Nearly a year after an act of hatred ripped her husband from her, Sunayana Dumala has devoted herself to espousing love and positivity in his name.
“I can’t let people forget him,” Dumala said. “That is what is making me spread his legacy, and I hope I’m getting there. I hope I succeed and the name Srinivas Kuchibhotla stays there forever.
“People can forget me, but not forget him.”
Few could forget the horrible night last February when one of Olathe’s own was killed at Austins Bar & Grill. Kuchibhotla, an Indian immigrant like his wife, became the victim of a suspected hate crime. He was allegedly killed by a man with a twisted notion of patriotism who yelled, “Get out of my country!”
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In the immediate aftermath of the shooting — which injured Kuchibhotla’s friend and fellow Indian immigrant Alok Madasani and a third person who intervened, Ian Grillot — Dumala publicly questioned immigrants’ place in this country, asking, “Do we belong?”
Since then, she has been overwhelmed by support from family and friends, neighbors and strangers.
“That answer was quick ... it came like, ‘You do belong here,’” said Dumala, 33. She feels welcomed by her community, even if not by the U.S. immigration system amid uncertainty about her visa status.
Dumala was unsurprised when she learned later that Kuchibhotla, who was 32, remained respectful even as his killer’s agitation intensified. Rather than resorting to judgment, Dumala said, her husband often sought to find the source of a person’s anger, to soothe with kindness.
“That is what makes me sad,” she said. “For the one person who was a perfect example of love and care and respect, he had to lose his life for the opposite reason.”
When the void left by her husband feels most unbearable, she remembers what her sister once told her: “God has put you in difficult testing times by taking away Srinu from you. But you have to rise and rebuild yourself the same way a bird rebuilds its nest every time it breaks apart.”
Support has come in various forms.
Donations poured in from 25 countries, and she was flooded with letters, including cards with “cute messages” from local middle school students.
Garmin, where Kuchibhotla worked on the Aviation Systems Engineering team, honored him. A painting of Kuchibhotla hangs in the company’s Olathe headquarters, and a copy hangs in Dumala’s home.
Kevin Yoder, her congressman, recently invited her to be his guest at the State of the Union later this month. The Overland Park Republican has advocated on Dumala’s behalf, helping her obtain a temporary visa after her previous one had terminated with her husband’s death.
“The shooter’s bullet destroyed her husband and broke her so deeply that we had to ... show him that he didn’t break our community,” Yoder said. “We had to let the world know that Kansas City, Kansas and America are welcome to immigrants.”
Just last week, Dumala learned she’d been granted a new visa. After worrying she’d be unable to leave the country, she can now travel back to India next month for the first anniversary of Kuchibhotla’s death. It’s an important period in Hindu customs, one marked by worship and feasts to help bring peace to the lost person’s soul.
“We believe he reached heaven,” she said, “so we’re praying for him to be happy and have that peace.”
But despite the recent good news, Dumala still doesn’t feel entirely welcome in the U.S. An immigration system that many say discriminates against Indian immigrants by making them wait longer for full citizenship than people from other countries weighs on her.
“I never know where I’ll be in another (few) years, and I don’t think it’s fair to me,” said Dumala, who holds a master’s degree and is a database developer for Intouch Solutions, an Overland Park pharmaceutical marketing agency.
“She’s a very powerful symbol of who the system is failing,” Yoder said. “One of the reasons I’ve become so passionate about this immigration issue is that we need to send a message to the Indian community and other immigrant groups that we are a loving country that is welcome to all.”
Yoder is a member of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans.
Dumala continues to appeal to the best in people. She’s become increasingly outspoken against hate in an effort to share her husband’s legacy.
She has plans for a peace walk in early March, around Kuchibhotla’s birthday, and she is thinking of ways to raise intercultural awareness in younger children.
Kuchibhotla, who loved children, would have liked that.
Her employer plans to launch an outreach program to spread positivity.
And last month, she spoke alongside Mindy Corporon at a forum at Rockhurst University. Corporon lost her father and son when an anti-Semite opened fire outside a Jewish facility. F. Glenn Miller Jr. was sentenced to death for the killings.
In Corporon, Dumala has found an empathetic ally. Both are eloquent in the way they preach acceptance, working to transform hate into love.
They’re motivated by preventing another family from suffering as they have, but also by “not letting people forget about what happened to our loved ones. We can’t let them remain a statistic,” Dumala said. “We want them to be remembered for their achievements and as (people), and what was taken away.”
Kuchibhotla’s boss and Garmin’s vice president, Didier Papadopoulos, remembered Kuchibhotla as a model employee, “one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life.”
He was a perfectionist who insisted on painting the interior of their Olathe home, where Dumala once envisioned raising a family.
She recalled how some evenings, when her husband returned from work, she’d dart into an upstairs closet for an impromptu game of hide-and-seek. He’d call out the nickname he’d given her: “Nani, Nani, Nani.”
She smiled at the memory.
Even though Kuchibhotla is gone, she still feels he is “guiding me through.” After all, he once motivated her to obtain a job, to look for the positive in everything, to face her fears.
To overcome hate.
“All of these factors, they all keep me pushing. I can’t let people forget him,” she said. “I’m committed ... to let people see what Srinivas was actually like as a person ... and how much he would have contributed to this society had he been alive.”