By Robin Gyorgyfalvy, HAPA`EA Chair and APAEA Executive Committee Member
The 2015 HAPA`EA Cross Cultural Awareness Storyteller Series kick off began with a very special speaker on Tuesday, January 27, 2015 in honor of Martin Luther King Day. Yaju Dharmarajah, a native of Sri Lanka and a union representative and lawyer in Bend, Oregon was invited to speak at the Bend/Fort Rock Ranger District Office on the Deschutes National Forest.
Yaju works for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), is one of the founders of the Central Oregon Social Justice Center, and was recently appointed by Governor Kitzhaber to the Oregon State Commission on Civil Rights. We were all very fortunate to hear him describe his life’s journey across three continents beginning with his family barely surviving the thirty-year civil war in Sri Lanka that ended just a few years ago to finding a place to call home in Bend, Oregon.
We were also really surprised to hear that Yaju had never told his story in public before. We felt very fortunate that he felt so comfortable to share such a personal story within the inclusive and supportive environment created by HAPA`EA (Local Chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander Employee Association) and the Cross Cultural Awareness Storyteller Series being held at the Forest Service office in Bend, Oregon. We hope others will feel compelled to invite speakers from their own communities to their units.
Forest Service employees had this to say about the importance of hearing Yaju’s story and the value of the storyteller series:
His story was so moving and it just really made me think about how you can look at someone and make a judgment on how they appear, and know nothing about them and their background. I just kept thinking about how if I saw him out and about in Bend how I would assume something about his background and how he came to be here, and how that is completely different from how things actually happened for him. And that to me is the real strength of this speaker series: is to educate us and help us gain understanding about other people and other situations that bring us all together in the same place at the same time.
It’s amazing to hear of other people’s experiences, especially ones as challenging and compelling as Yaju’s. I think we, Americans, aren’t often able to translate what we hear in the news to what it really means for people who actually have to live through the wars and civil unrest that we view from afar. Yaju’s story helped bring depth and better understanding to the events/politics in Sri Lanka. I also really admire Yaju for his conviction and using his life experiences to help make the world a better place. I feel so privileged to have heard and met Yaju.
It has been 7 hours since I heard Yaju Dharmarajah speak at the Forest Service office today, and I am still impacted by his words. His story of growing up amidst the civil war in Sri Lanka, the murder of his friends and family members, witnessing bodies hanging from the trees as he walked to school, kept all of us in the audience spellbound. He told his story in such a straightforward and honest way – it was very touching to hear. He is now a civil rights lawyer, helping other people who have been in his situation. I think talks such as this broaden our understanding of other cultures, and make us all better people. I am grateful to Yaju for sharing his story. It was a day I will remember for a very long time to come.
Thank you so much for inviting Yaju Dharamarajah to speak. I found his story very enlightening and Bravo to him for the courage to speak on a “new” topic for him. I’m old enough to remember hearing about the Tamal Tigers but never really understood what had gone on. It is valuable to me to have these living stories give faces to places and issues I only otherwise had read about in a text book or saw in a news story when I was young. And the ties to today’s issues and conflicts resounded with me. It also reminds me of how cloistered we can be thinking here is someone who grew up on three continents and I only moved across one.
HAPA is a Hawaiian word meaning crossing cultures. HAPA`EA, the very first local chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander Employee Association in the entire Forest Service, was formed on the Bend/Fort Rock Ranger District in Bend, Oregon in 2013. The goal is to provide an open forum that supports learning about other cultures in our community and other places. With a Pacific Islander approach of welcoming all, the interest and support shown by 20 charter members boosted the total number of APAEA members to over 100 for the first time! HAPA`EA now has over 30 members of many cultural backgrounds.
The HAPA`EA Cross Cultural Awareness Speaker Series is designed to provide perspectives that are not always heard. The dialogue from these different perspectives have been both thoughtful and lively with the Latino Community Executive Director for Central Oregon, the Native American Program Manager from Central Oregon Community College, a surviving World War II Japanese-American Internee, an African American criminal justice student from Central Oregon Community College, a Wilderness expert tying together the significance of the signing of both the Civil Rights and Wilderness Acts 50 years ago, and most recently, an inspirational story of survival from a native of Sri Lanka. Their stories are moving, poignant, and very real.