Meetup with Suhith Wickrema
By JIM LUKEN
Meet Suhith Wickrema. 48. Native of Sri Lanka. Partially Disabled. Conscientious. Self-reflective. A reluctant activist. “Horrible,” he says, “about describing myself.”
Wikrema lives alone in a simple Walnut Hills apartment. He has a lot of time to think. Since 2003, Suhith (pronounced Sue-heath) must walk either with crutches, or a walker. When he was arrested on October 18, with Occupy Cincinnati, the police removed him (gently) from a wheelchair. He is quite proud of that arrest.
Wickrema reflects that it was during another demonstration in 2003 when he first felt the pain that would signal the onset of this cancer that would wind up disabling him. At that time, he was involved in a pre-war march against the Iraq invasion being held near the Museum Center. That was the demonstration at which a truck driver famously and deliberately tried to run down the peace protestors.
As he jumped from the curb into the streets to avoid the truck, he felt it. “I thought it was a pinched nerve,” he says. Instead it was finally diagnosed as a rare form of cancer in his hip.
Through the intervention of close friends, Wickrema spent three months in a prestigious cancer hospital in Texas. He would have much of the bone above his hip removed. Now, he says, nothing connects his left leg to his torso but muscles and tendons. “Without the crutches, the leg would just collapse.”
Suhith Wickrema is the first person featured here in “Meetup” to have been born in another country. Sri Lanka (population 20 million) is an island in the Indian Ocean near the Southern tip of India. At the time of his birth there, the country was still called Ceylon. Turmoil has been a reality in Sri Lanka for many years.
But Suhith’s childhood occurred during an interim peaceful time. He grew up as the youngest of five children in a professional middle-class family, his father being a management consultant and a financial advisor to the government. His mother was a family physician.
“My childhood was idyllic,” he says, “no traumas, no worries.” As an early teen he would stand in line for an hour to buy bread. “That was a normal part of life. Everybody waited in line.”
During his teenage years, his life changed dramatically, but not unexpectedly for a middle-class young man in a third world country.
His older siblings began leaving for universities overseas. As the family’s primary money-maker, his mother also left to practice medicine in England, where she could earn far more than in Sri Lanka.
At age 17, Suhith left his native country to join his mother in London, where he would do his final two years of high school. The cultural adjustment, he said, was difficult, but not unexpected.
After high school, he began applying to universities in the US, where grants were available to foreign students. He wound up at Miami University in Oxford, where he received his bachelors in Sociology. By then, most of his brothers and sisters had also come to the States.
At age 31, Suhith Wickrema began a long term relationship with an American woman, and he became a stepfather to a young boy who is now himself 31. In 1993, he would marry another woman and become step-father once again, this time to two daughters. Although now single, Wickrema finds himself a proud grandfather. “I’m so happy that I could stay close to my step-children,” he says.
In 1991,Wickrema took a job working with the mentally ill and substance abusers at Talbert House in Cincinnati. He worked there for years, during which time his “calling” to work for social justice seemed to kick in. In 1995, he became the director of Justice Watch, an organization that focused on prisoners’ rights, and the death penalty. The Justice Watch project grew out of the legacy of the late Rev, Maurice McCrackin, who was himself jailed many times because of his courageous acts of civil disobedience.
At this time, the state of Ohio had re-instituted the death penalty. Justice Watch did a great deal of work to prevent the first execution to take place in Ohio since 1963. They failed. A mentally-ill man, Wilford Berry, would eventually be executed in 1999.
And to this day, many executions would follow. “In the mid-to-late 90’s, we were fighting the good fight against the death penalty.” But they did so with absolutely no success. Looking back on all this, Wickrema reflects, “Fifteen years ago, ending the death penalty was a cause which seemed insurmountable… now we see that it can change.” Across the country more and more states are opting to do away with the death penalty. And overall there are fewer and fewer attempted prosecutions.
His work for Justice Watch provided Wickrema the opportunity to network with other groups and activists working for social justice throughout the city and the country. But even after his arrest with Occupy Cincinnati at Piatt Park, he is very hesitant to call himself an “activist,” in the sense of a buddy gray or a Maurice McCrackin. He is very careful in framing his political and personal stance.
“I’ve been doing this kind of work since 1993. I think it is a natural part of being human.” Wickrema believes that we are all born with a deep sense of justice, or fair play. “Even as a five year-old kid, we would say, ‘That’s not fair.’ We had a basic concept of justice.”
Suhith says that he cannot understand where that sense of fairness went for most Americans. “They sit in front of their TVs and watch “The Biggest Loser,” and they seem numb to what is going on around them. People are inactive. I don’t get it.”
His own sense of justice is born of many years of reflection. “I start with the premise that the world’s resources should be used to meet the needs of the many, not the few. The fundamental needs of the world are not being met.”
Which is why the Occupy movement seems such a good fit for him.
“I think it is a unique moment of social change in my lifetime,” Wickrema says. “There are something like 82 countries and more than six hundred cities where it is taking place.”
At the beginning, although he sensed the importance of Occupy Wall Street, he was hesitant to engage himself. “I tried to stay away from it. It is all-consuming.”
It was Suhith’s present job with Hamilton County Children’s Services (as a care manager for children who fall into County custody) that caused him to take sides with the 99%. The main focus of his activism is very local.
At this moment, Suhith Wickrema wants to fight the Bengals, or more precisely Mike Brown, and the deal Brown made with the County for the lease of Paul Brown Stadium.
In his day-to-day job, Wickrema sees middle class people being laid off from their County jobs, and he deals with child services’ funding being cut. “The Occupy movement was talking about corporate influence.” He bristles. “There is nothing more clear than the deal the County gave Mike Brown.”
Wickrema explains that 16% of the county’s yearly budget is now going to service the Stadium lease agreement with Mike Brown. According to the conservative Wall Street Journal, Hamilton County’s is the most lop-sided deal of any municipal region with a sports team. And he laments, “Legally, there is nothing we can do about it.
But with the help of his friends at Occupy Cincinnati, he hopes to hold local religious and moral leaders accountable for what he views is an incredibly obvious and horrible case of the 1% abusing the rights of the majority. “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.”
Suhith Wickema has put his disabled body on the line for this principle. He is hoping that more and more people will do the same.