Sri Lankans in Saskatchewan seek support amid worsening economic turmoil

·5 min read
Sri Lankan community in Saskatoon holding a protest in downtown Saskatoon on April 3 with calls to save Sri Lanka. (Pratyush Dayal/CBC - image credit)
Sri Lankan community in Saskatoon holding a protest in downtown Saskatoon on April 3 with calls to save Sri Lanka. (Pratyush Dayal/CBC - image credit)

With Sri Lanka's parliament poised to elect a new president on Wednesday, Sri Lankan-Canadians in Saskatchewan are already rallying in support of people suffering in the country.

"It's a dire situation because of economic mismanagement. We Sri Lankans living in Saskatchewan stand in solidarity with people back home," said Dinesh Wellawa, a PhD student of veterinary microbiology at University of Saskatchewan.

There are some 200 Sri Lankan families in Saskatoon and close to 50 in Regina. Wellawa said the economic crisis in Sri Lanka has affected everyone directly or indirectly.

He visited Sri Lanka last month and said the flight, which is usually packed with tourists, had none onboard.

"Consequently, hotels that used to be packed were at 50 per cent discount," he said.

"We had to stand in queues of at least two kilometres to get gasoline and cooking gas. Even in supermarkets, there was nothing much to grab."

Submitted by Dinesh Wellawa
Submitted by Dinesh Wellawa

The 39-year-old said the situation is now much worse. In some communities only one litre of milk is allocated per family, adversely affecting the nutritional needs of children, he said.

Food insecurity is defined by the United Nations as the "lack [of] regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life." Severe insecurity means a person has "run out of food" and may go a day or more with nothing to eat.

The UN said more than 60 per cent of Sri Lankans were already choosing to limit meals to stretch their food budgets.

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Worsening food crisis

Food inflation in Sri Lanka hit 80 per cent in June compared to a year earlier, according to Sri Lanka's Central Bank, as food and fuel continued to be scarce.

The World Food Programme warned some 62,000 Sri Lankans are in such a dire situation they require urgent help.

Ushan Alahakoon, a plant breeding scientist, said "commodity prices have been skyrocketing," but that the crisis began months ago before the world paid heed.

Alahakoon was among more than 30 protestors that took to downtown Saskatoon on the crisp evening of April 3 holding placards calling to save Sri Lanka.

"Gotabaya was the name of the president and people held hashtags like GotabayaGoHome," he said.

Pratyush Dayal/CBC
Pratyush Dayal/CBC

Alahakoon said wheat flour is in great shortage, exacerbated by the Russian invasion, but even staple food like rice is scarce following a blanket order to ban all imports of agrochemicals.

More than two million farmers, or close to 27 per cent of the national labour force, were left scrambling for natural fertilizers while the government struggled to increase domestic production of organic pesticides and fertilizers.

Before the crisis, a kilogram of rice was around 60 to 70 Sri Lankan rupee, or 25 cents, Alahakoon said. It is presently estimated to be at 300 Sri Lankan rupee or $1.09.

"With the inflation and economic turmoil, it's more than three times increased. People really cannot afford it," the 41-year-old said.

"My wife's family has farming, so they can sustain themselves for some time, but those with no backyard or agricultural land are stuck."

'It's really hard to find medicines': Alahakoon

Alahakoon's father had heart surgery two years ago and now is diabetic.

"It's really hard to find medicines. We have medicines to last three months but after that there won't be any," he said.

"The biggest worry is that if a person suffers a heart attack, there is no accessibility of a hospital amidst diesel and gas shortages."

Submitted by Ushan Alahakoon
Submitted by Ushan Alahakoon

He said people are hesitant to call for other countries to send money to Sri Lanka, as "the government might steal the money."

"If the Canadian government can provide medical assistance like sending essential medicines and food supplies instead of money, it would be a really big thing."

Wellawa's father-in-law also needs insulin because of his diabetic condition. Though they have some supplies, he is concerned for the coming months.

"There is a huge list of medicines and antibiotics that are in short supply along with things like oxygen and anesthesia," Wellawa said.

Following these shortages, the community has started a fundraising campaign to raise $25,000 for medical supplies after receiving donation requests from Sri Lankan hospitals.

Thaveen Uyangodage, a production worker, said the Sri Lankan government has only considered military and police as essential services, putting the medical needs of people on a back burner.

"My sister who is a medical student is suffering, as her education is impacted with universities being periodically closed," he said.

"My other sister wants to get married but the situation is terrible. For the younger generations, their future is dead as the government killed their dreams."

Submitted by Dinesh Wellawa
Submitted by Dinesh Wellawa

The 27-year-old has been mailing vitamins and other medicines to family members of him and his wife, Thulani Ehewavithana.

"My old father had to stand in a queue for 15 hours to get gasoline," he said. "It's shameful that people are dying without having food."

Ehewavithana said her father, like her husband's, has heart disease and yet stood for 20 hours in a queue to get gasoline.

"Some people have died just standing in these queues. We cannot send medicines to them as they would require prescriptions," she said.

They say if the Canadian government can provide humanitarian aid, it might help the future of their country.

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