Scorched by the hate that claimed her husband, Sunayana Dumala still manages to spread hope and bring communities together
The recent spate of hate crimes against Asian Americans has stunned us all and we are still searching for answers and solutions to the question how and when will all this end? We spoke about this to Sunayana Dumala, widow of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who was killed in a racially charged attack.
On February 22, 2017, Adam Purinton went to a bar where Kuchibhotla was with a friend, asked him if he was in America legally and then screamed, “get out of my country” before fatally shooting him and injuring two others.
While heart-breaking, Dumala’s story is also one of love, hope and forgiveness.
“My first thought after the tragedy was to go back to India. Srinu (as she called her dead husband affectionately) was my everything. If he’s not here, what is my purpose?” But, when she learned the details of what happened and that it was a racially motivated attack, she “felt it was not right. I decided I have to come back and put up a fight.”
She would have succumbed to fear if she acceded to the attacker’s demand, “Get out of my country,” and had left.
“I have to fight for Srinivas. He would not want me to give up,” Dumala says.
So while she did go to India for the funeral, she knew she “had to fight and give a message [of] hope.” She had lost her legal status after her husband’s death. Everything was up in the air, but she was determined to return.
“I got in touch with so many people,’ she says. “He is with me, as he was then, making sure I have the right people around me, to help me learn, to help me grow.”
Garvin, the company where Kuchibhotla worked, and InTouch, where Dumala worked and continues to work, helped her to get a work visa, so she could return to the U.S. after a few months. The FBI reached out to her, too, since the attack was deemed a federal hate crime. She talked to lawyers, state attorneys, and the FBI while still in India.
She says she kept telling herself, “I am in this position because of a wrong notion – that my husband was here illegally or that immigrants are taking away jobs.”
It took Dumala a month to see an email from Faruk Capan, the founder of InTouch. When she replied, she told him, “I have been thinking about the incident and all the wrong impressions about immigrants and I want to do something about it.”
Capan agreed. and encouraged her to start an initiative for change within the company. He raised the issue in the next quarterly town hall. An immigrant of Turkish origin, Capan was committed to the mission of keeping alive the notion that America is still a welcoming place and that a few bad apples – or oranges – could not be allowed to destroy the dominant spirit of the country. A lot of volunteers participated in the initiative, Forever Welcome.
Because InTouch is a digital marketing agency, the staff knew social media was the fastest and most effective way to get the message out. Forever Welcome suggested that everybody is welcome and not just for a finite period, the emphasis being on WE in the word Welcome.
“That’s how we become one,” Dumala says.
Jimmy Lan, who is originally from Hong Kong, designed the logo, a seven-sided diamond, representing the seven continents, with overlapping pink, green and blue circles to represent people from all regions and ethnic groups.
Forever Welcome launched a Facebook page in 2018; in 2019, the organization, by now a foundation, was transferred to Dumala. After her day job at InTouch, she is fully involved with immigration reform and immigrant welfare. She leads supply drives to help refugee families locally in Kansas, and collaborates with Kansas City for Refugees, an organization that has been working for reform in the community and helping refugees.
“I am learning how much it takes to build an organization from scratch – after a day job,” Dumala says. While Covid 19 has slowed down her group’s activities, she hopes to achieve more in time. A STEM workshop for refugee children recently saw the community help raise $10,000 vs the $2,500 initially projected.
“There is so much good out there,” Dumala says. “Not that you can ignore the bad, but we need to also focus on how to make the bad, good.”
Dumala has also spent the past four years reflecting on how attitude change is a “bi-directional process” and each individual needs to be open to learning about communities other than their own.
“I have to start with myself. I can’t just preach and not do anything myself,” she says. So Dumala is trying to learn about other faiths and cultures, even as she is proud of being a Hindu, and loves to share her culture with others.
Just like people in India, she addresses people she is close to in terms of relationships. So Ruth Bigus, the Forever Welcome media manager, is “maasi” (maternal aunt) to her. From Bigus, she learns about Jewish traditions. Also “maasi” is Mehnaz Shabbir, a community activist in Kansas City. Mindy Corcoran, who lost her son to an attack on a Jewish community center during a a music concert, has been her go-to person for knowledge about Christianity. For Dumala, Shabbir is “akka” – elder sister in Telugu.’
“The Indian in me helps me find a connection when we can find a relationship,” she says.
Valerie Kaur, Sikh activist and TED speaker (“didi,” or elder sister in Hindi), once told Dumala, “When you see a new person, your brain has a few seconds, during which if you can say this person is my brother/sister/aunt/uncle, you can someone find of yourself in others,” This sets the base for harmonious, amicable co-existence.
Dumala believes there are so many layers to divisiveness, “We, at a personal level, also have to make an effort and be open-minded,” she says, adding that education plays a big role in bridging the gaps between people.
“Four years into the incident [that claimed her husband] and my efforts with advocacy, I think we should not throw ourselves into a cocoon,” Dumala says, arguing that not going to this bar or that restaurant is not a solution. How many things can people stop doing to humor someone else’s ignorance?
“There is a need to go even more into the community and share our culture with others and learn about their culture,” Dumala says, adding she needs to let her community know, “this is indeed my place, my home – and I care about my home and the well-being of everybody.”
Dumala is mindful of the divisions within Indian society, too, whether involving regions or religions.
“We talk of unity in diversity in India, yet how much do we truly believe in that,” she asks. “We criticize others for being racist, but have we done any reflection on our own selves?”
According to her, “Even though we have the opportunity to grow, broaden our outlook and be exposed to different cultures and mindsets, for many of us it is hard to give up old habits and attitudes. The hope lies with the future generation, [who] will be the flag bearers of the new, better society.”
Dumala believes the work she is doing is imperative.
“All the parties concerned need to make an effort to understand and accept each other,” she says. “This is how we can make ripples that grow. Change will not happen overnight but we need to start now!”