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San Antonio woman fled violence in India to pursue the American dream | Together We Rise

Kamlesh Chaudhry fled violence in India following the riots of 1984. After years of starting fresh in the U.S., she earned the nickname "Queen of Sunglasses."

SAN ANTONIO — Kamlesh Chaudhry is now happily retired in San Antonio.

In 1988, she immigrated to the United States in search of a better life, having fled violence and unrest in India with her husband.

After the culmination of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, we're sharing Chaudhry's pursuit of the American dream as part of our KENS 5 Original Series, Together We Rise.

'Many families were murdered'

The 1980s were a dark era in India.

An attack on the Sikh Golden Temple in 1984, ordered by the Prime Minister of India, led to her assassination that same year. Thousands were killed when both Sikhs and Hindus clashed, resulting in riots.

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"Our Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, she was assassinated by her body guard. There were communal riots everywhere," Chaudhry explained. "Many families were murdered from my state at that time."

Born in Lahore, now part of Pakistan, Chaudhry grew up in a wealthy family. Her father owned movie theaters in India.

Credit: KENS
Kamlesh Chaudhry at her sister's wedding.

"When the partition went, then my parents went to Madhya Pradesh, the center of India."

She eventually earned her Masters and doctorate in Hindi Literature. Her studies also took her to France to study the language. After getting married, she and her husband led a comfortable life, one they built on their own.

But after violence erupted in 1984, the couple decided it was time to go.

"20th (of) August, I moved here. I still remember the day."

Leaving behind their three daughters with their grandparents, the couple settled in Stockton, California in 1988. They didn't know anyone. They simply desired a fresh start.

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"First of all, the basic thing is always a good life," said Chaudhry. "Everyone wants to lead a good life."

In Stockton, she'd leave home at 4 a.m. and walk two miles to work at McDonald's. She'd get everything ready to welcome customers starting at 5:30 a.m.

When her shift was over, she'd leave for her second job at Mervyn's, where she'd work until 10 p.m.

"My dad never allowed us to be out of the house in the dark. (He said), 'Everybody should be home by 5:30, 6:00.' I would say, 'Look, Dad!,'" said Chaudhry, pointing toward the sky. "I used to talk to him."

Credit: KENS

Shortly after coming to America, Chaudhry's husband died. Despite heartbreak, she worked tirelessly to keep providing for loved ones in India.

"When you are drowning in the sea, you have to go like this to stay alive," she explained, moving her arms to gesture wading in water.

Chaudhry recalled a stranger's kindness while she lived in Stockton. She says while walking to work one cold morning, a neighbor came out and gave her a coat. 

She decided in that moment that she would share kindness whenever she could.

"I always give a ride to somebody who needs it. I never say no to anyone. To this day, I never say no," said Chaudhry. "I still pray for her to this day. She saw me from the window, maybe. That day, I cannot forget that."

Although thousands of miles apart, Chaudhry always had family on her mind.

"I was very much depressed. I never bring chicken or ice cream in my house because (my daughters) were (in India)," she explained. "I said my daughter isn't having anything. That's why I couldn't eat, until I sent her money."

Credit: KENS
Chaudhry with two of her daughters.

"All moms are like that," she added. "Not only me. I think all moms are like that."

In 1990, Kamlesh followed the advice of friends and moved to Orlando. She continued working two jobs before opening her own business selling sunglasses.

"It was a roaring business in those days."

She worked hard and opened three more stores, earning her the nickname "Queen of Sunglasses" from her vendors. 

"Everyone came to me. The Versace, the Ralph Lauren, the Gucci, the Dolce and Gabbana," she said.

A couple of years ago, Chaudhry decided to fully retire. She closed two stores, sold the other and moved close to her daughter, who now lives in San Antonio.

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"It is true that, in America, whoever comes works hard," said Chaudhry, when asked her thoughts about the American dream. "Millions came like that and they made the money in living a good life, started their own business from scratch. Maybe Mexicans, maybe Indians, maybe Bangladeshi, Italians. From all over the world."

"Of course, luck is there too... the right opportunity, right time, right moment also plays a good part," she added. "Your health is good. Your children are good. That's all you need."

Credit: KENS
Kamlesh Chaudhry and all three daughters.

Along with spending time with a daughter in San Antonio, Chaudhry also travels to San Jose, California, frequently to visit her other daughter. Her third daughter is still living in India, running one of the most prestigious schools in Punjab.

"I am happy and thankful to God for my daughters also," Chaudhry said. "They are hard working and they also know the values."

Now, Chaudhry is putting her literature degree to good use. She's writing poetry and documenting all her memories.

Her free time is dedicated to serving her community and teaching children and adults Hindi free of charge.

    

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