From a fertile island in the Bay of Bengal to the red clay hills of Oxford

S hoes lie all in a row by the front door. Inside, the smell of warm spices fills the air. It is a Saturday night in late July in Oxford and the Hewamanna family is hosting its monthly gathering for 20 other Sri Lankans living around Mississippi and the greater Memphis area.

The sound of laughing children in the living room blends with the rumblings of men speaking around the dinner table. It feels warm and bright, like a family holiday. The women stand in the kitchen preparing the last of the traditional Sri Lankan dishes, from seeni sambol buns to chickpeas and different rices. They catch up over wine and share what’s been happening in their lives.

Mallika Hewamanna skates around the house making sure her guests are comfortable. She offers drinks and pre-dinner snacks. She hovers over her stovetop, adding final fresh ingredients, some of which have come from her backyard garden.

Four or five families from North Mississippi and Memphis are tucked away in different corners of the house, speaking to each other in Sinhalese, their native tongue. Relics from their homeland are on display, including a traditional carving of elephants parading in the yearly Esala Perahera festival in their hometown of Kandy, whose easygoing atmosphere reminds Hewamanna a lot of Oxford.

The easy melding of these people from the other side of the world into the hill country of Lafayette County shows how in an age of tightened immigration policies and nationalism fed by fears of terrorism, people from far, far away can still find a happy life in parts of America.

It is amazing how often people abroad encounter people from their hometown or country, and Sri Lankans are no different. They spring from a proud and ancient culture that bends over backward to help visitors and guests and make them feel at home. And home is just what this house feels like to these expatriates. It is warm and friendly and feels like family which, in a way, it is.

The Hewamannas are just one of a growing number of Sri Lankan families in Oxford. In 2006, they came so Mallika could pursue doctoral studies in pharmaceutical sciences. Access to doctoral studies is limited in Sri Lanka and out-of-state tuition at Ole Miss is low enough to be attractive to students from far away. The family liked Oxford so much that she thought nothing of getting a job here with Elsohly, a local laboratory. Her husband works as a school bus driver.

Nights like tonight are a reminder of the growing community they now have in America, but the transition to a new life in the red clay hills of North Mississippi had its share of obstacles. Learning English as a second language and learning to drive on the right were just a few of the challenges the Hewamanna family had to deal with.

It is amazing how often people abroad encounter people from their hometown or country, and Sri Lankans are no different.

The youngest seems to have had it easiest. Isuru Hewamanna was just 6 when they moved to America. Now he has begun his senior year at Oxford High School.

Isuru remembers knowing only the English word “teacher” when he arrived. It took around 6 months for him to adjust, with the help of his first-grade teacher. He has since become a top student, competing in math, science and debate competitions. He is interested in studying science like his mother he wants to be a biomedical engineer and would love to attend Ole Miss. But his dream school is MIT.

He runs cross country for Oxford High. He joined the Boy Scouts in second grade and excelled at that, too. He earned the coveted Eagle Badge, Scouting’s highest rank.

His Eagle Scout project? A well-engineered 12-foot bridge over a stream at Camp Lake Stevens. “I got members of the Sri Lankan community to help me,” Isuru explained.

Help and support is exactly what a lot of these families give to one another in Oxford, a place with a climate not so far removed from Sri Lanka’s but a culture so very different. They work hard at maintaining Sri Lankan traditions and at the same time, fitting in. Local cricket teams sponsored by the university are another way that Sri Lankans, including Isuru, have gotten involved.  

Perhaps the biggest difference between there and here is religion. There are no Buddhist temples in Oxford, a town saturated with Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical churches. There is a Buddhist retreat in Batesville, but the closest Buddhist temple is in Memphis, and Sri Lankan families often travel there with food for the monks. The Hewamanna family typically makes the drive north once a month.

Many holidays are considered sacred in Sri Lanka, a land of frequent festivals, so many that some politicians lament the fact that holidays seem to pop up every few days, interfering with productivity. And Sri Lankans here continue to celebrate holidays well, even though they are nearly 10,000 miles from home.

One particularly popular one is the New Year’s Festival, when families play traditional games such as musical chairs and “Pin The Tail on the Elephant.”

The Hewamanna family happily discovered that the Sri Lankan Student Association at Mississippi State University celebrates this tradition, so they try to make the cross-state drive to Starkville to join in when they can. Approximately 60 Sri Lankan students, faculty and their families attend each year.

There is no similar organization at Ole Miss, where most Sri Lankans are doctoral students. Such an organization could raise their Oxford profile and might allow a greater number of Sri Lankan students to find one another and meet on a regular basis.

Until then, the Hewamannas’ home will do quite nicely.  

Author Savannah Smith

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