Suburban Sikh Americans reflect on safety 20 years after 9/11

  • More than 30 members of the Palatine-based Sikh Religious Society helped feed those in need at the Salvation Army on Christmas Day.

    More than 30 members of the Palatine-based Sikh Religious Society helped feed those in need at the Salvation Army on Christmas Day. Courtesy of Rajinder Singh Mago, 2019

 
 
Posted9/10/2021 5:22 AM

The murder of a Sikh entrepreneur from Mesa, Arizona, in a post-Sept. 11 retaliatory attack sent shock waves within immigrant communities nationwide.

Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed on Sept. 15, 2001, at his gas station four days after the Sept. 11 attacks. His killer was a man who wanted to exact vengeance on people he termed "towel-heads" and who mistook Sodhi for an Arab Muslim.

 

Even after 20 years, suburban Sikh Americans say they stay vigilant about racial profiling and hate crimes against their communities, just like Muslims.

FBI data shows Sikhs are among the nation's most-targeted religious groups. There's been a rise in attacks on gurdwaras (temples), and Sikh males especially are singled out because they typically wear beards and turbans as part of their faith.

"We have seen a consistent increase in bias, criminal acts and violence," said Amrith Kaur Aakre of Chicago, national legal director for the Sikh Coalition. "We've also seen it in more subtle ways. Discrimination goes beyond hate and violence. It is so integral and interwoven into our systems."

Sikh Americans now are more vocal about discrimination and better prepared to take action against it, she said.

The Sikh Religious Society in Palatine has been at the forefront of efforts to help educate people about Sikh culture and traditions. The gurdwara has organized numerous interfaith events and opened its doors to community members and high school students. Its leaders lobbied for April to be designated as Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month in Illinois.

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"This year we were able to get proclamations and resolutions in different counties, villages and cities," said Rajinder Singh Mago of Wayne, community outreach coordinator. "What it has done is (that) a lot more people know about us now."

Sept. 11 also has created a sense of solidarity between suburban Sikhs and Muslims, he said.

On Sunday, the gurdwara will host communal prayers honoring those who lost their lives on Sept. 11 and its aftermath, including first responders.

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