Strangers In A Strange Land: Sri Lankans In Staten Island

on December 09 2013 9:47 AM
Sri Lankan restaurant in Staten Island
Sri Lankan restaurant in Staten Island www.bridgeandtunnelclub.com

South Asians form an important, and growing, portion of the United States' increasingly kaleidoscopic population. Bewilderingly diverse, South Asians comprise Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalese, Afghans and others. 

One of the most unique and obscure parts of this large diaspora comprise people who arrived from the fabled island of Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon). The largest community of Sri Lankans in the U.S. (and the second-biggest concentration in North America after Toronto) can be found in the unlikely neighborhood of Tompkinsville in the northeastern corner of the borough of Staten Island in New York City.

According to the Little Sri Lanka website, at least 5,000 Sri Lankans currently make their home in and around Tompkinsville -- a neighborhood once made almost desolate by the construction of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in 1964. Like other South Asian immigrants of the late 1960s, the initial wave of Sri Lankans consisted of well-educated professionals, i.e., doctors, engineers, accountants, etc., owing to strict immigration policies. By the 1990s, Sri Lankans trickled into New York City in the wake of the end of deadly civil war that ravaged the island nation for more than 25 years. By this point, the pool of migrants had a more working-class character than in the late 1960s.

Over the past dozen years or so, the Sri Lankan population in Staten Island has increased by more than sixfold. Little Sri Lanka suggested that Tompkinsville attracted this particular migrant group largely due to its large supply of affordable property, its proximity to the job mecca of Manhattan (via the nearby Staten Island Ferry) and the tiny Sri Lankan community that already existed there previously.

In an article written by N.F.P. Fernandes that was published in City Limits Magazine in April 2000, the author spoke of a Sri Lankan accountant named Leslie Gunaratne who settled in Staten Island in 1967 with his family, likely making them the first Sri Lankans ever to make the borough their home. Gunaratne, Fernandes wrote, was “charmed” by Staten Island’s “slower rhythms” and “small-town” feel. “I simply fell in love with Staten Island,” Gunaratne said.

In just a few months, Gunaratne helped his five brothers, four sisters and their families move to the U.S., Fernandes wrote. By the time Gunaratne moved to Houston, Texas, in 1979, he estimated that about 80 percent of the approximately 500 Sri Lankans on Staten Island at that time “were connected to me by blood or marriage.”

Today, Tompkinsville (which also has large black, Mexican and Albanian Muslim communities) serves as a hub for New York's Sri Lankans, featuring restaurants, shops, video stores, news-agents, a Buddhist temple and many grocery stores. “Staten Island is a name that’s known in big Sri Lankan cities,” Bante Kondanna, a temple priest, told Fernandes. “People know that if they run into trouble while visiting New York, they can come to Staten Island and find a Sri Lankan who will help them.” Of the nearly 500 Sri Lankans who arrived in New York legally between 1990 and 1994, almost one-fourth chose to move to Staten Island, according to the City Planning Department. (By contrast, a mere 1.5 percent of all immigrants to New York during that period said that they intended to settle in the borough.)

As a bizarre aside, Fernandes noted that a disproportionate number of Sri Lankans, like many poor immigrants before them, work at unpleasant, low-paying jobs that no one else is willing to do -- in this case, toiling in the porn shops in and around Times Square in Manhattan. Fernandes said that the principal conflict within the Sri Lankan community does not necessarily arise from the remaining conflicts between Tamils and Sinhalese (the two ethnic groups who fought the brutal civil war in their shared homeland and now live side by side in Staten Island), but rather with some peoples' distaste for their fellow expats who peddle porn. “Some professional Sri Lankans worry their community’s reputation will be sullied by the sex-store workers,” one Sri Lankan complained to Fernandes.

Given the socially conservative nature of Sri Lankan culture, few sex-shop workers admit how they earn their money. “They’re too embarrassed to even tell their families what they’re doing,” added the temple priest Kondanna. But at that time, despite then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's aggressive moves against the porn-shop industry, such dreary, low-paying jobs were one of the few positions available to desperate, poor immigrants, some of whom arrived in the U.S. illegally. During that period, Fernandes estimated that Sri Lankans also owned between 10 and 15 porn stores, or nearly 10 percent of the 140 to 150 such businesses operating in Times Square then.

Fernandes observed that some middle-class and upper- middle-class Sri Lankans who live in Staten Island often attend temple services in eastern Queens (a two-hour drive by car) to avoid socializing with their poorer peers, some of whom work in sex shops. “The [Sri Lankan] community doesn’t like what [the sex-shop workers] are doing,” said Leslie's brother Hector Gunaratne, who arrived in Staten Island in 1973. “They give the community a bad name.” But poor Sri Lankans working in porn shops is qualitatively no different from the struggles of earlier immigrant groups who were forced to toil in difficult, unappealing jobs to survive -- like the Italian ditch-diggers, Irish railway laborers or Chinese fruit peddlers from a century ago.

In addition, Fernandes wrote, “ultimately, the particular patterns of this Sri Lankan enclave are a reminder that the city’s ethnic neighborhoods aren’t endpoints. Instead, they are way-stations, defined largely by accidents of personal preference and history, where immigrants are transformed into Americans.”

Initially, most Sri Lankans arriving in Staten Island came from the Sinhalese ethnic group, which dominate their homeland. By the 1980s, minority Tamils joined the exodus to New York -- but, any remaining ethnic tensions and hatred meant nothing 10,000 miles away in a strange land where everyone simply struggles to survive and, hopefully, prosper. Along Victory Boulevard, a key Sri Lankan thoroughfare in Staten Island, Sinhalese and Tamils live, shop, eat and work next to one another without rancor. “We’re in America to make money. Who’s got time to relive the problems at home?” a Tamil man named Mohan told Fernandes.

Neelika Jayawardane, an associate professor of English Literature at the State University of New York-Oswego, who was born in Sri Lanka (but grew up in Zambia, in southern Africa), told International Business Times that Sri Lankans exhibit tremendous sociability, friendliness and gregariousness. These qualities predominate in Staten Island, where Sri Lankan Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Christians mingle. While people may feel strongly about political events in Sri Lanka, these issues are not at the forefront of what the community here focuses on expressing publically. Partly, she states, that's due to the higher percentage of Sinhala people in Staten Island, as compared to Toronto or London, cities to which many Sri Lankan Tamils immigrated as a direct result of the civil war. Tamil communities in those cities have staged organized political demonstrations to voice their concerns about the ways in which the state of Sri Lanka has waged war on Tamil civilians, especially in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka. “As a result of a 27-year-long war, even people in a community as diverse as the Sri Lankans in Staten Island may feel animosity toward political and military leaders, but tend to maintain their views to the private sphere,” she added.

Jayawardane said that another reason animosities between ethnic groups are not as plainly expressed here, in the U.S., is because the political conditions in the homeland are not in evidence here. One's ethnic group may have been increasingly marginalized in one's home country, and the more dominant ethnic group may have benefitted -- “but here, in the new country, those particular politics are absent, and your home country's political rivals are not making decisions that affect your life in the same way.”

In fact, she adds, here, in the new country, both ethnic groups may be somewhat marginalized due to the racial politics in the U.S. “So people tend to band together more according to class, and aid each other through the vagaries of immigration, childcare, finding good schools and the like,” she said.

In April 2012, the Staten Island Advance reported on the local Sri Lankan community as it celebrated its New Year at the Cricket Field in Ocean Breeze. "This event, we are hosting because the Sri Lankan Association of New York's motto is 'togetherness,'" association President Vidura Jayasooriya told the Advance. "We want to promote Sri Lankan culture in New York, and we are focusing on younger kids."

The article, describing children playing traditional Sri Lankan games and a cornucopia of Sri Lankan cuisine and sweets, depicts a community firmly established on American soil. "We have the largest Sri Lankan population outside of Sri Lanka on Staten Island," said Sharmila Mohammed, an adviser to the College of Staten Island's Sri Lankan Students Association. Even Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona, the ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, attended the celebration. "May this event bring the community back together and make sure we can progress as a community in the future," he said.

While Sri Lankans in Staten Island have no desire to replicate the ethnic divisions that have decimated their native land, they do not ignore some of the problems there. In the wake of the devastating tsunami that smashed into Sri Lanka in December 2004, the Tompkinsville enclave mobilized to help and sent cash, food, clothes, medicines and other relief supplies to their needy peers on the other side of the world. Some in Staten Island lost friends and family in the disaster.

Sri Lankans remain a largely invisible and overlooked ethnic minority community in the New York area -- to most in the U.S., they are probably indistinguishable from other South Asians. Moreover, due to their small numbers, Sri Lankans have not entered into New York City politics in any meaningful way. Perhaps in the future, if the size of the Sri Lankan community grows, it will make its voice heard.

More News from IBT MEDIA