Four days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Balbir Sodhi decided to plant flowers outside his convenience store in Mesa, Arizona. Frank Roque, an aircraft mechanic, drove up to the store and shot Sodhi five times from his pickup truck. Roque committed the first lethal hate crime in a wave of hate crimes against Sikhs in the United States that exploded after 9/11, but it is a wave that has continued for the past seven years, from Arizona to Queens.
The morning before he was killed, Sodhi had traveled to Costco and donated all the money he had on him - $75 to a charity for 9/11 victims. But when Roque was arrested, he yelled, “I am a patriot.” His words would haunt the Sikh-American community long afterwards. Less than a year later, Sodhi’s brother was shot and killed when he was driving a cab.
Queens residents honored the seven-year anniversary of 9/11 last Thursday by offering solidarity to Sikh and Arab-American communities, whose members faced significant turmoil and violence since the terrorist attacks. Director Valarie Kaur and community organizations in Jackson Heights gave a screening of a film, “Divided We Fall,” at the Jackson Heights Jewish Center, the documentary chronicled Kaur’s attempts to document the violence against and resilience of South Asians and Arab-Americans after 9/11. A discussion on building community in the face of violence and racism followed.
“Jackson Heights is a living testament to what is possible in America,” Kaur said, looking into her multiethnic audience. “I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather be today.”
Kaur originally decided to try and record the violence affecting her community when she first heard about Frank Roque and Balbir Sodhi on television. She was only 20 years old, but she traveled the United States for years in a Honda Civic with her brothers, asking questions, taking notes and telling stories.
To date, there have been more than 1,000 hate crimes against the Sikh community in the United States. Sikhism is the fifth largest world religion, and about half a million Sikhs live in the United States. The religion began in the Punjab region of South Asia, in what is now India and Pakistan. To demonstrate their commitment to spiritual sisterhood and brotherhood, Sikhs do not cut their hair and generally wear it in a turban. After the terrorist attacks, many Sikhs were misperceived to be Muslim and faced similar persecution through hate crimes, vandalism of religious institutions and verbal harassment.
Hate crimes and misperceptions are no joke in Queens, where South Asian and Arab-American communities suffered immensely after 9/11. Last June, hundreds of Sikhs marched through Richmond Hill to protest harassment and violence against Sikh children in city schools. That month, two children had their hair forcibly cut, and another child was assaulted when a student punched him with a key and tried to remove his turban. The Sikh Coalition said that of the 400 Sikh children they surveyed, more than 60 percent said they faced violence or harassment at school. [Link]
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