A little over a year ago, Sunayana Dumala’s husband, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, was shot and killed at an Olathe bar by a man who questioned whether he was in the country legally.
Back then, Dumala wondered whether she should stay in the United States. In a Facebook post, she wrote: “To answer the question that is in every immigrant’s mind, DO WE BELONG HERE? Is this the same country we dreamed of and is it still secure to raise our families and children here?”
“Last year has been a very tough and interesting year,” she told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard.
It was the year she and her husband had looked forward to starting a family. After Kuchibhotla’s funeral in India, Dumala wasn’t sure whether she would come back, but the overwhelmingly positive response from the community convinced her to stay in Olathe, she said.
Dumala’s journey to the United States started while she was an undergrad in India.
She grew up in Hyderabad, the youngest of three daughters. Her sisters were older by 12 and 14 years.
“I was this pampered, spoiled child. I was the baby of the house,” she said.
She had a carefree childhood, she said. Her father was protective, but he always gave his kids freedom. He only asked that they study and get a good education.
According to Dumala, she never had to do anything for herself. She never had to go to the bank, and the first time she rode a bus was to get to college — it was a harrowing experience with so many people pushing her around.
During her third year in college, she saw that her friends were being coached for the GRE and TOFEL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exams.
She decided that she wanted to give those tests a try.
“I wanted to come out of that protective and cocoon-like environment,” she said.
After her college graduation, she applied to graduate schools in the United States. Also around that time, she started chatting with her best friend’s brother on Orkut, a social media platform that was popular in India.
She told her friend’s brother that one of the schools she was looking at was the University of Texas at El Paso. He sent her the names of four of his friends who were studying there.
The first name on the list: Srinivas Kuchibhotla.
He was the only person Dumala contacted. She asked him for help: Would he check on her application status at the admissions office?
From there, they started talking. Their conversations went from a few minutes to a few hours to all night long. They used to discuss all sorts of things. He told her about his life as a student, his research and what it took to live in America and to be independent.
He gave her confidence that if she ended up in the United States, he could be someone to contact if she got into any trouble. He’d be her “protective layer,” since she was leaving her protective layer at home.
“He would be my 9-1-1,” Dumala said.
They dated for six years. She came to the U.S. and attended the University of Missouri-St. Louis, then she transferred to St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, where she got her masters in engineering management.
After they married, they lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Kuchibhotla had already been living there for six years, and they made a lot of friends who became an extended family.
Both Dumala and Kuchibhotla liked the casual, family-friendly atmosphere of the Midwest. When it was time to move from Iowa, Kansas was an “instant decision” for them. In Olathe, she said, they’d get a bigger city upgrade while still having that smaller city feel.
Then February 22, 2017, happened.
Since Kuchibhotla was killed, Dumala has met with some of the people who tried to help that night at the bar. That gave her a measure of peace.
“He was in good hands,” she said. “Although there was one bad guy that showed us the worst that night, there were so many good people that showed the best for us.”
A week later, she gave an emotional press conference. Looking back, she’s surprised that she spoke out. Sometimes, she said, she feels that it was because of Kuchibhotla, that he’s still with her and he’s making her do things to bring about change.
Such as Forever Welcome, a social media campaign that Dumala started with her employer, Intouch Solutions. She wanted to show that America is still a welcoming and safe place for current and future immigrants, and she wanted to stop others from going through this pain.
She said that she’s learning to be single.
Growing up, she said, she was always very talkative, but timid. Kuchibhotla helped her be more outspoken.
“There are so many things that he made me do that I thought I would never do,” she said. Like taking singing lessons. She had always wanted to, but never got the chance. After moving to Olathe, he found her a teacher.
Now that her life has changed so drastically over the past year, she said 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 said.
“I never knew that I was this strong.”