Vigil in Union Square Sends Hope and Political Messages to Sri Lanka

Candles, flowers and collective grief after the deadly attacks that killed more than 350 people on the island

Candlelight Vigil in Union Square / Ero Partsakoulaki

Merged with the murmurs of the crowd and the street noise at Union Square, the fragile sound of a harp changed the familiar tone of the popular public space last Tuesday evening. A musician was playing some melodies throughout a candlelight vigil that gave to the square a sense of hope and unity.

It was the national mourning day in Sri Lanka to honor the more than 350 victims of the suicide bomb attacks by an Islamist group with potential links to ISIS at hotels and Christian churches on Easter Sunday.  To share the pain and pass a meaning of unity against existing tensions between religious and ethnic communities, a group of women activists of Sri Lankan descent living in New York City organized a candlelight vigil on a rainy Tuesday evening in Union Square.

About 100 people gathered on the south part of the square, holding candles and forming a circle to participate in the collective mourning. The majority of them were Sri Lankans living in New York City, attended the vigil to send hope and a message of solidarity to their compatriots back home. Many came with children.

“We have been told by our people back in Sri Lanka that what we are doing means so much to them,” said Keshia Pendigrast, 29, who grew up in Sri Lanka but has lived in the United States for the last 10 years. “They have not been able to gather together and hold a vigil in our country, because they are afraid of more violence and attacks.”

As several women gave short speeches of solidarity and expressed their concerns about the aftermath of the attacks in Sri Lanka, the crowd remained silent. Some became emotional during the vigil, tears visible on their concentrated faces.  Traditional songs from Sri Lanka were also performed in a moment of devoutness at the heart of the busy Union Square.

All the speakers who addressed the crowd talked about a multiethnic tragedy that brings together Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and people from every race and ethnicity in order to gather their energy and love for those who lost their lives.

“It was very frustrating to watch this tragedy from TV and being so far,” said Nishkala, a woman living in Manhattan, who came to the U.S. from Sri Lanka in the 1980s and who did not want to reveal her last name. “We came here today to share the grief and show we stand united.”

Alongside this notion of collective grief and unity, Thiviya Navaratnam, an activist with Pearl, a non-profit organization founded by Tamil Americans to fight injustice against the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, said that the vigil wanted to get across a political message as well.

“We organized this vigil with some friends, artists and activists because we had to share the pain, but we also wanted to raise awareness about an oppressive regime in Sri Lanka,” said Navaratnam. “These attacks did not suddenly disrupt a heavenly life in our country.”

As Navaratnam explained, there are many Sri Lankans who, like her, acknowledge that the Sri Lankan state has promoted Sinhala Buddhism as the primary national identity over ethnic and religious communities.  And that has triggered a Sinhala nationalism that has played a major role in fueling sectarian tensions and violence against minority communities, including Tamil and Muslim peoples.

The organizers said that their goal by organizing the vigil was to bring together a multiethnic and multireligious group of islanders to demonstrate against the decades of trauma, pain, hurt, and loss this underlying landscape has caused to Sri Lanka.

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