For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Investigative journalist Frederica Jansz is a political refugee of Sri Lanka and has found herself in Puyallup, with no friends or family. Now, the hard part begins as she struggles to establish herself in a new place.
In 25 years of investigative journalism in Sri Lanka, Frederica Jansz has seen it all, and was forced to leave it all behind.
She has a price on her head and can never return to her native country, after standing up to an oppressive government through journalistic expression.
Jansz’ journey to Washington as a political refugee is complicated and painful, but with two sons happily enrolled in local schools—one at Pierce College and the other at Sunrise Elementary—she hopes to begin a new life here as an American single mom.
But, even with her outstanding credentials, it’s proven a difficult battle.
“I am starting to feel hopeless – I know I’m not going to be able to find a job in Puyallup. But the children don’t want to move again. It’s been such a trauma already, to leave everything behind,” said Jansz, over a cup of coffee. “They love their neighborhood. They love their schools. If I can find work, I’d like to stay here.”
Jansz began her career as a war reporter for Visnews, the television arm of Reuters, during the Sri Lankan Civil War. She interviewed war heroes and guerilla forces alike. This work took her to Parliament, where she cut her teeth in investigative journalism.
As one of the only female journalists in Sri Lanka, she established herself as a respected political reporter and became the anchor of a morning news TV show. She also became a mother and built her dream home, from the ground up.
It was when she was asked to take over a politically fueled investigative newspaper, The Sunday Leader, that her life took a dangerous turn.
“Since 2009, over 60 journalists have been forced to leave the country. Since the current government came to power in 2005, 14 journalists have been murdered,” said Jansz.
The Sunday Leader, launched by two brothers, was attacked nine times in its tenure. The presses were burned down twice. One of the founders was murdered in broad daylight on his way to work by three men on motorbikes, who shot at him.
When Jansz took over as editor, she was quickly launched on a “roller coaster ride” of death threats and intimidations from the government leaders she criticized.
But in the end, it was a story about a puppy from Switzerland that had her fearing for her life.
“[The Sri Lankan defense secretary] was trying to fly a puppy dog from Switzerland for his wife. In order to do so, he had a pilot friend at Sri Lankan Airlines change his flight roster, so he could fly the dog down,” said Jansz. “He wasn’t qualified to fly the bigger plane, but they floated 56 passengers so this pilot could bring back a puppy dog from Zurich.”
After the story published, Jansz said the defense secretary went “berserk.” The paper’s cofounder sold The Sunday Leader to the government and Jansz was promptly fired.
“He paid the price. He lost his brother and just wanted out,” Jansz sad. “The Sunday Leader was the last remaining independent paper in Sri Lanka.”
Even though she was fired, it wasn’t enough, Jansz said. There were written apologies about her work and multiple court dates—the government threatened to impounded her passport and she was told she would go to jail.
Men began following her around town and showed up at her house, threatening her family.
“Various people said to me, you are a mother. It’s clear what is going to happen to you, and they aren’t going to let you go,” said Jansz. “I endured the threats for years, but I didn’t have the protection of the newspaper anymore. I was on my own and figured it was time for me to be a mom, and not a heroine.”
A kind U.S. Ambassador befriended Jansz and gave her and her sons entry into the United States.
“I don’t have friends or family in the United States. I always vowed I’d never leave Sri Lanka, but I had no other options,” said Jansz. “With a Sri Lankan passport, you have to get a visa everywhere you travel. With a warrant out for my arrest, there was nowhere else for me to go.”
She chose Washington because of its proximity to Canada, where her cousin lives. Jansz said she would like to immigrate to Canada, but the laws are tight and she would not be able to get citizenship there, as the United States was her first port of entry.
Then, she got connected with a Sri Lankan family in Puyallup. They told her they were opening a steak and seafood restaurant downtown and that she could invest in the business.
“He convinced me to invest $30,000 in the restaurant and he cheated me out of my money. These are the only people I knew here, and after I gave him the money, nothing was happening. I started asking questions, then nothing worked out.”
Jansz said she has gotten about half of her money back, but isn’t sure she’ll ever fully recoup her losses.
“I got punched in the guts by the first people I trusted here,” she said. “I had to appeal to people in Sri Lanka to get my money back.”
Now, her main priority is finding work.
“I would like to continue to write. That is my passion, what I love doing,” said Jansz. “But I would also be interested in marketing, or public relations.”
Jansz was invited to sit in on an editorial meeting at The Seattle Times, but was told that no positions were available. Landing a newspaper job is challenging, but she’s hoping that once her immigration paperwork is finalized, she will find something in her field.
In the meantime, she spends time with her sons and is trying to build a life here. The Seattle Sri Lankan community is small. Puyallup’s is almost non-existent.
In her quiet Puyallup neighborhood, she said the most surprising thing about her new American neighbors is their disinterest in travel and other cultures.
“I make a point to travel, because I believe it’s a form of education. But what struck me about a lot of the people I have met here is, they don’t travel and aren’t open to other communities. Some have never owned a passport, or even been to Canada. But, I am starting to understand why,” said Jansz. “When I look around, they’ve got everything. They have two vehicles, sometimes three. It’s all right here. They feel like they don’t need those experiences.”
As she begins a new life in America, Jansz is still haunted by what she’s been forced to leave behind.
“I have a terrible pain when I think about it all. It’s the mundane things that I miss—I dream of this one sandy, gravel road in Sri Lanka. I desperately miss my home. I loved my country and I never wanted to leave, but I had to force myself to put it all behind me,” said Jansz. “I have to shut that door and move on. As long as I look back, I cannot move forward. And every day, I get a little stronger.”