Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans names winners of prestigious annual awards

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The awards, which include the Lifetime Service Award, the Leadership Award, and the Humanitarian Award, will be presented at the Council on Asian Pacific American’s annual Heritage Month Dinner on Friday, May 16th. Along with the presentation to the Minnesota Sri Lanka’s Friendship Foundation of the Humanitarian Award, Thong Le Ha will receive the Life Time Service Award, and Martha Vickery of the Korean Quarterly will receive the Leadership Award.

In an interview, Mr. Liyanapathiranange, the CEO of the Minnesota Sri Lanka Friendship Foundation, known as Srilal or Lal, talked about the work that The Minnesota Sri Lanka Friendship has done, what it hopes to achieve in the future, and what the local/ global connections mean for the community here, in Sri Lanka, and around the world.

CAPM’s 2008 Humanitarian Award was not going to him alone, Srilal stressed. The MN Sri Lankan Friendship foundation has a board of directors, but he said that the good work accomplished by the organization is because of the thousands of volunteers and contributors that have made its humanitarian projects a reality. “Participation comes from all the people in Minnesota,” he said.

The Founders and current leadership of the Minnesota Sri Lanka Friendship Foundation, who will be accepting the award from CAPM, are Ananda Srilal Liyanapathiranange, CEO; Virendra Ratnayake, President; Mithula Perera, Vice President; Udi Perera, Treasurer; and Nevanka Goonewardena, Secretary.

One of the major projects of the Foundation in recent years has been its work in post-Boxing Day Tsunami Sri Lanka, where entire industries and communities were violently torn off the coast. The award is mainly in recognition of this project, by far the Foundation’s largest endeavor, though the organization has engaged in many successful humanitarian projects. Srilal Liyanapathiranange, then President of the Minnesota Sri Lanka Friendship Foundation, traveled to Sri Lanka in January 2005, immediately after the disaster, to assess the damage along 500 miles of coastland and to develop a response. “We met with the ambassador, saw the situation in Sri Lanka, and figured out what we could do to help.” The award is not only recognition of the Friendship Foundation’s work but also is about appreciating the involvement of the community, he said.

After assessing the needs of the victims of the tsunami, the project determined three goals to focus on. The Foundation set out to raise funds for a community center, to rebuild a large number of houses, and to help people find new livelihoods, after theirs were destroyed by the massive wave. “This project is a gift from the people of Minnesota to the people of Sri Lanka,” said the CEO. While the Sri Lankan population in Minnesota is not especially large, the greater community of Minnesota came together, contributing almost all of the funds for the project. Kay and Dan Schimek of Apple Valley contributed a large sum of money, and area schools, businesses, and individuals chipped in.

After the outpouring of support from the community, the MN Sri Lanka Friendship Foundation organized the project. “We did not use any of the money collected for the tsunami for our traveling expenses,” Srilal said; he and other Board Members traveled to Sri Lanka six times to ensure the project’s success, all of which was funded out of their own pockets.

“We feel very emotionally about helping people over there,” Lal said. Arriving at the Southern coast of the island only days after the tsunami, he said he “saw the pictures the government didn’t want people to see.” The devastation was incomprehensible, the death unavoidable.

“We select projects based on the impact on the community, how it is going to help the people,” Mr. Liyanapathiranange said. Education is one of the most important of the Foundation’s goals at the moment he said. This is the key to addressing many of the fundamental challenges to the betterment of Sri Lanka. The community center, for example, included a library, preschool and internet and technology center. They are currently planning a library restoration project and setting up scholarships for poor children.

Education, Srilal said, was also one of the key elements in solving the conflict that has waged in Sri Lanka for years between groups divided by both ethnicity and language. The project did not discriminate based on religion or ethnicity. “We are very proud of the fact that three Tamil families received houses built by our project,” he said. Especially in the South of the island, where the population is very Singhalese, the Foundation works to minimize the division between the communities in the long run. “We are not looking at the political side of it, we are looking at the human side of it.”

“If you can spread global language, English, in Sri Lanka, it will help build a relationship between the communities,” Lal said. “I think, in the long run, education is the key to solving this problem.”

“This is a great opportunity for the people of Minnesota to participate in a global sense,” he continued. The MN Sri Lanka Friendship Foundation continuously works to foster stronger ties between Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan community in Minnesota, and the community at large.

Being recognized through this award, the Board members of the Foundation said, “inspires us to do even more for the community, to do more work.” The award is good for the community, as well – people that donated money are getting recognition for their contributions, and they can see that their generosity is truly accomplishing something.