By ARIEL HERNANDEZ
To commemorate the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the United Sikhs held a media breakfast briefing in Richmond Hill at which they released a “Sikh State of Affairs Since 9/11” report.
“We have been monitoring hate crimes since 2001,” said Megan Daly, the public policy and communications director at United Sikhs. “After the 9/11 attacks, we have noticed a stark increase and we’re concerned and want to get our message out to the public that we are calling for peace. This [hate crime against Sikhs] needs to end.”
Karandeep Singh, a United Sikhs community-outreach volunteer, told the Queens Tribune that the Sikh community has faced backlash following the Sept. 11 attacks due to a misrepresentation of the turban.
“People began to associate turbans with radicalism and linked us to Osama [bin Laden],” said Singh. “The most common comment that Sikh men face is being called ‘Osama’ or ‘terrorist’ because although Osama’s turban style is different and more Arabic, people who don’t know and are ignorant affiliate it with terrorism and fundamentalism.”
Singh moved to the United States in 2003 with his mother and two older brothers. His father, who had come to the United States in 1984, helped them to obtain citizenship.
During the 1980s, Sikhs faced religious persecution in India. In 1984, approximately 2,800 were killed during a genocide carried out by anti-Sikh mobs.
Due to a wave of oppression, hundreds of Sikhs—including Singh’s father—fled to the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. When his father realized that the United States presented a better opportunity for his family, he filed his citizenship papers and sent for his family, despite the discrimination that his community began to face after 9/11.
“The transition was hard, given that it was post-9/11 and Sikhs had become the main focus because of our turbans,” said Singh.
Singh said that throughout elementary, middle and high school, he was called such names as “Osama,” “diaper head,” “terrorist” and “al Qaeda.”
“I don’t know how I got through it, but I got through it,” said Singh. “As first-generation immigrants, my parents put in long hours working, working, working, and my only job was to do good in school. So, I put my head down and got my work done. What the other kids and Americans didn’t understand is that I felt the same sadness everyone else felt in the country following 9/11. I felt it was unjust and unfair, and that’s me sitting on the other side of the fence. It hurt trying to fit in and being barred from doing so because of the misinterpretation of my turban.”
Singh said that he underwent mental torture and anxiety as a result of the stereotype.
Every year, the United Sikhs—a United Nations-affiliated, international charity that advocates for civil and human rights across 11 global chapters—releases a comprehensive list of hate crimes that take place throughout the country.
“In recent years, there have been hate crimes against Sikhs in Queens and New York City, which is concerning because we’re known as the melting pot,” said Daly. “New York City welcomes all immigrants. The Statue of Liberty stands to welcome all immigrants, and yet we still continue to face these issues and hate crimes right in our backyard. That’s why we wanted to launch this report here in Queens because this is where the organization was founded and this is where we wanted to raise awareness of this issue.”
According to Daly, there have been approximately 11 reported hate crimes against Sikhs in New York, but hundreds that have gone unreported.
On July 30, 2014, Sandeep Singh, 29, was accosted by a man in a pickup truck as he was crossing the street. Singh was allegedly called a terrorist by the man, who ran him over and fled the scene.
The reported attacks that took place in Queens include an elementary school child who was attacked by another student. The other student tried to remove his patka—a head covering worn by many Sikh children—from his head. In another incident, graffiti that read “F*** Allah!” with a drawing of male genitalia appeared on a Sikh man’s car. A third incident involved a Sikh man who was attacked by three men shouting racial slurs.
“We want to make awareness of this, particularly into this borough and throughout the city as well,” said Daly. “A lot of work needs to happen in order for this issue to be comprehensively addressed. First, there’s a lack of education just of who Sikhs are in general and what they stand for. They are peace-loving people and it’s a tragedy for these attacks to happen 17 years after 9/11 happened. Sikhs continue to mourn the loss of their people who have been victims of violence or outbursts of attacks, so that’s why we’re calling for some long-term policy changes.”
The United Sikhs are calling for changes in how hate crimes are reported and for Sikhs to be represented as a distinct group in the U.S. Census.
“Allowing Sikhs to self-identify in the 2020 Census would go a long way to making everyone count, so that action can be taken to address hate crimes against the community at large,” the report reads. “Sikhs are 100 times more likely to be attacked than any other citizen in America. The Census cannot assist in accurately identifying the percentages of hate crimes occurring in the Sikh community until it can provide reliable information about how many Sikhs there are in the country.”
Daly said that there are currently approximately 500,000 Sikhs across the country. However, Sikhs are subsumed into a broader Indian or South Asian group.
On Sept. 11, the United Sikhs spent the 17th anniversary taking part in community outreach and visiting the 9/11 memorial.
“Sikhs are loving, kind and generous people,” said Rajesh Singh, the operations coordinator for the United Sikhs. “We have been contributing to this country in all areas. We need to keep educating and spreading our message to all Americans that we feel the same pain you feel, we share your grief and we stand with you. 9/11 itself was a painful incident and I don’t think Indians will ever forget that. The pain, the sorry, those who lost their lives is so traumatic. It doesn’t matter what color, race or religion you are—we are here with you.”
It should be noted that all Sikh males have the surname of “Singh,” and none of them are related in this story.
Reach Ariel Hernandez at email@example.com or @reporter_ariel.