Staff Q&A: Kusum Soin

A decade and a half ago, Kusum Soin was living the good life in prosperous Kuwait.

She and her husband, Devinder, were successful professionals. They owned a large home. They had a maid. And Soin says she didn’t have to lift a finger around the house.

Then, in 1990, just as the family was preparing to leave so Devinder could pursue a graduate degree at Penn, Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. As Iraq swooped into Kuwait, the Soins and their two young daughters were heading out‹first to Baghdad, then Amman, and eventually, West Philadelphia.

And a whole new life.

Most of their money was frozen in Kuwaiti banks, and when the Soins arrived in Philadelphia, they found they could only afford a small one-bedroom apartment. They relied on help from relatives to put food on the table. Devinder went to school, Kusum volunteered for various neighborhood groups, and the family scraped by.

After years of community work, Kusum built something of a reputation in the local Indian community, and four years ago she was tapped to help Penn students launch the Pan-Asian American Community House, a central resource for students of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage. She has been so instrumental in the development of PAACH‹and the lives of Penn’s Pan-Asian students‹that she was recently named the 2005 winner of the Penn Women of Color Award for faculty and staff.

Q. You are originally from India but you were living in Kuwait just when Iraq invaded. What was that like?

A. My husband got a job there, and so after my marriage I moved to Kuwait. My husband had applied for admission to Penn, and we were in the process of packing and were supposed to leave on August 14. The invasion happened on July 30, or something like that. We were just in the process of moving. And we sold everything, almost. We were packing on that morning and saw on the news Kuwait had been invaded. It was a shock and a dream. The supermarkets were empty, there was no gas, whatever food we had at home we had to survive on for seven days. It was very hard at that time. We used to have to stand in a queue for bread.

Q. How did you get out?

A. The only way to leave Kuwait was to go to Baghdad. We didn’t have a car, so we hired a taxi. We stayed there overnight, took a flight to Amman and then came here.

Q. Tell me about your first impressions of the U.S.

A. We left Kuwait with four suitcases, and we left everything else there. It was a big transition. Living in Kuwait was a very easy life. We had a maid-servant there. They did everything for us. If you wanted something, you got it in Kuwait. So when I saw our apartment, it was like student life. I cried.

Q. When and why did you start doing volunteer work?

A. I was on an H-4 Visa and was not allowed to work. So I started doing volunteer work. I started at my children’s school, Powelton Elementary, helping in bake sales and fundraising events and then I became vice president and president of the [school group]. I contacted the Red Cross and did some work there, some filing and their accounts. My friend wrote a grant application to give education to the Indian community and help them apply for American passports. I worked with them, and we went to Indian temples and Indian groups and helped them fill out the forms.

Q. So how did you end up at PAACH?

A. This job came up and I applied. But the only reason I got the job was because I was involved in the local community. When I came here, the students were a great help to me. I helped them to set up the center, buy the furniture, organizing what we needed. But I was learning also.

Q. What’s a typical day like for you?

A. We get about 40 or 50 students a day. I can give you an example of what I do. We had a conference, for the East Asian Students Union, with about 1,000 students—it was very successful. That was a very busy time, because we had 50 or 60 students a day, and I worked with them on travel arrangements, hotel arrangements, reimbursements, and then checking to make sure we’re on budget. I make sure we’re not over budget on anything. I purchase all the supplies and if anything goes wrong I take care of that.

Q. Is something like PAACH important for the students here?

A. Yes, it’s very important to have. This is like a second home for them. It’s nice for me, too, because my whole family is in India. I just love talking to the students. They can come here, and we can cry and we can laugh. I organize dinners for them, and invite them to my home, and they feel very comfortable there. It’s a good relationship.

Q. I see your children have gone to Penn.

A. Yes, my older daughter graduated in 2004 and my next will graduate in 2007. So we are a proud Penn family. My son always says, “My father went there and my sisters go there, so I want to go there,” but, you know, boys are different. So I couldn’t say.

Q. You and your family have come a long way in 15 years.

A. When we came here, we had a one-bedroom apartment, with two children, and then our son was born. We used to sleep in the living room. We stayed in that apartment for five years, and for three years while my husband was in college we didn’t have any income. We ate from our savings and my parents came over and brought lentils from India. They were so surprised because they had seen my life in Kuwait. We were in that apartment five years, and then for five years we rented a two-bedroom apartment, and two years back we bought our own house. That was a big achievement for us.

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