Where are you from?

Sri Lanka

What was it like growing up?

There are many obvious differences between Sri Lanka and the US. Sri Lanka is a small, multi-ethnic, multi-religious tropical island in which Christians are a small minority, behind Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. While it is not a wealthy country, it does provide free education through university and free healthcare to all. I had a pretty ordinary middle class life, not that different from a life that someone with a similar socio-economic status in the US might have had.

What brought you to Cleveland?

My wife got a job here and so we came here in 1988 with our two daughters after having spent five years in other parts of the country.

What were your first thoughts about coming to the United States of America? Did those change?

I actually came to the US twice. The first time I was excited to come since it was to do doctoral studies in physics in the US and the US is a leader in higher education and science research. My wife-to-be arrived from Sri Lanka two years later to also pursue doctoral studies and we got married in the US. After my wife and I got our doctorates, we returned to Sri Lanka to live and work there. But the civil war that broke out in 1983 made it dangerous for people of my ethnicity (I am a member of a minority group) and so we decided to come back to the US with our older daughter who was then a newborn. Clearly the second arrival was under much sadder circumstances than the first and we arrived with considerable apprehension and facing an uncertain future.

What challenges did you face as an immigrant transitioning here?

Since we could speak English, are familiar with western culture, and worked in universities and research labs and other scientific environments that have quite a few visitors and immigrants from other countries, I cannot say that we faced many challenges. In fact, except for some very few and minor instances, we have been welcomed and treated cordially by everyone.

What is your occupation?

I am a physicist and educator.

How have other Clevelanders made you feel welcomed?

Mainly by treating me as if I belonged here. From the time we moved here to Shaker Heights, people have treated us as if it was perfectly natural for us to be here and not being treated as a foreigner is an important part of feeling welcomed. Shaker has a diverse population and our family feels like we are an integral part of the fabric of the community.

What traditions or customs do you continue to practice?

Apart from often eating food that in native to Sri Lanka, we do not practice any customs and traditions that date back to our lives in Sri Lanka. This is also partly because many customs are associated with religions and since my wife and I grew up in Christian families, we do not practice things that are associated with other religions.

What do you love about Cleveland?

It has been a very good place for us to live and work and bring up children. It has the benefits of being a city without being too big. I have found the people to be friendly.

Why is it so important to welcome immigrants and refugees?

I think that they add a richness and diversity to people’s experiences and help remove the kind of insular thinking that can lead to tribalistic behavior. I am sometimes disturbed by what I see in the media where people seem to be so frightened by the presence of others who are not like them. Coming into daily contact with people from many different nations and backgrounds will, I hope, help to remove some of that fear and hostility.

Why is it important to travel abroad?

Traveling abroad is undoubtedly a luxury that is beyond the reach of many people. But if they could do so even in a small way, by going to neighboring countries like Mexico and Canada, they might realize that people the world over care about pretty much the same things such as making a living, taking care of their families, enjoying the company of friends, contributing to society, and things like that. This is easy to forget when the media bombards us with the differences among us. People might also learn that some other countries actually do some things better than the US, such as providing better health, education, and social services to all their people.