Fear and loathing in AmericaIn Olathe, Kansas, in the heart of the United States, two men were doing what many Americans do every week: go to the bar to watch a game of college basketball.
In Olathe, Kansas, in the heart of the United States, two men were doing what many Americans do every week: go to the bar to watch a game of college basketball. Except these two men were from India and instead of going home that night and talking about the previous night’s game around water coolers at work the next morning, they were shot.
One of the men, Shrinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer working for the Garmin corporation, was killed. A second Indian man, Alok Madasani, was wounded. While a third man, an American, Ian Grillot, was injured while trying to apprehend the shooter.
The suspected shooter had allegedly yelled “get out of my country” shortly before firing his gun at the men he apparently thought were from the Middle East. The deadly shooting has made headlines across the United States.
After remaining silent about it for a week, the White House finally condemned the shooting as “an act of racially motivated hatred”. At a time when many in the South Asian immigrant community were already facing uncertainty and anxiety over immigration policies of the new administration, this apparently racially motivated incident has left many Nepalis in the Greater Kansas City Metropolitan area and the mid-west, reeling with a mixture of shock, horror, dismay and fear.
“Knowing I’m that brown guy at a bar, where I’m probably one of a very few, is a scary thought now,” said a Nepali working professional, who has lived in various places in the Mid-Western United States for most of the past decade. He like several people that this reporter talked to during the course of the interviews after the shootings in Olathe asked Kathmandu Post not to use his name when talking about things overtly political in nature.
“In the past I had never felt out of place here. Not even when I was in a tiny town in Indiana, that had only four stoplights,” he said. “But now it is a little scary. I haven’t been able to go out without thinking about it.” After the incident he said that he expressed to his cousins how “it could literally have been one of us.”
The working professional told The Kathmandu Post that his heightened state of anxiety had been a culmination of “everything that has happened since the election of Mr Trump.” He talked about the banning of immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries and expressed fear that his phone could now be checked while coming into the US. He was referring to reports about immigration authorities checking cell phones of people coming into the country. “I guess privacy rights don’t extend to immigrants anymore,” he said.
“My parents are coming in three weeks,” he continued. “I am scared that they are going to be held up at the airport.” He also mentioned that for his parents’ trip to the United States, he deliberately booked them on flights that avoided transit in the Middle East. “I specifically bought them tickets so that their transit is in Korea and not Doha.”
He continued, “I guess deep down I always knew some of this animosity towards minorities existed. It is just weird that someone that has voiced such negative opinions about minorities is now the leader of the free world.”
“The news was very unsettling,” says Parag Gauchan, the president of the Kansas City Nepalese Society. Especially because according to Gauchan, “the shooting happened in a very safe neighbourhood.”
“Olathe is consistently ranked as one of the best places to live in the US. This was surprising because we generally don’t see animosity towards immigrants in the Kansas City area,” he added. Gauchan also said that he had never heard any members of the Nepali community complain about incidents of racism.
Kansas City is home to approximately 1,000 Nepalis, many of whom have a close relationship with the Indian community. “The Kansas City Nepalese Association is an active member of the Asian Association here in Kansas City and enjoys a very good relationship with other communities, including the Indian community,” explained Gauchan.
He said that in the past, the Indian Community had come together to help Nepalis raise funds during the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Many members of the Nepali community thus shared in their grief of the tragedy. A prayer vigil and a peace march were organised by the Indian Association of Kansas City, which featured prominently on the Nepali Association’s Facebook page and was attended by several members of the community.
Gauchan said that the turnout at the event had been great. “Various community leaders and government officials were also present, which brought a lot of attention to this incident.”
Just like Alok Madasani, one of the victims of the shootings, had done, Gauchan was quick to emphasise that this shooting however an isolated incident and that it “did not reflect the true spirit of Kansas City or most people’s attitude towards immigrants.”
But, although an isolated incident, Gauchan hoped that this would serve as catalyst and bring people together as a community and empower them to stand up against hate crimes and racism. “I hope people learn to respect each other despite of their race, religion or background. This is obviously easier said than done. However, education and awareness programs among different communities can play a big role,” he said.
When asked to comment about the political atmosphere and the uptick in anti-immigrant rhetoric, Gauchan chose to refrain from expressing any political views.
Amsul Khanal, who recently completed his PhD and has resided in the United States for over a decade, also declined to comment about politics but made us aware of the plight of some of the Nepalis who are seeking the H1B immigrant visa. “I am technically still a student right now,” he explained. “So my fate and my ability to stay in the United States currently is decided by a lottery and last year I didn’t get it.”
The H1B visa is used by US business to employ foreign workers in occupations that are very specialised. Hundreds of thousands of applicants apply for the 85,000 H1B visas are issued each year. Which is why a lottery like system is used to determine the eligible candidate for the visa.
“I was 18 when I moved here after finishing high school. I have not set a foot wrong. I dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s. Paid taxes. I spent 10 years in school. I did my due diligence. America has invested in me and I am willing to invest in America,” Khanal explained. But he is now worried that “he might have to uproot himself and might have to figure this out once again.”
In addition to having to worry about the lottery there is a general uncertainty surrounding the H1B program itself. Several reports from close watchers of immigration policy in the United States suggests that the Trump administration is looking for ways to reform the H1B visa. The Department of Homeland security is said to be considering allocating H1B visas on the basis of “merit” and not through a lottery.
This reform, put forward by the administration, could prove to be good or bad depending on how the newly structured process is executed. Khanal says that while he supports the introduction of a merit based system, he feels a looming fear that one way or the other, time is up for him in a place he has called home for the last decade.
- Saurav is a freelance journalist currently based out of Philadelphia