In the midst of one of the worst economic crises to hit Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan students at Yale are working to organize support for their families and friends back home.
Sri Lanka, which gained its independence in 1948, is near bankruptcy, with nearly $7 billion in foreign debt that it has to repay this year and $25 billion in foreign debt that it has to repay over the next five years. Amid food, fuel and medical supply shortages, Sri Lankans have taken to the streets to demand the resignations of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa — two brothers of a family clan that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades. Sri Lankans at Yale, through the student organization SLAY, have also been raising awareness, fundraising and calling for support for Sri Lanka.
“We are not surprised that this happened, but at the same time, we’re shocked at just how rapidly things keep getting worse and worse,” Rivi Wijesekera ’25 said.
The economic and political crisis stems from decades of poor mismanagement of the country’s budget and fiscal and monetary policies by the government, Raaya Gomez LAW ’22 told the News. Additionally, the country’s government has been plagued by a history of corruption and nepotism.
Protestors across Sri Lanka and the globe are demanding an overhaul of the existing government. On April 5, all 26 Sri Lankan cabinet ministers except for the president and prime minister resigned. The country’s central bank governor, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, resigned soon after and was replaced by P. Nandalal Weerasinghe, a former senior deputy governor at the central bank.
The finance department has specifically seen great turmoil lately. After former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa — the president’s younger brother — resigned from the position on April 5, former justice minister Ali Sabry took over the role. Sabry attempted to resign from this position mere days later, and then reassumed the role.
“The regular citizens of the country are having it the hardest, and it’s … them who are going to be asked to rebuild the entire country,” Hasfa Fazl ’25 said.
On the ground, protests have swept the country with the hashtag #GotaGoHome. Protests have spread across the globe in solidarity with Sri Lankans.
Wijesekera told the News that he attended a peaceful protest in New York City on April 3 and noted that there have been protests in Connecticut, Texas, Ohio and California.
“Whoever is not in a fuel line is on the street protesting, whoever can afford to [be at the protest] is also protesting,” Gomez said. “It’s been kind of nerve wracking being away from home when you know your family and friends are all on the streets and … you’re proud of them, but you’re just praying for their safety.”
Gomez and Wijesekera emphasized that protests in Sri Lanka have largely been peaceful and nonviolent, except for a minority of occasions when the state incited violence. This, however, is not how the Western media, which they said was “slow” to begin covering the situation in Sri Lanka, has portrayed the protests.
Both Gomez and Wijesekera are international students at Yale, hailing from Sri Lanka. They told the News that it has been difficult being far from family and their home country during this crisis.
“It’s really hard to witness from all the way over here and it just adds to that feeling of helplessness as someone who’s studying abroad,” Wijesekera said. “I’m in the U.S. for the first time, living outside my home country for the first time, and I’ve never had that feeling of being this disconnected from something that’s going on back home.”
There is a sense of survivor’s guilt, Wijesekera said, as a student at Yale who is guaranteed resources that those back home are struggling to get. Wijesekera described seeing social media videos of mothers who walk for three days to get kerosene to power their home so that their children can study and fathers who queue up for hours for fuel and basic foodstuff.
Fazl added that it has recently been more difficult to contact her relatives in Sri Lanka, due to 13-hour power outages and the government’s social media ban.
“They’re the people I love the most, and so to know that their situation isn’t the greatest or not even good is really weird,” Fazl said. “It’s like, why am I here, doing well and having all [these resources]?”
In partnership with Dwight Hall and the Yale South Asian Society, SLAY set up a GoFundMe that has raised $695 out of a $10,000 goal since the fund’s publication. This is in addition to fundraising over social media that was done by individuals in SLAY — including Wijesekera and Radeesha Jayewickreme ’23 — earlier this month, which raised nearly $700. According to the GoFundMe, $1 U.S. dollar is equal to 330 Sri Lankan Rupee at the moment, which can purchase two packets of food.
Wijesekera also told the News that SLAY and SAS are working on holding a teach-in event soon.
“It’s actually pretty incredible that a group of less than 20 people [the Sri Lankan community at Yale] are able to help in some way,” Gomez said.
In response to the shortage of medical supplies in Sri Lanka, Recovered Medical Equipment for the Developing World at Yale University, or REMEDY, is allocating unused medical resources from Yale New Haven Hospital to donate to Sri Lankan hospitals.
REMEDY, a program that coordinates the collection and storage of open but unused medical supplies from Yale New Haven Hospital, is operationally run by retired nurses John and Cathy Tangredi, as well as a group of medical student volunteers. REMEDY’s student leadership team consists of Dhatri Abeyaratne MED ’25, Paul Serrato MED ’25, Andrew Johnson MED ’25 and Patricia Bunda MED ’28.
Abeyaratne, a Sri Lankan American student, suggested that REMEDY direct some of its collections towards Sri Lanka. She told the News that the group has been in touch with a doctor at Lady Ridgeway Hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to send them supplies.
“Being able to help with REMEDY is really meaningful, especially to Lady Ridgeway because my grandparents and great grandparents all worked there as doctors and being able to give back in that way, it’s very special,” Abeyaratne said.
The Tangredis worked in the medical field from 1978-2013 and began working with REMEDY in 1998, seven years after its establishment. John Tangredi has been on 59 medical surgical missions around the world with surgeons from Yale and across the United States. Abeyaratne emphasized how instrumental they have been in planning the organization’s collection efforts.
The response from individual students she has spoken to has been incredibly sympathetic, Gomez told the News. Gomez said she found support among her classmates and professors at the Law School. Two of her professors, Gomez said, gave her some time at the end of their lectures to share information about the crisis and ways to help with the class.
Wijesekera echoed Gomez’s sentiments, telling the News how touching it has been to receive so many individual donations from students and faculty.
“Every single display of empathy or display of support that we get from anybody is really significant,” Wijesekera said. “I would like to say how proud I feel of the Sri Lankan community and how grateful I feel that as small as we are, at least I have this community to lean on.”
Still, both Gomez and Wijesekera expressed a desire to see a greater institutional response from Yale, be it an email to Sri Lankan students or a statement to the wider Yale community and the world.
“I would say that we as Sri Lankans would like to call for Yale to be more proactive in how they respond to crises in the Global South,” Wijesekera said.
Talks between the Sri Lankan government and the International Monetary Fund began three days ago.