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Paynesville Press - August 2, 2006

War and diversity inspirits hope
for Kuwaiti-Indian immigrant

Addi Larson

Prashant Upadhyay is a survivor, a scholar, and an American.

Prashant Upadhyay He has endured the ravages of war, lived independently in a foreign country, and thrived through perseverance and hope. Today, he works in Paynesville and plans to make his home in Minnesota.

Prashant Upadhyay survived the 1990 attack upon Kuwait, where he lived with family, and fled to his birthplace, India. Now an American, Upadhyay is employed in Paynesville, thriving in spite of hardships.

His story begins in Kuwait in 1979. Upadhyay's family moved there from New Delhi, India, shortly after his birth, opening their lives to the endless opportunities awaiting them. Upadhyay was raised in a wealthy country that, he believes, values education and family above all else, yet, during most of Upadhyay's upbringing, Kuwait was situated among war.

Along Kuwait's borders, the Iran-Iraq War, beginning in 1980, evinced years of deadly conflict between the two countries until the U.N. mandated a cease-fire in 1988.

Then, recalled Upadhyay, at 2 a.m. on Aug. 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein ordered an attack on Kuwait due to many complex derivations, including suspected slant-drilling of oil across the Kuwait-Iraq borders. According to Upadhyay, his home country, rich in prospects and feeble in military, had fallen passive to the dictatorship of Hussein's shrewd and violent whims.

That morning - within an apartment building in Kuwait City, the nation's capital - Upadhyay remembered awakening to the sound of aircraft flying overhead, which did not sound to him like passenger jets. Four hours after returning to bed, Upadhyay, his mother, and two brothers received a frantic phone call from his father, en route to work. Iraqi tanks were invading. Kuwait was under attack.

The land-conflict between Iraq and Kuwait, preceding the Gulf War, left survivors with haunting memories, according to Upadhyay. He added that the Persian Gulf - which includes Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the State of Qatar, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and the Musandam Peninsula (an exclave region of Oman) - and its coastal region contain the world's single largest known source of crude oil, contributing to related industries that dominate the area and a history of manifested unrest among its borders.

Upadhyay said that within hours, his country became unrecognizable. He compared pre-war Kuwait to Beverly Hills, Calif.; however, just days after the first attacks began, banks were closed, their currency was valued at zero, and civilians were unable to go about life as usual. "We had lost all the money we had," he said.

Upadhyay remembers watching the events unfold on television - until the channels soon became governed by Hussein - and hearing that the king and prime minister had left the country. "There was no system, no security," he said.

A few days after the war began, Upadhyay recalled seeing "thousands and thousands" of Kuwait City residents selling jewelry, TVs, clothing, and whatever items could be sold in a field covered with bed sheets.

Rape and looting suddenly became prevalent. "You could just peek out your window and you could see war," Upadhyay said, numb upon recollection. "No one felt safe." Not wanting his sons to view the war-torn city, Upadhyay's father nailed curtains to the outside of their home windows.

The family's next strategy was to flee. Doing that required permission to leave Kuwait and travel across antagonistic Iraq to the country of Jordan.

A month after the first attacks, Upadhyay said his family was one of the last in his neighborhood to evacuate Kuwait. They boarded a bus in fear for their lives and traveled for five weeks, stopping at refugee camps throughout Iraq where they lived on bread and potatoes and slept on gravel-covered ground.

Upadhyay survived the war along with his parents and brothers. From Jordan, they traveled to India, where his parents worked to rebuild the family's life. "We had so many plans that didn't happen," Upadhyay said, noting that at just 11 years old, the things he saw forced him to grow up quickly.

"No matter where you are, family is the most important," he said gratefully.

After completing his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering, Upadhyay worked for two years at a software firm in Bombay, India.

In 2004, being offered a scholarship into the master's program at Western Michigan University, he moved to the United States in pursuit of higher education and the American dream. In August 2004, the scholarship he was supposed to receive fell through and the expenses of tuition, at $600 per credit, were for more than he had bargained. Upadhyay was surviving on minimum wages, providing custodian duties at a local McDonald's.

Unable to afford to stay, and uncertain that it was time for him to leave the states, he called a former employer in India, who said the door would always be open for him if he decided to return.

"I didn't know anybody. I was in a different country. I had no friends. It came to a point where," Upadhyay recalled thinking, "either I get a scholarship or I go back to India."

That scholarship arrived from St. Cloud State University in 2005. He moved from Michigan to Minnesota to attend SCSU, graduating from the engineering management master's program this year. In April 2005, one of his classes advertised an internship at Louis Industries in Paynesville. He applied and was hired, driving between St. Cloud and Paynesville - from home to work and back home again - before his night classes began. Long days ended with homework and studying. "That year was good. I struggled, but it was nice," Upadhyay said. "I worked like a dog."

Now, Upadhyay is employed full time by Louis Industries, working as a supply chain and quality manager, and he still resides in St. Cloud.

He has felt blessed with the support received from his coworkers and employers. "I think that's one of the reasons I chose to work at Louis Industries," he said.

"When I came to the U.S., I felt like going home," Upadhyay said, adding that at his lowest points, he tried to hide his struggles from his parents over the telephone, not wanting them to worry about him. Presently, Upadhyay said he is "on top of the world."

People have been the most noticeable difference to Upadhyay among Kuwait, India, and America. Attitudes toward others and a reverence for life are among the contrasts he has seen. Upadhyay has noticed that in America, people seem to complain about the small details of their lives and rarely take time to help strangers. One of many morals imported from India has been meaningful to the 27-year-old who advocated simply, "Respect your elders."

The Festival of Ethnic Traditions, which will take place this weekend in Paynesville, recognizes stories like Upadhyay's and celebrates the lives and traditions associated with each world heritage. Living in India for 14 years and in Kuwait for 11 years has broadened his awareness of diversity and understanding, according to Upadhyay.

To him, the Festival of Ethnic Tradtions is a positive way to celebrate that awareness throughout the Paynesville community, which he calls his own. "It's so important that you see how other cultures are and take the good things out of them," Upadhyay said.

Recognizing that Paynesville would be considered a small town to most Americans, Upadhyay said he believes that is something to be valued in this country and concluded, "I'm going to settle down here."

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