Kieran was born in New York City, raised in Washington, D.C., and spent summers in Southern California. He schooled at Sidwell Friends, a Quaker school from age five to 10 and looked forward to returning to Sidwell Friends School in September 2019, following 18 months of living in Colombo and attending Elizabeth Moir School.Kieran was a gifted student with a photographic memory, the diligence to natural grasp of maths and science. Teachers in Washington and Colombo loved his enthusiasm for learning and his drive to do his best always.
Kieran’s favorite activities: reading for hours, skateboarding, biking through his neighborhood in Washington DC, sleepovers with friends, drawing and painting, creative writing, all kinds of puzzles, playing basketball and the trumpet, climbing walls and ropes courses, long hikes in Washington DC and Southern California, kayaking with his father, entertaining friends with jokes and impressions, pulling off pranks on and teasing his mother.
“Be Like KIERAN” — Item in Sunday Observer, 16 June 2019
Eleven-year-old Kieran de Zoysa was killed in the Cinnamon Grand bomb blast on 21/4. A student at Elizabeth Moir, Kieran was to return to his school in the US in September. In his essay (see box) Kieran says “I feel like I belong to Sri Lanka… I am #sosrilankan”
His mother Dhulsini de Zoysa wrote the following article for the Sunday Observer.
“Be like Kieran.” That was the sincere plea of a grieving father to the crowd of 750 gathered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on May 1.
We gathered to honour the brief but extraordinary life of our only child, Kieran Shafritz de Zoysa, killed by a terrorist on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. Kieran was only 11-years-old, but he made a lasting impression on those who knew him. His tragic death is a devastating loss for those of us on whom he shone his bright light.
Optimistic, kind, thoughtful, compassionate, affectionate, loyal, funny and fun-loving Kieran charmed everyone with his humour and enthusiasm for life. His impersonations of the current U.S. President were especially popular.
Kieran had an innate curiosity and sharp intellect, the ambition to get a PhD in neuroscience, the perseverance to work towards a black belt in karate, and the diligence to study Sinhala and Chinese in Colombo.
But Kieran’s intellect is not why his death is devastating: Kieran lived the Quaker teaching, “Look for that of God in others.”
Dr. Richard Griffith, a licensed clinical psychologist and counsellor at Kieran’s school in Washington, D.C., described Kieran this way: “Kieran seemed to be able to really ‘see you’ … his recognition of you could be as simple as him noticing a quality in you that you felt went unnoticed.” Richard described this as a testament to the universality of his humanity.
Of the many stories that friends have shared, my favourites are of Kieran drawing out a lonely child. A classmate in Washington, D.C., shared that, in kindergarten, when she was new to the school and friendless, Kieran would coax her out of the bushes where she hid at recess. Five years later and 10,000 miles away, at Kieran’s school in Colombo, friends have shared similar stories, that Kieran was the first to introduce himself to and befriend new students, though he was new to Sri Lanka himself.
Kieran instinctively knew who needed a smile and a friendly hello, who was having a bad day, who was shy. He used his charm and his bright smile to draw them into the sunshine where he lived.
Travel was Kieran’s passion. Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness.” This was certainly true for Kieran, who formed connections with people in all walks of life everywhere from Bethesda to Botswana, London to Johannesburg, Martha’s Vineyard to Malaysia, California to Colombo. He was a global citizen, whose life story embodied multiculturalism.
To ‘be like Kieran’ means to be open to adventure, to be optimistic, to form connections with boys and girls, men and women from every walk of life, to be an enthusiastic learner, to be generous, kind and compassionate.
Kieran represents the opposite of everything that the terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday intended to accomplish – to divide us, to encourage tribal thinking, to cause chaos, and to inflict pain on strangers. For his father Alex and for me, our loss is deeply personal. Shrapnel hit Kieran but it shattered our hearts. Despite our pain, there are terrifying elements of this tragedy, implications for Sri Lanka and the world, that we cannot overlook.
The well-financed, coordinated, and multi-focal, ISIS-inspired attack on Easter Sunday puts the world on notice – extremist terrorism can come for you anywhere. It is no longer something in a faraway land. Fred Kempe, father of one of Kieran’s classmates and president of the Washington, D.C. based think tank, The Atlantic Council, wrote succinctly, “Global terrorism entered a new era with the bombing in Sri Lanka. [www.cnbc.com/2019/05/03/globalterrorism-entered-a-new-era-with-the-bombi… With the loss of a caliphate in Iraq and later in Syria, ISIS has metastasized like an advanced cancer, turning up in the most unexpected and vulnerable places.
Ten years of peace, following a protracted civil war, has left Sri Lanka vulnerable. Peace brought not only a strong push for reconstruction and growth in tourism, booming infrastructure and construction projects, business development and entrepreneurship, economic prosperity and other dividends, but also a complacency. Counter-terrorism was casually dismissed even when there were multiple, detailed warnings preceding the Easter Sunday attack. That should send chills through this country.
I hear real concern in Colombo for the loss of tourism and resulting economic damage following the Easter attack. I understand the desire to share with the world this country’s beauty, rich history, multiculturalism, and welcoming people. I brought my son here for 18 months so that he could experience those things too. But before declaring Sri Lanka open to foreign visitors, shouldn’t there be a coordinated, island-wide approach to the terror threat that has taken seed in this fertile land?
There is a serious need for a top-down, government-led approach to counter terrorism and security measures. What I see in Colombo is a haphazard attempt at security. Hotels, schools, shopping malls, and places of worship in central Colombo have introduced whatever security measures they see fit. And presumably they will withdraw those measures when they see fit.
On the outskirts of Colombo and beyond, there are even fewer precautions.
Hotels, like the Cinnamon Grand, where our son was killed, have introduced baggage scanners and metal detectors. There are still wide breaches in security. What good is a baggage scanner if the security officer doesn’t study the screen closely to see the contents of the bags passing through its conveyor belt? What good is a metal detector if familiar faces are waived through even when they set off the alarm?
I insist that security officers inspect my purse and pass a wand over me. I lecture them on the need for consistent security measures applied to everyone, every time. Anything less is like feeling secure sleeping under a mosquito net with holes in it.
I am a mother grieving the loss of her only child.
I did not know that there were threats of terrorist activity when my family sat down to breakfast on Easter morning. I did not know that public officials entrusted with the nation’s security ignored, or failed to investigate, those threats.
I did not know that, by the time we sat down, terrorist bombs had ripped through two churches. I did not know that, despite high mobile phone penetration, Sri Lanka lacks an emergency communication system that could have warned us to stay out of public places in the 30 minutes between the first blast and the one that took my son’s life.
I did not know that two months after the Easter Sunday attacks, Sri Lanka’s highest elected officials would shamefully disavow responsibility.
Someone must lead: It is unconscionable that advance warnings were not investigated, inexplicable that a system that can convey New Year’s wishes to mobile phones island-wide cannot send out a public safety alert, and unforgivable that Sri Lanka’s highest elected officials will not take responsibility. In such an environment, how can any Sri Lankan feel safe? Can’t anyone with a backpack, briefcase, suicide belt, or box truck wreak havoc at a train station, nightclub, holy festival, or popular beach resort? And if Sri Lanka’s elected officials don’t do more to protect their own countrymen, what right do they have to ask tourists to come back? How do you feel safe in a country that does not investigate potential terrorist threats?
Our son was not killed because it was his fate, or God’s plan, or because he was too good for this world. My son died because of extremist terrorism, because of breakdowns in communication at the highest levels of government, because of inadequate emergency communication systems, and because of unforgivable indifference to counter terrorism efforts.
Our clever, compassionate, kind, multi-ethnic, American son felt, after just one year in Colombo, that he belongs here. Kieran felt accepted and appreciated. He felt #sosrilankan. I can’t help but wonder, though, aren’t suicide bombers #sosrilankan? As Sri Lankan as golden beaches, ancient temples, and emerald hills of tea?
What will it take for accountability and good governance to become #sosrilankan?
“My Cultural Connections” ….. Kieran’s entry for the Royal Commonwealth Society Essay Competition
The tropical sun burns bright. On my way to school, red and black buses full of office workers, tuk-tuks of all colors, Porsches, Land Rovers, and BMWs crowd the roads. There are few road rules. I pass a speeding blur of white colonial buildings, ancient banyan trees, old elegant homes behind high walls, short ladies pushing trash carts, small kadeys selling cream crackers and sodas, and road side hawkers offering freshly plucked red rambutans, golden yellow mangoes, young orange coconuts. Steel and glass office towers stand high over small houses. Cranes rise above expensive new apartment buildings. Occasionally I see a Buddhist monk in orange robes.
Lonely, stray dogs roam the streets and sidewalks, scavenging for food, near tourists who turn bright lobster red taking selfies in front of thousand-year-old temples. My cultural connections are why I am here in Colombo, Sri Lanka. My mother and I moved here to help my Ammama (grandma) move back home after nearly 50 years in the U.S. This move was great for her, because her connection to Sri Lanka is strong.
She loves the weather that is perfect for a slow walk, the fruits and vegetables that she grew up with, and the friendly people who don’t mind when she starts up a conversation with any passing stranger asking, “Do I know you?” She is rarely certain whether she is in Colombo or Washington D.C., who she is with, or sometimes even who she is.
Dementia has faded her memories so that they run together like watercolors, an impressionist painting of houses, gardens, people she has known for over 8 years, and sometimes the people closest to her, like me and my mother.
My move to Colombo has helped deepen my connections to my family’s culture. I am learning how to read, write, and – thanks to my grandmother’s maid – speak a little bit of Sinhala, the language of the majority of the population here. I also play a little bit of cricket, the national sport, which is similar to baseball (though I am terrible at both!). I am getting to know many of my distant aunties, uncles, and cousins, many of whom I have not met before. I may forget their names, but not their kindness. I like that strangers call me putha (son in Sinhala) before telling me to tie my shoelaces. It makes me feel like the entire community is supporting me.
I feel like I belong in Sri Lanka. I now have a dark brown tan and my mother says that she cannot pick me out of a crowd of my friends walking out of school, laughing and messing each other’s hair. I have made a lot of friends who are kind, smart, hardworking, and funny after just one year here. It feels like I have been here much longer. No one can tell just by looking at me that I was born ten thousand miles away, that I spent the first 10 years of my life in the U.S., or that I am biracial.
Racially, my cultural connections are diverse. I am one-quarter Sinhalese, one-quarter Tamil, three-eighth Russian, and one-eighth German. My family is Buddhist, Christian, Quaker and Jewish. We celebrate peraharas and poya days, Christmas, and Hanukkah. My ancestors include great uncles knighted by the King of England, high court justices, and Russian farmers.
I am what they call in Sri Lanka a real achcharu, or pickle, made up of many different ingredients and spices. I am connected to many cultures. I am stronger because I belong to them all. But, right now in Colombo, I am #sosrilankan
AN EMAIL NOTE from Professor Cynthia vanden Driesen in Perth, 20 June 2019:
Thanks Mike – this has touched me so much I cannot find the words to respond. A line from Wordsworth comes to mind re ‘ thoughts that lie too deep for tears.’
This mother has risen above grief and interpreted the significance of her beautiful son’s life, which in the short space of time he lived brought love and grace into all the lives he touched.
This family and their example just enforces the realisation that there are far more good and wonderful human beings in this world than evil doers and without them humanity cannot survive.
Despite the evil , goodness will always triumph – this is our hope.