Lakewood League Of Women Voters 100th Anniversary 100 Pillars Spotlight: Chitra Walker

Chitra Walker at the League of Women Voters Afternoon Tea October 8, 2022

Chitra Walker could consider herself an expert on prejudice and discrimination. After all, they have followed her across three continents. Yet the phrase she uses most often to describe herself and her life is “I have been blessed.”

Born into a middle-class family in Bangalore, India, Chitra got her undergraduate degree in history and economics at the University of Delhi, where she met and later married Nuruddin Farah, a Somali Muslim, against her parent’s wishes. Racial prejudice and religious discrimination played a large part in her parent’s objections to the marriage. Soon after their marriage, the young couple returned to Somalia, only to encounter similar racial animus, this time directed against her for being Indian and a Christian. “You see,” she says quietly, “there is prejudice all over the world.” Nonetheless, she settled in with her Somali family who showed her understanding and care despite themselves being subject to rejection by family and friends because of Chitra’s Christian faith and Indian ethnicity.  

Shortly after giving birth to her first son, Chitra learned that her father in India was ill. A sister living in the States sent her the funds to visit India, and she gratefully left to visit her Indian family for three weeks, fully expecting to return to her almost year-old son and life in Somalia. But, while in Bangalore, her father received a letter from her husband, Nuruddin, decreeing that he had divorced Chitra under Sharia law. Chitra was unable to go back to Somalia. To this day, she has never heard why this happened, nor why no one in Somalia responded to her pleas to return and take back her child! It would be nearly two decades before she saw her son again. Divorce in India is rare and highly stigmatizing especially for women. Chitra realized she suddenly had no future in India. Her family agreed that it would be best for her if she could immigrate to the United States and start life again anonymously in another country.  

An American student who had befriended Chitra’s family, and who witnessed Chitra’s struggle, wanted to help. He asked his father in the States to sponsor her, which he agreed to do, and arranged a visitor visa for Chitra. Once in the States, Chitra, again with help from her new friends, was able to obtain a student visa for admission into the graduate program in art history at the University of Kansas. The head of the Art History department, a Chinese immigrant himself, understood Chitra’s situation perfectly and told her classes would begin in August. While waiting for term to begin, Chitra stayed with friends in Denver, Colorado. One day, while visiting the Denver Art Museum, she fell into conversation with a woman who turned out to be a wealthy donor of Indian art at the museum. After listening to her story and learning she was looking for a job to pay for school, the woman offered Chitra a job as her housekeeper from February to August at $90.00 a month plus room and board. Even in 1972, this was certainly a lucky break! Chitra realized that if she was careful, she would have enough by the end of summer for her first semester’s tuition. 

At school, Chitra worked full-time at two part-time jobs, while also taking classes full-time earning her master’s degree. She then secured a scholarship into the doctoral program at the University of Michigan in Indian art history.  She did not complete that degree because she fell in love again and married her second husband, Richard Walker. The couple had hoped to return to India, where Richard had served in the Peace Corps, to live and raise their family. However, India, at the time, did not offer opportunities for non-citizens to work and live permanently. So, the couple ultimately settled in Northeast Ohio, where they raised their three children. Chitra’s marriage was, unfortunately, not a happy one, and after twenty years together, the couple divorced.

Chitra has worked in healthcare most of her life here in Northeast Ohio, starting at the Cleveland Clinic in 1989. While married to Richard and working at the Clinic, Chitra had gotten an MBA in healthcare administration at CSU. She also volunteered at the Greater Cleveland Free Clinic (now known as Circle Health), testing and educating people on HIV, and at Hospice of the Western Reserve and the Visiting Nurse Association, giving spiritual support to those who were at the end of their lives. 

After the divorce, she moved to Lakewood, first renting an apartment on the Gold Coast, then owning two condos, renting one, and living in the other. In Lakewood now, and alone again, she began making friends in her new community. They introduced her to a couple of local groups and to working on local political campaigns.  

Then came the 2007 recession. Chitra lost everything, her homes, her job, her health care. With the help of her core community of friends, she began rebuilding her life.  She also became a member of the Lakewood Democratic Club, and the Lakewood Chapter of the League of Women Voters. Her interest in local politics gave her the opportunity to work on President Obama’s campaign in 2008 and 2012, and on a friend’s successful campaign for a seat on Lakewood City Council. She is now a board member of Healthy Lakewood Foundation, established as part of the settlement following the closure of Lakewood Hospital. Though retired now, Chitra continues to volunteer, and is also deeply involved with supporting families who have or have lost family members who suffer from substance use disorders. As a part of that effort, Chitra has taken training to support such families through “peer coaching.”  

A recipient herself of the genuine kindness and generosity of ordinary American citizens, Chitra is adamant every citizen knows and becomes involved in their own community. “We have a responsibility to our community to be involved, to register, to vote. Our democracy is in peril. This is my country now. I am an immigrant who remade herself in a new country. I have been very blessed. I could not have done that without friends who helped and taught me to get involved.”

Despite having herself fled her own country because of prejudice and discrimination, she says, “We all need to hear each other, and to understand each other through real conversation and involvement. This is the only way we come to understand ourselves.”

Carol Thum

Community activist and concerned citizen.

Read More on Non-Profit
Volume 18, Issue 20, Posted 11:55 AM, 10.19.2022