VOICE FOR THE SRI LANKAN DIASPORA Journalist and Activist Hassina Leelarathna Dies

Por: Nora Estrada
Hassina Leelarathna, co-founder of Sri Lanka Express

By Julian Do, Ethnic Media Services

Hassina Leelarathna, who co-founded with her husband the first weekly
newspaper to serve the Sri Lankan diaspora in the United States, died on
October 17 at home in Los Angeles. The cause was cancer. She was 73.
A respected voice in a community that now numbers 60,000 concentrated
in Los Angeles and New York, Hassina was also known for promoting
cross-ethnic dialogue and for incubating a new generation of Sri
Lankan-American journalists.

“Historically, ethnic newspapers have been committed to recording events
in communities ignored by the larger society, serving as a forum for the
debate of ideas, elevating the self-perception of stereotyped communities,
affirming their rightful place as members of the nation, and defending their
rights. The Sri Lanka Express accomplished these and more things,” writes
Dr. José Luis Benavides, journalism professor and director of the Tom and
Ethel Bradley Center at California State University-Northridge, in his tribute.

Born in Sri Lanka, Hassina immigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area in
1975 with her late husband Deeptha Leelarathna. Together they founded
Sri Lanka Express (SLE) which she continued to run after his death in 2006.

More than 40 years later, it remains the most influential media
platform for their community, covering everything from the decades-long
civil war in their former motherland to immediate issues confronting Sri
Lankans in America like jobs, health, education, immigration, and
presidential elections Besides the publication, the husband-wife team also created and hosted
the weekly two-hour radio program ‘Tharanga’ in Sinhalese and English on
KFJC Radio in San Francisco and then at KPFK Radio when they moved to
L.A. in 1985.

Within days after the Tsunami hit the Asian nations of Sri Lanka, Thailand,
Indonesia, and India in December 2004, Hassina became a regular figure
at many Asian consulates and community meetings throughout Southern
California to discuss emergency relief and fundraising to help the Tsunami

While actively working with relief agencies, Hassina and Deeptha didn’t
forget their journalist responsibility. When Deeptha visited Sri Lanka in 2005
and discovered so much of the international aid was either siphoned off or
still stuck at the ports and not delivered to the victims, SLE was among the
first media to report on the corruption and inefficiency at many government
agencies and international aid groups.
The paper also profiled individuals and small grassroots organizations as
heroes in the relief efforts. One story featured a Vietnamese American
Buddhist Temple in Orange County that helped rebuild some of the
Buddhist temples in the Tsunami affected region in Sri Lanka.
When Deeptha became ill, Hassina became the face of SLE. To foster
inter-ethnic communications between and among diverse communities, she
participated in many media forums including the SPJ-Inland Empire
convention in 2004 and the Arab American Press Guild in 2005. She
collaborated with the San Bernardino-based Black Voice News on a story
about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. More recently, SLE
reported regularly on the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color,
protests over the George Floyd murder, the Black Lives Matter movement,
and the Dream Act.
Over the years, Hassina developed a strong connection with
CSU-Northridge, located in the San Fernando Valley where SLE is also
She provided internships at SLE and served as an advisor to CSUN’s
bi-lingual student publication El Nuevo Sol on a health-reporting project. In
memory of her husband who passed away in 2006, she created the
“Deeptha Leelarathna » Scholarship at CSU-Northridge’s Department of
Journalism in 2007 and gifted the SLE newspaper collection to the
university library early this year.
Dr. Benavides says: “We recognize the importance of this newspaper as a
record of the history of the Sri-Lankan community in the United States, and
also recognize the entire intellectual legacy of this amazing couple devoted
to journalism—Hassina and Deeptha Leelarathna.”
Hassina and Deeptha Leelarathna are survived by their son Sahan.
Sri Lanka Express media: https://www.srilankaexpress.org

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