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Kansas City Sikhs Seek Tolerance

Alex Smith

While the Wisconsin shooting that took place on August 5th is the most dramatic attack on Sikhs in recent memory, members of the faith often experience harassment and discrimination.

On Wednesday evening, Kansas City’s Sikh community hosted a vigil to remember the Wisconsin victims and promote tolerance.

Under a shelter which overlooks Shawnee Mission Lake, about 150 people gathered to chant, pray and reflect. As a thunderstorm loomed in the sky, Sikh community leaders and a priest took turns addressing the solemn audience. Young and old hands carried lit candles, and most people wore blue, the Sikh color of peace. Many at the vigil were Sikhs, many weren’t, but they all shared the same reasons for being there.

“My name is Piara Singh, and I live in Olathe, Kansas,” says one participant. “We are here in remembrance of those who were killed in Wisconsin, especially for the police officer who came and saved all of us.”

“I’m Doctor Gurinder Singh,” says another. “The founders of this country, they wanted religious freedom. That’s why they came here. They formed this country. And now – the minorities – the religious freedom is threatened by these stray, uninformed few.”

“My name is Linda Santee. I’m a Methodist,” explains another participant. “I wanted to show support. Show that we’re all Americans, no matter what color you are, no matter what religion you are. And I wanted to learn a little bit about the Sikh religions, and I did. And it’s very interesting.”

“Sarbjit Singh Gugnani,” says a man, introducing himself. “Obviously, this is being observed as the solidarity day to express that we also have the same common goal of peace – peace for all. Something that happened to our community should not happen to anybody else.”

About Sikhs and the turban

The Sikh religion started in the Punjab region around the border between India and Pakistan in the 1400s. Sikhs believe in one god and the equality of all people. Men of the faith often take the last name of “Singh,” which means lion. Women take the name “Kaur,” which means princess. Sikh men are often recognizable because they usually wear turbans which cover long hair. Ishwinder Singh Chattha, who helped organize the vigil, explains the importance of the turban.

“And that has two meanings,” says Mr. Chatta. “One is to keep a sign of respect for God, because God’s around us everywhere. God doesn’t just exist in a church. He doesn’t exist on certain days of the week. He’s with us everywhere. So we keep our head covered as a respect to God.”

“And the second part is, by having the turban, you’re identifiable as a Sikh. It’s the only religion that men are required to wear a turban. Islam, they – not really. Some of the priests and whatnot will wear it, and some traditions, they do wear turbans for different reasons. But in Sikhism, you’re required to have it, because every Sikh male should be easily identifiable. And the reason why is that that way you have to constantly act according to the principles of Sikhism and the proper ways. You can’t wear a turban and then go do something wrong because then everybody’d be like ‘Okay, you know the guy who did they crime was the guy with the turban. The guy who broke into the store? Oh yeah, I can recognize him; you know, he had a turban on. It’s so you’re identifiable in crowd. So anywhere you go in a crowd, you’re identifiable as a Sikh. It also reminds us that, since we are identifiable, we have to act according to the principles of our religion.”

Harassment and abuse

But the turbans have often made Sikhs the targets of harassment, and Kansas City Sikhs are no strangers to this abuse.

“Right after September 11th,” says Shevy Kaur, “we had just moved from the East coast to Kansas City, and my parents bought a store in Edgerton, Kansas. And people vandalized our store the day after September 11th. It was just months after we had bought the store. Just anti-Muslim remarks, and we’re not Muslim. We’re Sikhs, but that still doesn’t make it okay. Even if it was a Muslim, that still doesn’t make it okay. That’s when I felt it. I remember my dad calling – I was at Shawnee Mission South then – and he called the school, and he was like 'I’m going to pick you guys up because of what happened at the store. It was very scary.'”

“Every time the U.S. goes to war overseas, I’ve been from that country,” says Ishwinder Chatta. “I’ve been accused of being Syrian, Libyan, Iranian, Libyan, Egyptian – all that stuff because a lot of people have the misconception that turbans – a turbaned individual with a beard is an Arab. And that’s a misconception unfortunately that, for many years, media perpetuates. Like if you see a bunch of action movies, you’ll see guys with turbans and big old puffy beards and whatnot. But I’ve had threats. I’ve had Klu Klux Klan come after me, physically come after me. I try not to fight and get in fights, but I have been cornered. And on those occasions, I’ve had to protect myself. But that’s only after I’ve been hit and kicked and punched and (had) things thrown at (me).”

“I’ve been called names,” says Mr. Gugnani. “And when we go on walks people would shout and then pass by in the cars. That way we don’t always have an opportunity to educate or to tell them about the religion or why we wear the turban or maintain the beard.”

“My name is Gagan Hansi,” says a vigil participant, “Especially when I was growing up in middle school and stuff like that, you hear everyday. Every time you go to school, you hear it. There were times of being bullied in school because of it. But our faith teaches us to overcome that. Regardless of what obstacles life throws at you, your devotion to God will always overcome that.”

Kansas City is home to about 1,500 Sikhs. There may be as many as half a million in the U.S. and around 30 million worldwide.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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