Hassina Leelarathna dead: co-founder of a Sri Lankan newspaper in the USA

Hassina Leelarathna, co-founder of the only Sri Lankan newspaper in the US and an activist who spurred other immigrants to help when disaster struck her homeland, has died at the age of 73.

Leelarathna died in Sherman Oaks on October 17 after battling lung cancer for the past five years, her son Sahan Gamage said.

After moving to California from her native Sri Lanka, Leelarathna founded the Sri Lankan Express in 1981 with her husband Deeptha Leelarathna.

The newspaper initially appeared bi-weekly in English and went fully online in 2015.

For her it was an “intense” love work. Leelarathna worked full time in other jobs, most recently as a financial analyst for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Hassina Leelarathna co-hosted a bilingual radio show called “Tharanga” which focused on news, music and culture. The program began in San Francisco at KFJC-FM, pictured here, before migrating to Los Angeles when the family moved south in 1985.

(Sahan Gamage)

The couple also broadcast the Tharanga radio program in English and Sinhala for a Sri Lankan community that counts nearly 20,000 in Los Angeles County and supports about 10 Buddhist temples.

After her husband’s death in 2006, Leelarathna ran the newspaper alone, shedding light on the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka and the problems of new immigrants in the country, including health, education and the economy.

The Express also highlighted the achievements of the immigrants and their children.

“If a Sri Lankan won the spelling bee, he or she would be mated,” said Gamage, 38. “We’re small. We have to celebrate each other. “

Leelarathna played a dual role as event documentary and participant.

She was ubiquitous at rallies and protests, interviewing people for the newspaper, and sometimes using the megaphone to pump the crowd.

She did not hesitate to tell people what she thought they should do, whether it be to raise money for tsunami victims or show greater respect for Buddhist monks.

“She never stayed silent when she could do something better, like to draw attention to crises or inhumanity,” said Podinilame Dissanayake, a long-time friend from Duarte who delivered the adhesive paper from the couple’s house in Pacoima to the printer in Val Gardena. “Her character was characterized by two different characteristics: her passion for journalism and uncompromising patriotism towards her country of birth.”

After a tsunami struck Sri Lanka and neighboring countries in December 2004, the two reported in detail about their efforts to help the victims.

During a visit to his homeland, an island nation off the south coast of India, Deeptha Leelarathna discovered that international aid was stuck in ports or was being siphoned off by corrupt officials.

The Sri Lankan Express was among the first to report corruption and inefficiency in connection with the tsunami among government agencies and international aid agencies.

Hassina Lalarathna urged Sri Lankan immigrants to raise money for disaster victims or to do social services and said, “Why are you silent? Let’s get together and make it happen, ”the Ven recalled. Punyasiri Aparekke, director of the Maithree Vihara Buddhist meditation center in Sun Valley.

Hassina Leelarathna at a lectern.

Hassina Leelarathna speaks on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s Independence Day in 2008.

(Sahan Gamage)

“I would say more than 95% of Sri Lanka’s older generation know them and their contributions,” said Aparekke. “She was a woman with a strong back. She was so dedicated, so concerned, even about the tiny things in life. “

Hassina Leelarathna was born on June 22, 1948 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

At the Times of Ceylon, she met another reporter, Deeptha Leelarathna, whose contributions on politics and science earned him two grants, including one at Stanford.

In 1975 the couple left their homeland to move to the United States, first in the Bay Area, then in Southern California.

Leelarathna, who grew up in a Muslim family in Sri Lanka’s small Malay community, had converted to Buddhism and become religious, and attended weekly meditation sessions at Maithree Vihara.

She graduated from San Jose State University with a Masters in English and loved Shakespeare and Mysteries and read every novel by John Grisham.

She was a “diehard detective” who pushed sources to explain herself and was also a dedicated fact checker, Gamage said.

“She was really good at asking the right questions,” he said. “Why do we spend X amount on this? Why are there two purchases when you only need one? “

Leelarathna wrote “all the time” and for the past few years has been working on a book documenting the history of the Sinhalese people in the United States

The book is more than halfway through, according to Dissanayake, and friends are hoping to check their computer files to see if there is a way to complete it.

Gamage, a systems analyst who describes himself as “a terrible writer,” has no plans to take over the paper.

Without a successor, his future is in jeopardy.

“When my friends and I cleaned the garage and looked at my mother’s things and the old issues, they were amazed at everything the newspaper had done. The depth of the coverage – suicide bombings, attacks, assassinations, aid – and the pictures and headlines were fascinating. It was talking about real life, it was raw, ”said Gamage. “We have to save it, but how?”

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