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Take Five: Law student Sadena Thevarajah on why she's going hungry for a world afar

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 12, 2009 - Sadena Thevarajah, a second-year Washington University law student, realizes that it's an uphill climb trying to convince Americans who are worried about losing their jobs and their homes why they should care about an on-going humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, a speck of an island 10,000 miles away.

But for Thevarajah, 26, who emigrated to Miami from Sri Lanka with her parents when she was just 3, it comes down to this: "Sri Lanka is such a small place to us, but we're such a large place to them.''

And there it is. Her gentle reminder that even as Americans have turned inward to survive an ever-growing economic crisis, the world still turns.

Despite the promising aroma of the pending lunch business, Thevarajah was drinking only water in the Meshuggah coffee shop in the Loop on Tuesday as she prepared for class. She was on the eighth day of a hunger strike to call attention to the plight of more than 200,000 Tamil civilian refugees caught in the middle of fighting between rebels and government forces in Sri Lanka, which is just off the coast of India.

Thevarajah, who is of Tamil descent, and seven other members of a Washington-based group called People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (Pearl) are blogging about their hunger strike on a "Starving for Peace" webpage.  

"We know it's a hard fight, but we have to do something,'' Thevarajah said. "It's going to be difficult. It always has been difficult. I would just appeal to Americans' sense of knowing what is allowed in our global structure. If people are allowed to be herded into safe zones - which the government and Red Cross created - and told that this is somewhere safe they can stay, they should not get shelled immediately after. That is unfair.''

Before law school, Thevarajah majored in public health at Johns Hopkins University and worked in community health in Baltimore. Although she grew up as "an American kid,'' Thevarajah said she was always mindful of her ethnic roots and visited Sri Lanka in 2002 during a temporary peace. Her parents still live in Miami: Her mother is a veterinarian and her father an engineer. Although her mother's brother lives in Sri Lanka, she says most of her relatives have been displaced by years of war and live in countries around the world.

Thevarajah said about 30 St. Louisans have pledged their support to her cause, so far. She said the hunger strike will probably last until Feb. 20, when the group plans to hold an advocacy day in Washington.

What does your organization want Americans to know about this humanitarian crisis?

Thevarajah: PEARL works to draw attention to Tamil civilians who have been oppressed over the years in Sri Lanka, and a lot of the hardships they've been facing. Our latest effort with this hunger strike is due to events in January when 200,000 to 300,000 Tamils were trapped within a very small area in the north of Sri Lanka during fighting between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTT (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). They get attacked every day. The only hospital in the area was shelled nine times while patients were inside. It's unacceptable. We were outraged and realized that this could not happen in silence anymore.

What are you trying to achieve?

Thevarajah: In terms of immediate goals, it is simply to allow aid, food, medical supplies and independent journalists into the area. Right now, everything going on is shrouded in mystery. We are only receiving reports from the two sides that are in conflict. We need independent journalists there to verify accounts of how many people are actually hurt. The Red Cross and the United Nations have said there are food crises in that area. We want the U.S. to ensure that these things are being allowed into the region and that the people affected are receiving them. Longer term, we want to see a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. It's been 30 years of war and 60 years of oppressive policies. Without the U.S. intervening, we don't think there is a way for a sustainable peace.

Why the United States and not the United Nations?

Thevarajah: There are Tamil communities in countries all over the world that are voicing their concerns, but we're all aware of the power of the U.S., and what effect our opinion has on how a lot of other countries act, as well as how the United Nations will act.

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement saying that the bombing of that hospital needs to stop and she was urging that both sides of the conflict call a ceasefire because now is the time for political talks.

Why a hunger strike and how does it work?

Thevarajah: A lot of people have asked that. It is because we needed to convey the urgency. By my not eating, people can understand what it feels like for all those Tamils who are not eating. I am representing Tamil civilians, and this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like. Hunger strikes have been used as nonviolent resistance for years, even for this cause.

We're drinking clear liquids, and taking vitamins to sustain ourselves. When we receive [a set amount of pledges], we'll allow ourselves one meal because we're finding (that) our thoughts aren't as eloquent as they were. If we are the faces of this advocacy struggle, we need to be able to communicate effectively.

People always say, well, it doesn't look like any of you have a lot of weight to lose. We've consulted physicians about this. More people wanted to fast but were ruled out for underlying conditions. We are trying to do it as safely as possible.

The first three days were the hardest. I think that it's getting better. The most difficult part is getting to class or carrying my law books up flights of stairs. I find myself winded after a flight of stairs. But all of us are very passionate and energetic.

Why do you think this will work?

Thevarajah: Not enough people know what is going on [in Sri Lanka]. While the eight of us will continuously fast, people can fast for a meal with us in solidarity. When they pledge that meal on our website, a letter is sent to their representatives in Congress as well as the state department. We've been calling the representatives and senators of all these people who have pledged on behalf of this cause and we let them know how many constituents have done this. We've received great response so far.

So our campaign involves a direct mechanism for people to be involved in it and for our members of Congress to know. We're not hunger-striking outside the White House hoping President Barack Obama will see the eight of us and know what's going on. At the end, our goal is to have 10,000 letters generated. We feel like that component as well as the advocacy to Congress makes the difference.

To learn more about Sri Lanka, click here.    

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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