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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Meet the opposite of a 'terrorist'

The driver of Orange Cab No. 710 fears the night. He wonders if passengers will rip his turban from his head, sink their teeth into his scalp or call him a terrorist.

Life for Sukhvir Singh has been full of unease since 7:59 p.m. Nov. 24. That's when Luis Vazquez climbed into the back seat.

Vazquez had been barred from the Apple Cup football game at the University of Washington because he had too much to drink. Police hailed a cab. Singh barely had time to greet the young man before Vazquez exploded, his fists, bites and choke holds assailing him as he drove south on Interstate 5.

Vazquez saw Singh's lush beard and the cloth wrapped on his head and came to a drunken conclusion: "Iraqi terrorist!" he screamed.

But Singh, 49, is not a terrorist. He's not from Iraq. He isn't even Muslim.

Vazquez missed that and more about the man behind the wheel, an immigrant who loves America -- "heavenly," he calls it -- and believes in treating all with kindness and respect.

When hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, Singh, a Sikh, was saddened and angered that people could do such a heinous thing to his country. He cried.

Vazquez missed a chance to learn about Singh's past encounters with deadly prejudice.

Singh was born in 1958 in Punjab, a northern state in India. After high school, he studied welding and migrated to Bombay, where he learned to operate heavy machinery.

Life appeared promising until 1984, when Indian troops stormed a Sikh temple and killed hundreds. In retaliation, two Sikh bodyguards assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, triggering spasms of violence. Facing religious persecution as well as death, Sikhs fled the country.

Singh went to Dubai in the Middle East. He worked construction and operated cranes and dump trucks, toiling 16 hours a day in stifling heat.

Through it all, America remained in his heart. He kept in mind the four words he once read on U.S. currency: "In God We Trust." Sikhs are devout and place God above all things, and Singh appreciated a country that so openly respected faith.

After hearing about the 1998 impeachment of President Clinton, Singh figured a nation that could drag a president to trial must be a place where laws apply to everyone -- a just country.

Vazquez missed learning how Singh built a life in America with sweat and hope.

Singh got a visa in the late 1990s, he said, followed by asylum. Seattle became home. He worked as a cashier at a gas station in Rainier Valley. In 2000, he started to drive cabs at the airport and, three years ago, he bought his own cab. He saved up and bought a home in Kent for his wife and their two teen sons.

With each tick of the taxi's meter, his dream took shape.

During the attack, Singh wasn't thinking about just himself. He feared for other motorists and did all he could to avoid swerving into cars or a nearby bus as Vazquez reached for the steering wheel.

Singh managed to pull into a car pool lane and stop. Vazquez was still on top of him, still pummeling him after yanking out clumps of Singh's long hair. Hair is sacred in the Sikh faith; Singh felt humiliated.

Police rushed to the scene and eventually arrested Vazquez. Later, at a hospital, Singh's kidneys, injured in the attack, faltered. But one thing didn't: his belief in our justice system.

Singh's kidneys would rebound. His bite wounds and bruises would heal.

During a monthlong convalescence, his bills piled up, which is why Singh now drives seven days a week, 10 hours a day.

"I love my job," he said the other night after taking an ailing woman to a hospital near Sea-Tac. "Every customer is a VIP to me."

The emotional wounds will take longer to mend. He and fellow Sikhs fear they might be singled out and beaten at Mariners or Seahawks games, or attacked just because of how they look.

And yet, amazingly, Singh forgives his attacker. Forgiveness is part of his faith, as natural to him as the turban his Sikh religion requires he wear.

In the court sentencing for Vazquez on Friday, the guilty man and his lawyer told a judge that Vazquez blacked out during the attack and doesn't remember it.

"I apolo--," Vazquez said aloud, his otherwise perfect English becoming tangled. "Apologize."

Singh, seated feet away, looked on with kind eyes. I looked at Vazquez, too, and thought the venom he spewed in the cab was in him all along. Alcohol just opened the gates.

Vazquez was sentenced to community service and nine months in jail, which can be served as work release.

Singh wrote the judge and said he wanted Vazquez to be punished and learn a lesson, but "I don't want to ruin his life" -- words that helped spare the 21-year-old a stiffer sentence.

A hate crime detoured Singh's life, but he never lost his way. This man whose first name means "gives comfort to everybody" followed the map of the human heart and found compassion.

Riding in No. 710 last week, I asked Singh if he saw Vazquez hailing a cab in the future, whether he'd pick him up.

"Why not?"

"Our duty," Singh said later, dropping me off, "is to make this planet more livable and more lovable." [Link]

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