Photo credit: Ajit Singh Photography
Do we belong here?
Sunayana Dumala, the wife of Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who was shot dead in a hate crime by a Navy veteran at a bar in Olathe City, Kansas, asked this question in her statement to the public. This letter is to her and for all the strong women out there that have lost loved ones to hate crimes.
I can’t get your words out of my mind.
“Do we belong here?”
I imagined you, receiving news of your husband and my heart sank.
Did you touch his hand or run your fingers through his hair when he kissed you goodbye that morning?
I imagined you waking up, the day after you found out. Miles away from family in a foreign land. Not your motherland, but a land you and him chose together as a new couple… carrying a dream.
I imagine the way the bed must have felt empty after. The scary silence of heavy air. The lack of footsteps or water running from the bathroom sink as you stood in your kitchen grating ginger for tea.
Was your best friend with you in the car when you went to the airport for his funeral in India?
Did you collapse in your father’s arms when you arrived? Hold his mother’s hands as you related to her on the brokenness of your hearts?
I can only imagine.
So when you come back to the home you built together and look at the walls that you said he painted himself…no wonder you ask, “do we belong here?”
It’s like you have framed your question for all of us. For fellow Indian-Americans, Islamic immigrants, refugees, Jews, Asian, Blacks, Hispanics, all shades of brown plus gays, lesbians and transgender…the people that are marginalized by a regime that seems to have ignited the recent acts of terrorism.
My family is afraid for my father when he steps out to Home Depot in the evening. What if someone tells him…
Get out of my country.
He has been in the U.S.A. since his twenties, and has spent more of his years alive on American soil than Indian.
What if someone stops my husband in a parking lot…my husband who has never lived anywhere else except America.
Do we belong here?
In the late 80’s, a violent gang called the Dot Busters came about in New Jersey, with acts of vandalism, burglary and even murder. I was only 7 years old at the time, so don’t remember much except for what I heard when I got older. I would overhear my parents’ friends who lived over the bridge talk of how much better things were, thanking God that they were no longer targeted.
Then 9-11 happened in my early adulthood. As a New Yorker, 9-11 still casts a really heavy feeling. I remember reciting in a spoken word poem I wrote…how things were different when it felt like our world crumbled with hate slogans and fear. Sikh men with turbans were being mistaken as Islamic fundamentalists and being murdered. But eventually, New York came together. We found ways to rebuild and it felt like…we had gone through something together that no one else could ever imagine and made us stronger.
There wasn’t division but unity.
Recently, there has been more violence against South Asians after your husband and his friend Alok Madasani were shot at and an Indian home in Colorado was vandalized with dog feces. A Sikh man in Washington was recently shot, another man named Harnish Patel was killed in Pennsylvania and just a few days ago, a white man from Florida tried to burn down a store owned by an Indian family to “keep Arabs out.” This is all in the span of less than a month’s time.
Many people I know are calling this The Trump Era of Darkness.
I’m not saying we should all protest against Trump here (but by all means, please do if you are called to). I know that many of my brown brothers and sisters support him. Back in October before the election, a friend on Facebook told me he was shocked to see an event in New Jersey honoring Donald Trump with Bollywood stars and dancers who performed a routine that was literally a choreographed sequence where the dancers were being attacked by lightsaber pointing ‘terrorists’ and saved by ‘U.S. Navy seals.’ When Trump took the stage to address the Indian audience there, he said, “I’m a big fan of Hindu,” and went on to promise that as president of the United States, “the Indian and Hindu community will have a big friend in the White House.”
In the tragic irony of it all, a Navy vet is who attacked your husband. And that the “big fan of the Hindu” did not say anything on the murder of your husband, except a light sentence of how horrible it was one whole week later with no indication that it was in fact a hate crime.
I hope that those same South Asian supporters are understanding that this ethnocentric approach (that is being said to possibly emerge in a ‘new’ Prime Minister Modi run India as well) just feeds into Islamophobia and in fact, will not protect anyone from hate. Hate is hate. When you are seen as other, it doesn’t matter if you wear a Star and Crescent, Om or Star of David. To the white supremacist, you are an enemy and threat. Nothing about you grants a free pass at the bullet.
This is not a letter meant to blame the democrats or republicans or independents for your loss. This is not a letter saying all white Americans are racists. This is a call to all Americans. The ones I have known since birth. The ones who know in their heart of hearts that walls of hate cannot thrive in the force of Love. Unity. Truth.
Some people might say, maybe it’s time to leave. To go home.
I just spent 3 weeks in India last month, and while as an Indian-American it was nice to be there…it made me realize that America is the home I know.
Home is where the heart is.
You see the way I look at it, when you ask if we belong here… I find there are only two real options.
Love and fear.
Whatever color, gender or country you are from, your choice of which option to live by in this time of uncertainty has the ability to create either harmony or hatred.
While the killers choose fear…I think of the man that tried to save your husband…Ian Grillot.
He chose love.
So yes…we belong. We belong in this place where we can be the change we wish to see like Gandhi inspired Martin Luther King to dream and believe.
That kindness can kill that hatred.
I know…It’s confusing when you are singled out as a possible terrorist when it was the very act of terrorism that was what took you beloved away. Let them call it what they want to call it-this is a whole other issue. One can say disease or alcoholism…He was hate. And hate is terrorizing. And not to mention scary.
Listen, I am not trying to sound naive or saying peace in the world is easy to attain. I just know that every second of every day that I interact with the people of my community and beyond, I am making a choice.
Hate kills but perhaps we can sweep hate out our home with a strength of kindness, goodness and love for one another.
We are women of shakti and it’s in our roots to re-build and strengthen. To protect our children.
Help the Jewish synagogues recover from bomb threats by sending flowers, make dinner for the black woman you met whose husband was incarcerated unjustly, help clean off the home of your Muslim neighbor whose house was egged.
Suffocate any doubt and any hate with so much love that when the ones who choose to live in fear want to tell someone like your late husband to get out of my country, they will think twice.
Let the shadow of your tall mountain strength be backed by a community of people who felt your love radiate in the corners of their homes, schools and temples and scare that hateful terrorist away.
My brown sister, if this is where your heart is then this is your home. Voice your powerful words in the aftermath of injustice to the masses, but no need to ask if you belong.