned gathering of Lankans at the annual Summer Festival in Denville, New Jersey, that two of the distinguished patrons of SLANY, both ambassadors, along with the president of SLANY, were “gays”.
And seconds later, he delivered the punch line when he said they were “gays”– not in the American sense but in the Sri Lankan sense, as he singled out, amidst loud laughter, the three “gays” as LIYANA-GE, GURU-GE AND KALPA-GE.
Jay Liyanage was the legendary President of SLANY, Dr Ananda Guruge was a Buddhist scholar, a civil servant and our ambassador to the US while Dr Stanley Kalpage was Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN, a distinguished Professor at Peradeniya University and Warden of Marrs Hall, where I spent four years as a resident undergrad. They were both Patrons of SLANY.
When SLANY was born, it had three primary goals: promoting and fostering social and cultural activities; presenting a proper image before the American public; and providing advice and assistance to any incoming Sri Lankans (of which I was one of the beneficiaries).
At a personal level, I was terrified of the hazards of subway travel, scared of the impending winter weather and unhappy with American food, including hamburgers, cheeseburgers, tuna fish sandwiches and pasta.
There was only a single Sri Lankan restaurant in mid-town Manhattan— the “Ceylon-India Inn” – but unaffordable to students like me, even as I refused to eat “hamburgers” erroneously thinking it had “ham” in it. I fancied myself “Jewish” for not eating pork because “Muslims” and “halal food” were perhaps never heard of at that time.
But all that changed dramatically with the birth of SLANY when I cultivated new friendships—and found myself invited to rice-and-curry family dinners on weekends.
Meanwhile, the links between SLANY and the United Nations were exceptionally strong. The Association was born in the shadow of the UN and the first meeting was held at the Sri Lanka mission to the UN on Third Avenue and 40th street.
At that meeting, the initial introductions came from Ambassador Shirley Amerasinghe (Patron of SLANY) and his deputy Y. Yogasunderam, Reinforcing the UN link further was the pro-tem chairman, Raju Coomaraswamy, a former Civil Servant, and later Assistant Secretary-General at the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
Meanwhile, Dudley Madawela, a senior UN official, was elected the first SLANY president while UN Assistant Secretary-General Andrew Joseph was an active participant at all SLANY events.
The UN’s presence was visible all over, beginning with the first meeting, attended by several UN officials, with Jehan Raheem, another senior UNDP official, elected Treasurer.
Still, there were several non-UN staffers who were in the forefront of the Association in its formative years, including Ranjit Swaris (a founding father and a perennial live wire), Wakeley Paul (who largely drafted the constitution), Edward Benedict, Lawrence Gunetilleke, Vijitha Fernando, Phyllis Perera and Indran Rajaratnam, among others.
The doctors who made significant contributions during the early years included Gregory Sathananthan, Hatim Hyderally, Dunstan Pulle, Ben Rajapakse and Wije Kottahachchi while some of the notable presidents of that era also included Sydney Silva and Diva Sandrasagra.
Buddhi Abeyasekera, a former SLANY president had the double distinction of holding two official positions: Director of Tourism and later Director of Air Lanka. Vajira Gunawardana, the die-hard old Royalist and the self-proclaimed “Buddhist Santa Claus” (who says he is now on the verge of retirement), was the biggest single attraction to Sri Lankan kids at annual Christmas Parties).
The wives played a significant supporting role in the founding– and the success of the Association, which also had the powerful backing of Ambassador Neville Kanakaratne (Patron), based in Washington DC, one of the best non-career diplomats of his generation.
Incidentally, the most comprehensive history of SLANY—a 1996 “Special Issue to Commemorate 25 Years of Service” — was authored by one of the most distinguished former presidents, Jay Liyanage, who was also the first Honorary Life Member. In recounting the first 25-year history, he highlights some of the key contributions made by every single expatriate https://www.slanyusa.org/history.html
The news coverage of SLANY included its philanthropic activities, formation of the Sri Lanka Overseas Assistance Trust Appeal (SLOATA), the annual cricket festival, the Sri Lankan Trade Fair at the Statler Hilton in 1978, the annual summer picnics, the inauguration of the Olympic Rifle Fund boosting our team at the Olympics plus the annual Sri Lankan New Year and Christmas parties (the earliest ones being held at the UN international school in Waterside Plaza).
Meanwhile, most of the pioneering expats who arrived in the US in the 1960s and 1970s eventually opted for dual Sri Lankan-American citizenship embracing the best of both worlds.
In his message to SLANY back in December 1996, Jayantha Dhanapala, a former Ambassador and UN Under-Secretary-General, very appropriately quoted President Abraham Lincoln, who famously said: “Never consider an immigrant to become a loyal American citizen unless he retains his love for his motherland.”
As the older generation seeks splendid retirement (and since journalists rarely ever retire, I tell my friends at the UN, that I am too old to retire), I find that a new generation of millennials is taking over SLANY as worthy successors.
And rightly so.