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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Illinois students get lesson in Sikhism

A group of students from Illinois politely took off their shoes and had turbans wrapped around their heads as they entered the Baba Makhan Shah Lobana Sikh Center in Richmond Hill.

It was their first step in understanding the Sikh religion. They also prepared food for congregants of the gurdwara, or temple, and listened to Swaranjit Singh, a Sikh who said his mission is to teach the ignorant about his faith.

Singh, who lives in Bellerose, said people started to look at him and other Sikhs differently after the Sept. 11, attacks because they confused Sikhs with the Taliban because of their turbans. Shortly after the attacks, a young girl on the street asked him if he was going to bomb Queens. When he went to shake hands with one man, the man spit in his face and gave him the middle finger.

"Ignorance creates fear and fear creates hatred," Singh told the students, who numbered about 30. "Everybody thinks I'm a Muslim. People think 'Here comes Osama's first cousin.'"

Jeff Schwartz, the mayor of Downs, Ill., where the students attend school, said his village of about 800 is "somewhat in the throes of urbanization" and Asians are the fastest-growing segment of the population, many of them Indians. He said the growth is due in large part to State Farm Insurance recently setting up an office in the village, and he wanted the students to learn more about other cultures as more people come into Downs.

The students completed special projects on the weekends in order to be chosen for the trip, which came about after Mark Weiss of Operation Respect Ð a Manhattan non-profit Ð did a workshop in Illinois and asked Singh if he could talk to the pupils.

"You certainly want to promote understanding," Schwartz said. "We can learn so much from" the Sikhs.

Singh's talk to the students was part of that strategy as he pointed out the differences between Islam and Sikhism. For instance, he said Muslims do not generally wear turbans, which are a staple of the Sikh faith.

The students, and even some of the teachers, said the talk helped them understand Sikhism.

"I didn't know there was an actual Sikh religion," said 14-year-old Morgan Campbell. "I thought that religion and Osama bin Laden's were the same."

Maseante Walker-Lane, a 15-year-old from Bloomington, Ill., said he was amazed by the Sikh customs. "They show real good hospitality," he said, noting how the gurdwara opened its arms to the students by feeding them.

"I never knew the beard," said John Bierbaum, a teacher. "I knew they had beards, but I didn't know they couldn't trim the beards."

Another teacher, David Fortner, said Singh's presentation "goes to show how little we know." [Link]

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