By Aanjalie Collure
This photo was taken of my mother — my Amma — and me in the small, one-bedroom Toronto apartment we lived in when we first immigrated from Sri Lanka. During this time, we were both grappling with what it meant to be new immigrants in our own way: Amma was navigating a difficult job search and figuring out what it meant to be the mother of a child slowly developing a different accent from her own; I was trying to convince racist teachers I didn't need ESL classes and learning to eat spaghetti correctly so I could fit in with friends in my predominantly Italian neighborhood.
However, it wasn't these small predicaments that defined our lives as new immigrants, but our steadfast commitment to stand strong together through it all. Facing the world together became even more important six years later, when a natural disaster struck Sri Lanka and made my small family of three feel more alone and disconnected than ever before.
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Most members of the Sri Lankan diaspora can recall at least one distinct and haunting memory from the moments following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. For most, it’s huddling together with extended relatives in front of the TV, hushing gossiping aunties as news anchors announced an updated death count. For others, it’s sitting at the kitchen table, watching fathers go through calling card after calling card, hoping that one would finally establish a clear connection with family back home. For me, it’s riding home with my face pressed against a frigid car window, feeling utterly betrayed by my favorite late-night radio show, “Lovers and Other Strangers.”
I was 13, and this was no more than three weeks after the tsunami had catapulted Sri Lanka from “Isn’t that in the Caribbean somewhere?” to the lead in every news story. With this newfound recognition, I was convinced that Don Jackson — the sultry-voiced host of “Lovers and Other Strangers” — would dedicate a song to the victims of the tragic natural disaster. He could always select the perfect tune to lift even the dampest of spirits: some Norah Jones for the bitter divorcée who made headlines for setting her ex-husband’s car on fire, or a dose of Phil Collins for the politician who celebrated her 60th anniversary with a high school sweetheart. If these seemingly trivial affairs warranted a shoutout in “Lovers and Other Strangers,” then surely, post-tsunami Sri Lanka deserved one as well.
Of course, it didn’t come.
“Facing the world together became even more important six years later, when a natural disaster struck Sri Lanka and made my small family of three feel more alone and disconnected than ever before.”
Although my reaction to Don Jackson’s ignorance was certainly ridiculous, it was the final blow to a girl who hoped the world would still care about Sri Lanka three weeks after its tsunami dominated the airwaves It was heartbreaking to witness how quickly Sri Lanka was dropped by every major Canadian news station, replaced by news about Jen and Brad’s historic split. For whatever reason, images of destroyed infrastructure, newly orphaned children and rampant humanitarian corruption in post-tsunami Sri Lanka couldn’t manage to capture the Western world’s attention quite like images of Brennifer’s demise.
Looking back now, this was likely one of the first times I realized that the stories that mattered to me were of ancillary importance to mainstream media and news. I felt invisible, polarized and forgotten.
My family wasn’t new to these feelings. When we immigrated to Canada from Sri Lanka in 1994, we left behind a country that was grappling with one of the most violent civil conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries. I remember my father flipping through every possible evening news channel, hoping that at least one could provide additional information about a suicide bombing in one of Sri Lanka’s most populous districts. We were constantly waiting for our nightly news programs to care about attacks against Sri Lankan schools and hospitals, incidents we heard about all too often from relatives back home. As such, it came as no surprise to my parents when these same news channels discarded Sri Lanka from their headlines a mere three weeks after the tsunami hit its shores.
While we recognized the lack of adequate coverage for tragedies unfolding in Sri Lanka, we failed to do anything about it. We didn’t write letters to our local newspapers or urge our politicians to call attention to these atrocities. I didn’t call Don Jackson, demanding he dedicate at least one song to the 250,000 victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami or the 100,000 people who lost their lives during the Sri Lankan civil war.
“I felt invisible, polarized and forgotten.”
We had no excuse. While we spent decades feeling betrayed by the Don Jacksons, Anderson Coopers and Wolf Blitzers of the world, Sri Lankan journalists were risking their lives to try and make the world hear the country’s story.
In 2009, during the height of Sri Lanka’s civil war, my uncle was one of these journalists. While attempting to raise attention to mounting political corruption and violence, he was persistently harassed and followed by military officials. While he thankfully survived after a year in hiding, many other Sri Lankan reporters were arbitrarily jailed, attacked and murdered while the world stood idle.
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As a Global Health Corps fellow in 2014-15, I learned that I too could play a part in leveraging stories that are marginalized and underrepresented in mainstream media and news. I spent my fellowship year as the global communications fellow at IntraHealth International in Washington, D.C., where I worked with advocates from around the world to raise attention to attacks against health workers and facilities in conflict-affected regions. Here, I witnessed the power of strong advocacy and communications firsthand: After our report on recent international attacks was successfully placed in The New York Times, numerous members of U.S. Congress expressed interest in learning more about this issue.
Now, I’m able to help organizations raise the profile of major global health issues to impact policy, practice and funding. What began as a personal conviction — to never again remain complacent in the face of injustice — has transformed into a humbling and fulfilling career.
I’ve waited for years for others to tell the stories I desperately wanted to hear to feel less alone and less disconnected. I’ve waited for top journalists, news anchors and radio hosts to recognize the under-discussed global tragedies that claim far too many lives every day. I may sometimes still feel invisible, polarized and forgotten — but I’ve got my pen in hand, and I’m not waiting anymore.
Aanjalie Collure is a global health and human rights advocate from Toronto, Ontario. She currently works as an associate at Global Health Strategies in New York City and is an alumna of Global Health Corps, a nonprofit organization that supports fellows working for global-health causes.