- To make the void in her life count for something, Dumala has been educating Americans about contributions immigrants make to their adopted country. And yes, she is also looking forward to future, including marriage, someday.
Sunayana Dumala’s name may not ring any bells to most Americans. But to the South Asian community in the United States her name stands for hope. A little over four years ago, Dumala was cast into the public eye in a way she never wanted to – by police officers knocking on her front door. Interrupting her dinner and Facebook scrolling, they informed her that her husband, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, had been shot and killed at an Olathe, Kansas bar by a man (Adam Purinton) who questioned whether he was in the country legally. The nation at large and the South Asian community in particular was shocked at this senseless hate crime. Kuchibhotla’s death in an anti-immigrant attack at a Kansas bar made headlines the world over.
On that fateful day, Kuchibhotla became a hate-crime victim, Dumala became a widow. And since then, much has changed for her. Four long years later, Dumala opened up to American Kahani to tell her story and her hopes for the future.
“February 22nd, 2017 a date that will remain as one of the worst days in my life was supposed to be a normal day. We left for work that morning and planned to be home for dinner,” she says. “Nobody would want to be in my shoes,” adds Dumala with a sigh. “Four years ago I was a different person. My bucket list was different.”
All that the newlywed Dumala wanted were three simple things, to have a happy family – with a husband and a couple of children – a job and a good life. And with one sentence “get out of my country!” and a semi-automatic pistol, “tragedy knocked on my door,” she says, fighting back tears. “It’s not something easy to forget.” The horrific accident “took away my only support system”, she says. “Srinu (a nickname she gave him during their courtship) was my everything – my friend, my rock, my 9-1-1. When he was taken away from me so abruptly, it was unacceptable to me. The ground beneath my feet was taken away. I didn’t know how I would move forward,” she says.
“Do we belong here?” a grief stricken and angry Dumala would ask in a Facebook post six days after the shooting. At one point, she considered leaving and returning home to Hyderabad. “This country meant so much to us,” she says. “We came here as students, met, and fell in love. There is so much to this place and it holds such a special place in my heart.” So “right after the incident,” she “seriously contemplated leaving.”
When Dumala learned that the crime was racially motivated and premeditated, and that Purinton had yelled “get out of my country” before pulling the trigger, “it struck a deep chord in me.” Purinton later said he believed Kuchibhotla and his friend Alok Madasani (who was injured in the attack) were from Iran, capturing one of America’s more troubling viewpoints.
“Srinu touched so many lives in his short time,” she says. “He was the most positive person I knew. He was respectful, caring and humble. And for someone like him to lose their life in a way so opposite in nature, I couldn’t digest that.” It was then at that moment of realization that a determined Dumala decided to stay and not let this tragedy define her. “I had to ensure Srinu and his life wasn’t forgotten. I wanted his legacy to continue.”
She recalls the moment when one of her sisters gave her the courage to stay and fight. “My two sisters are almost a decade older than me. So I am really the baby!” she says laughing. She talks about how her middle sister, who gave her the strength she needed on the day her husband was killed. She told Dumala to fight, to not lose her strength and to not fail. “Giving me an example of birds, she told me, ‘a bird builds its nest and if the nest falls down, it doesn’t feel defeated. It rebuilds it. You should be that bird.’ These words still ring in my ears today.”
Dumala found herself in a situation that many immigrant spouses find themselves – alone and without legal status, as her dependent status (H4-EAD) was tied to her husband’s visa, which ended immediately the day he passed. Dumala remembers the first year passing in a blur of immigration struggles. “I was very fortunate as I had a great employer and Srinu’s employer Garmin was also very supportive. The national attention the case received also helped my immigration situation.”
After a year, Dumala finally got her own work visa and an idea was born. “My situation pushed me to advocate for immigration reform.” She used her story and voice to get the awareness of a need for immigration reform out there. “There are so many women like me, who are in the same situation and if something were to happen to their spouse, their only option would be to return to their home country. I feel after having lived in this country for so long, the individual should decide if they should return or stay back. It should not be because of a flaw in the law.”
Realizing that her case was unique and that many may not have the incredible support that she did to meander the immigration channels, Dumala threw herself into immigration advocacy. She became the face of legal immigration when the then Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas) came forward to help her get a work visa of her own. Moved by her case, he also began working on a legislation to remove the per country cap on green cards.
Thanks to the efforts of lawyers from her late husbands’ company, her employer InTouch Solutions and Rep. Yoder, Dumala was able to get back into the U.S. on a humanitarian parole. She was then granted work authorization through deferred action “I started advocating for fair immigration laws as my experience taught me that Indians, despite being high skilled, have to wait forever for green cards,” Dumala said. “I believe in a merit based system. It’s going to be about three years since my struggle started and people are still dying awaiting their green cards. The families are often left in limbo.”
Since then, she has been actively campaigning for the passage of S.386 or Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Bill 2019 in the Senate and was instrumental in the passing of H.R. 1044 in the House. The resolution that sought to remove the per country limit on green cards was passed by a majority last year in Congress. “What we are asking for is to be treated equally,” she says.
“We want a first come, first serve process. When we apply for a job, we are not hired based on the country we come from, in fact it would be illegal if we are discriminated against on the basis of country of origin so why should it be a matter when getting green cards.” She adds: “I decided to stay back in America, because the country showed me if there was one shooter, there were thousands of others who were ready to support me. I believe in the America that feels for others and I am sure our voices will be heard.”
Not satisfied with just immigration reform, Dumala reached out to her CEO at Intouch, who had been incredibly supportive of her situation with an idea for a movement at the grassroots level. “I wanted to start a movement that removes the erroneous notion that foreign nationals are taking away jobs,” she says. “That is not the right image of immigrants. To be able to stay legally in this country comes with a struggle. We have to do so much and jump through so many hoops to stay legally in this country. It is not easy. And when people see our smiling faces, it belies all the pressures we face, that we don’t show. I believed we needed something to bridge people and bring people together on one platform.”
The realization that her husband was killed because of intolerance, because he was not born in America, is what forced her to emerge from this personal, private hell. She thought that if people were to know the aftermath of a hate crime, the crater-sized void and endless questions left behind, if the victims were rendered as three-dimensional, maybe there would be less fear, less hate. “My story needs to be spread,” she says plainly. “Srinu’s story needs to be known. We have to do something to reduce the hate crimes. Even if we can save one other person, I think that would give peace to Srinu and give me the satisfaction that his sacrifice did not go in vain.”
This idea gave rise to Forever Welcome (launched on Facebook in 2018) – with a few supportive volunteers who shared a similar outlook. Forever Welcome generates empathy and understanding for people who immigrate to the U.S. by bringing their personal journey and contributions to the nation to light. “We wanted to show that America is still a welcoming and safe place for current and future immigrants, and I wanted to stop others from going through this pain,” she says.
“With Intouch being an advertising agency and with a host of in-house talent, the message of belonging that was chosen, and rose out of a direct response to my earlier question – do we belong? – we felt it was best served through dissemination on social media – fast and easy!”
Through Forever Welcome, Dumala “wanted to carry forward the ripple of kindness” people had shown her. “I always wanted to start a foundation in Srinu’s name. So, with the Forever Welcome FB page, I had a good platform to start with.” She then went about getting like-minded people to serve on a board. In the summer of 2019, she made Forever Welcome an official non-profit organization. She is still working on getting a 501 (C3) IRS certification.Then came Covid and Dumala found herself working from home, with a lot of time on her hands for self-reflection and self-care. “The pandemic was good for me,” she says. “Things slowed down and I finally had time to grieve. I never had the time to grieve especially that first year,” she says with a smile. “2020 wasn’t great for Forever Welcome, but 2021 looks promising.”
On March 6, Forever Welcome tied up with KC for Refugees and organized a supply drive on what would have been Kuchibhotla’s 37th birthday. “We realized through talking to refugee groups that there was an immense need amongst refugee families for daily, everyday supplies during the pandemic, as families were struggling financially.” Dozens of refugees in the Kansas City area received much needed personal hygiene supplies- distributed by KC For Refugees. Forever Welcome also raised a whopping $9,700 in donations through their GoFundMe, supporting the drive. “The response was beyond any of our expectations,” Dumala says. “It was phenomenal. We all believed Srinu was waving his magic wand on us.”
Forever Welcome has also partnered with a local organization – Connecting For Good — that works with low-income families. It donates refurbished donated technical items, which they then donate to families in need, including 20 laptops to refugee kids. A much needed resource in 2020 for a world that went online post pandemic.
In the future, the focus of the group will continue to be immigrant families – especially low-income, refugee families. “They are very vulnerable, under- represented and under-served. They come leaving behind such hardship and to make them feel welcome and get the message that they belong here and can have a happy life, it is very important.” Elaborating further, Dumala, who is looking for more organizations to partner with says, “We will work to foster community build-up dialogue and provide in-service workshops to help both sides come together and bridge the gap.”
The first in her extended family to leave her “protective family cocoon” and come so far away to study, Dumala says laughing, “I had 40-50 people that came to the airport to see me off. I was cringing on that day.” She attended St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, where she studied engineering management and graduated in 2010.
As to how she met her husband, Dumala smiles with a faraway look on her face as she relives those wonderful days. “We met online in 2006 after my best friend’s older brother gave me a list of names of Indian students attending the University of Texas at El Paso. I was considering a master’s program there and wanted to get a feel for what to expect as an immigrant student. I sent a note to the first name on the list: Srinu.”
Dumala was immediately drawn to Kuchibhotla’s sharp focus, sense of humor and patience. Their casual phone conversations going from a few minutes to a few hours to all night long, blossomed into a six-year courtship. “We used to discuss all sorts of things. He told me about his life as a student, his research and what it took to live in America and to be independent. He gave me confidence that if I ended up in the United States, he could be someone to contact if I got into any trouble. He’d be my “protective layer,” since she was leaving her protective layer at home.”
After three months of chatting, she proposed to him one night. No matter that she had never seen him in person. They finally met months later at a temple when he came home to Hyderabad on vacation. “I did not know that he was going to be 6’2”, with me being 5 feet,” she said, chuckling.The couple married in 2012, in a ceremony in Hyderabad attended by more than 1,000 people.
And throughout her Phoenix-like journey, Dumala has been supported by her incredible family. “My parents have been my rock. They try to be strong in front of me and I try to be strong for them. We both know how deeply sad we are for each other. They definitely want me to be happy and move on, but they also know I’m very much an individual and will do things on my own time. They know they can’t force me into anything. But above all they are very proud of all that I have done.”
So does marriage feature in the future for her? An optimistic Dumala says, “I don’t say no. Right now, the trauma is so fresh. My focus is currently my foundation, but I am keeping an open mind.” Now that her life has changed so drastically over the past few years, she says she looks at things from a different perspective. “We know life is uncertain … when you’re actually in those shoes, that’s when it hits you hard that life is indeed short, and do as much good as possible. I think I’m moving forward with that ideology right now. I want to spread as much love as possible in whatever little amount of time that I have,” she says adding with a little well-deserved self-pride “I never knew that I was this strong.”
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.