Searching For A Home After Hate
GENE DEMBY, HOST:
The FBI says that the number of hate crimes in the United States has been growing every year since 2015, and the bureau reports that most of those hate crimes were racially motivated. One of them happened in February 2017, in a small, mostly white suburb of Kansas City.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: At approximately 7:16 p.m., the Olathe Police Department was notified of shots fired at a local establishment. Officers in the area responded...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I've got two down, gunshot wounds to the chest. I've got third (unintelligible) wound to the hip.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Kuchibhotla was killed when 52-year-old Adam Purinton opened fire on Wednesday evening.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Witnesses say Purinton yelled, get out of my country.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Family members, they're still in shock. They're still processing what's happened and...
SUNAYANA DUMALA: He did not deserve a death like this.
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DEMBY: Srinivas Kuchibhotla was 32 years old when he was shot and killed at a bar. The story made international news, particularly in India, which is where Kuchibhotla and his wife Sunayana Dumala immigrated from.
DUMALA: He used to call me Nani. Nani, how will you survive without me? You are such a (laughter) - you are so innocent. How are you going to live without me?
DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. Shereen's on assignment this week. Sunayana was in the U.S. as a spouse on her husband's visa for high-skilled workers. But with him gone, she didn't know if she would even be allowed to stay in the country. Our teammate Kat Chow went to Kansas to find out, can the United States of America still be home for the woman left behind by this hate crime? Here's Kat.
KAT CHOW, BYLINE: February 22, 2017.
DUMALA: That day, the weather was super warm, and it was a surprise.
CHOW: This is Sunayana Dumala. That day, the temperature was in the high 70s in Olathe - really unusual for February but exciting. The weather reminded Sunayana how busy she and Srinu, as she calls her husband, had been with traveling, work. She was looking forward to spending more time with him, wanted them to watch the sunset together.
DUMALA: When I got home, I messaged him, what time are you planning to come home? And he said 7-ish. Why? And I said the weather is so good. Why don't you come home, and let's have tea? And he said red (ph) tea and question mark. That was the last thing I heard from him.
CHOW: Seven-ish, the time he told her he'd come home, had come and gone. Sunayana had no idea at the time, but Srinu had gone to this bar close to their house called Austin's to grab a couple beers with a coworker from Garmin, the GPS company. It was their usual spot to hang out, unwind. She was home wondering where he was. She went on Facebook, was scrolling through her feed.
DUMALA: I saw this message which said shooting. And then I'm like, oh, my God. It isn't a game - a shooting. Why people are doing this? And then I went back to read it carefully, and that's when I saw Austin's, three people, shooting.
CHOW: She knew Srinu liked going to Austin's. She was calling everyone she knew.
DUMALA: Where is Srinu? Is he at work? Where is he? What's happening?
CHOW: After hours of worrying, Sunayana saw these headlights.
DUMALA: I rushed to the kitchen - garage door and opened it hoping it's Srinu and his car. But then it was our friend Shashi's car. And looking at his face, I kind of - and then I was like, he was dead, isn't he? And he just nodded his head.
CHOW: Here's what happened. At the bar, a white man came up to Srinu and his friend Alok Madasani who were hanging out on the patio. The man reportedly asked them if they were in the country legally. He threw more questions and slurs at them. A bar employee told this man to leave, but he returned with a gun. And he opened fire while allegedly calling Srinu and Alok terrorists and yelling for them to get out of his country. He shot both Alok and Srinu. Srinu didn't survive.
DUMALA: And I heard the worst thing in my life that night. This shouldn't have happened, but it happened. But I think the only way we can honor him and not let people forget his sacrifice is by sharing the story and the importance of acceptance of everybody.
CHOW: Their story begins in 2006. Sunayana was in India. Srinu was in the U.S. A mutual friend introduced them. The two chatted online constantly about movies, music. She told him that she'd secretly always dreamed of singing. One day, Sunayana turned a flirtatious joke into a proposal.
DUMALA: He was just trying to tease me.
CHOW: Srinu said to her whatever home she went to, whatever home she married into, the family would be blessed because she could sing for them. They wouldn't need a radio.
DUMALA: And I said, oh, OK. Why shouldn't it be to yours? And he was like, hm.
CHOW: Eventually, they got married and moved to Olathe where Srinu got a job as a software engineer at Garmin. They bought this house at the end of a road near a big, open field.
DUMALA: The sunset on some of those evenings is so beautiful.
CHOW: Srinu especially loved them. They'd watch them together after he finished work. She was lonely at first in this new place where she didn't know many people. So Srinu helped her get her job as a database developer at a nearby marketing agency called Intouch and found her an Indian classical music teacher so she could learn to sing like she'd always wanted. This would be their life together in America - just them watching the sunsets together until they filled the spare bedrooms with kids of their own, hopefully in a few years or so. But they never got a chance.
DUMALA: I can't separate myself from him. And he always used to joke about this. It's like, he used to call me Nani (ph). Nani, how will you survive without me? You are such a - you are so innocent. How are you going to live without me? So I'm living for him.
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DEMBY: After the break, how Sunayana is living for Srinivas.
Gene - it's just Gene - CODE SWITCH - OK - back to Kansas.
CHOW: This is Sunayana talking at a press conference not long after Srinu was killed. She's standing under these bright, fluorescent lights. Cameras are trained on her - people, journalists crowding around her. She had questions.
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DUMALA: And I need an answer. I need an answer from the government. I need an answer for every one of them, that what is that they're going to do to stop this hate crime.
CHOW: In the months prior to Srinu's death, local news stations had been reporting about buildings being defaced with swastikas, racial slurs or phrases like, hail President Trump. Whether she knew it or not, Sunayana - in this speech - she was setting the mission, if you will, for her new life work, advocating for acceptance. But as we all know, those are complicated questions with no easy answers. And getting involved - that would mean making the choice to stay in the US.
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DUMALA: The country that he loved so much - I told him many a times, should we think about going back? Should we think about going to a different country? He said, no. Let's just see. Let's wait and see.
CHOW: Now, with him gone, she was wondering, did she even want to stay? Sunayana went back to India for Srinu's funeral and to see family and to just rest. But she felt this pull back to Olathe.
DUMALA: I had that feeling of a home here. And I can't see myself anywhere other place. It's tough to restart all over again in India. Not just that - emotionally, it's very tough to move out of this house. It has so much of him.
CHOW: Except staying in the U.S. wasn't so simple. There were some practical things in her way.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The Kansas City Star reports that Srinu's wife lost her U.S. residence status.
CHOW: Here's a news report from a local TV station a few months after Srinu's death.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Like her husband, she is from India. Her application for a green card was on his work visa, so she had to start from square one after his death.
CHOW: And starting from square one with her visa application - that was hard. She'd already been waiting almost a decade for a green card. The night Srinu died, Sunayana knew his death was also going to affect her visa status. But just as people rallied around Srinu with the vigils and marches right after he was killed, people also rallied around Sunayana. Her parents came from India to stay with her for nearly a year to help her as she grieved. And then there was this man.
KEVIN YODER: We surrounded Sunayana with our community's love and support to let her know that our community is very welcome to immigrants, and our country is.
CHOW: This is Kevin Yoder, a Republican congressman from Kansas. He has some pretty standard Republican views on immigration. In the past, he's called DACA unconstitutional, and he's backed Trump's call for a border wall. But he, like a lot of other Republicans, is a vocal supporter of, quote, unquote, "high-skilled immigrants." In fact, he introduced an immigration bill for high-skilled immigrants which, he says, could help people like Sunayana.
YODER: We believe that the green card should go first come, first serve as opposed to putting people from India at the back of the line.
CHOW: So let's take a second and talk about what his bill could do. Right now, the U.S. only gives out 140,000 green cards each year to high-skilled visa holders. And out of all those green cards, no more than 7 percent can go to people from a given country. This means workers from smaller countries, like say Greenland, don't have very long wait times. But people from India, which has a huge population, might have to wait more than 10 years to be eligible for a green card. Yoder's bill would change this by getting rid of that 7 percent cap.
LETI VOLPP: And it would redistribute the wait time for everybody else.
CHOW: Here's Leti Volpp. She's a professor at UC Berkeley School of Law, and also the director for the school's center for race and gender.
VOLPP: I mean, the issue really is is what is fair. Is it fair to treat every individual the same, or is it fair to treat every country the same, which is the system that we have now?
CHOW: This bill clearly has plenty of support from Indian-Americans and Indian immigrants. Over the past few years, roughly 70 percent of these visas have gone to Indian immigrants. Volpp says the bill has a good deal of bipartisan support. Democrats, like representatives Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Grace Meng of New York, back it. Sunayana was Yoder's guest at the State of the Union address in January. Her name is closely associated with this bill. Yoder, along with Sunayana and Srinu's employers - Intouch and Garmin - helped her get a temporary visa and an H-1B visa to stay. And now that she's allowed to stay, Sunayana's trying to figure out where she belongs, who her people are, who gets her. She says one woman in particular has been really helpful. They met at this event they were both invited to speak at not long after Srinu died.
DUMALA: She came, and she adjusted my mic. And, like, she kind of almost stood by me that - you can do it. You can speak.
CHOW: For months, people had been telling Sunayana, you should meet this woman named Mindy Corporon.
DUMALA: She was the first person with whom I could share what I was feeling actually.
CHOW: On the surface, it might not seem like they have much in common. Mindy is white and Christian. She grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, but she knew too well the grief that Sunayana felt. Almost four years ago in another suburb of Kansas City called Overland Park, Mindy's life changed forever.
MINDY CORPORON: On April 13, my dad William Corporon took my son Reat Underwood to a singing audition at the Jewish community campus in Overland Park, Kan.
CHOW: They had no way to know that a white supremacist was in the parking lot looking to shoot and kill Jewish people.
CORPORON: My dad got out of the truck, and the shooter had gotten out of his car. And he shot my dad about two feet away with a shotgun. And then he turned the gun to the left and shot through the window, and shot Reat in the head.
CHOW: Mindy's son and father were not Jewish, but the shooter who killed them thought they were just like how the man who allegedly killed Srinu thought Srinu was Iranian. After she lost her son and father, Mindy started a foundation called Faith Always Wins.
CORPORON: I'm supposed to take what happened and not allow other people to commit hate crimes.
CHOW: Mindy has become a model for how Sunayana can move forward. For example, each year on the anniversary of Mindy's son and father's death, she launches a week's worth of events that commemorate what happened. Mindy thought she was making progress. Then she heard about Srinivas Kuchibhotla.
CORPORON: I couldn't function when I heard that. I've heard of other hate crimes happening. But when they're further away from you, they hurt. And they hurt me differently than they used to. But this one just really took me to my knees.
CHOW: Mindy says she felt physically sick, like all the work she'd done in the community over the past few years about religious tolerance was pointless. She went to a vigil for Srinu right after he was killed, and she was so angry. The only faces she says she saw were brown people, presumably Indian-Americans.
CORPORON: Where are the white faces? This is a community event. We have been focusing so much on more people helping one another and being there for the joy but being there in the sorrow, too. But on the way home, I kept having this urge to tell everyone else who wasn't there that they should have been there.
CHOW: According to the Pew Research Center, 2001, the year of the Sept. 11 attacks, saw the most assaults against Muslims in the U.S. in the modern era. The number of those assaults has not been as high in the years since, that is until 2016. That's when assaults against Muslims surpassed the days following 9/11. Srinivas Kuchibhotla was not Muslim. He was Hindu. But the man who allegedly shot him and Alok Madasani reportedly called them terrorists and thought they were from the Middle East.
This is a reminder that you don't have to be Muslim to be targeted by Islamophobia. In Mindy's case, you don't have to be Jewish to be targeted by anti-Semitism. As people who have been devastated by racist violence, Mindy and Sunayana are both trying to figure out how to curb it in their own backyards.
DUMALA: In our effort of sharing our story, what we want people to do is come out of their fears, come out of their cocoons.
CHOW: Mindy wrote an op-ed in the local paper calling out her fellow white citizens in the area, imploring them to show up for people who don't look like them. And she's trying to get people of different faiths to talk to one another about this violence. Sunayana, for her part, she's started her own social media campaign with the help of her employer called Forever Welcome. She's trying to create support and empathy for other immigrants.
DUMALA: The main motive of starting the Forever Welcome campaign is not just for the immigrants to feel they're welcome here but also to send this broader message that for white Americans also that see everybody equally, and everybody is equal.
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CHOW: Srinivas Kuchibhotla would have turned 34 this coming Friday, March 9. The man accused of shooting him recently pled guilty to one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder. He still faces federal hate crime charges. He'll be sentenced in May. In memory of Srinu, Sunayana will lead a peace walk Friday night through Olathe, Kan. She'll walk by Garmin, where he worked, and by Austin's, where he was killed.
DUMALA: In the end, it is that - to honor who we lost and keep their memory alive.
CHOW: For now, Sunayana has decided to make Olathe her home. She's not giving up on her neighbors just yet.
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DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. You can follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. As always, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed. And leave us a review on iTunes. It's how people find the show.
This episode was produced by Leah Donnella, Maria Paz Gutierrez and Walter Ray Watson. It was edited by Sami Yenigun and Steve Drummond. Original music by Ramtin Arablouei. Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Adrian Florido, Karen Grigsby Bates and Kumari Devarajan. I'm Gene Demby. Shereen is back next week. Be easy, y'all.
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