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Boro Sikhs educate public to diminish bias

By Daniel Massey

Gurbachan Singh has been a steel worker in this country for 26 years. But his extensive experience meant nothing when he traveled to Lower Manhattan to volunteer in the rescue effort after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

    Singh, a Sikh who has lived in Richmond Hill since 1977, was turned away because workers feared his appearance would anger others.

“I showed my identification and said I know how to work with steel and the guy told me to go away,” he said. “He looked at my beard and my turban and didn’t let me go inside. I felt so bad.”

Sikhs throughout Queens have paid a price for their physical resemblance to the Taliban in Afghanistan, who are harboring Osama Bin Laden, suspected of orchestrating the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults.

In response to a surge of violence and harassment, they have started an extensive campaign to explain to an ignorant public that despite their beards and turbans, they have no connection to Bin Laden.

Since the acts of terrorism, there have been at least nine bias incidents involving Sikhs in Queens, according to a Sikh anti-defamation league. Most of those occurred in Richmond Hill, where community groups estimate the Sikh population is as high as 30 percent.

    In Richmond Hill Attar Singh, a 66-year-old Sikh man, was shot at with a BB gun and beaten by youths with a baseball bat as he was leaving the Sikh temple on 118th Street. He had gone to pray for the victims of the attack. Pardeep Singh was hit over the head with a chair and knocked unconscious in a Dunkin’ Donuts shop on Liberty Avenue. Sukhvinder Singh was harassed by a white man who threatened to kill him and “all the Sikhs wearing turbans.”

Around the country, more than 240 incidents have been reported, including the murder of a Mesa, Ariz. gas station owner whose cousin attends the Richmond Hill Sikh temple on 118th Street.

Sikhs have also been affected in less violent ways.

Kashmir Singh, a taxi driver from Kew Gardens, said he has lost three to five fares a day because of his appearance. “People raise their hands, but when I stop for them, they don’t get into my taxi,” he said. “Then I see them one to two blocks down hail another cab.”

Gurbachan Singh, the steel worker, said he had to keep his children home from school for three days because they were screamed at in the streets. “They kept asking me, how come we can’t go to school?” he said.

“The core of the problem is that a lot of people who are not familiar with the Sikhs look at pictures of Osama Bin Laden and see pictures of turbans and beards and start associating us with him,” said Inderjit Singh, who was running for City Council in District 28. “It’s the appearance which creates this confusion.”

To prevent further cases of mistaken identity, Sikhs have begun an earnest campaign to tell the public who they are and how much they love America. A full-page advertisement in Newsday Monday expressed Sikh outrage at the terrorist attacks. A large American flag flies outside the Sikh temple where Attar Singh was beaten, a symbol of both patriotism and fear.

The temple, the city’s largest, collected donations for the families of victims and hired a public relations firm to help attract media attention to a 48-hour continuous prayer session held to remember the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

More than 150 Richmond Hill Sikhs attended a memorial service Sunday at Yankee Stadium carrying signs that read “America is our Homeland: God Bless America” and “Proud to be an American and a Sikh.”

Harpreet Singh Toor, a trustee of the temple, said the explaining in and of itself takes a toll. “Just having to say we didn’t do it, that hurts,” he said. Why do I have to explain myself just because I wear a turban? That’s not the American way of life.”

Sikhs are telling the public that their religion has nothing to do with Islam. Sikhism, founded by Guru Nanak in the Punjab region of India in the late 15th century, claims about 400,000 followers in the United States and has grown to be the world’s fifth largest after Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Sikhs believe strongly in the equality of men and women, reject the caste system and run “free kitchens” that feed the hungry.

“What is America? It’s about liberty and justice,” Toor said. “If you look at Sikhs, that’s what we have always stood for.”

Reach Reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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