Multi-faith support for Sikh teen victim

At a recent multi-faith gathering, religious leaders offered support to Queens Sikhs, following an alleged hate crime at Newtown High School where a Sikh teen’s hair was chopped off.
Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu leaders, as well as Borough President Helen Marshall and City Councilmember David Weprin and George Gibson, local head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), spoke at the event, held at the Punjabi Palace on Lefferts Boulevard in Richmond Hill on Wednesday, June 6.
“As many of you may know, the parish of St. Benedict Joseph Labre here in Richmond Hill, which I have been honored to serve as pastor for 14 years, has had a warm relationship with the local community of Sikhs,” said Monsignor John H. O’Brien, speaking on behalf of Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, head of the Diocese of Brooklyn. “Respect for one another’s beliefs, culture and traditions are absolutely necessary if we are to maintain our vibrancy and cohesiveness.”
Two weeks earlier, 17-year-old Pakistani student, Umair Ahmed, from Newtown High School allegedly forced a 15-year-old Sikh classmate, Vacher Harpal, into the school bathroom and cut his hair. Police believe that a “Yo, mama” insult may have been the instigating factor in the attack. Ahmed was charged with a hate crime and faces seven years in prison if convicted.
“I’m very sorry about what happened to this young man,” said Borough President Helen Marshall. She later added, “We don’t like it [discrimination] to happen to anyone, let alone our youngsters.”
Several Sikh leaders explained to the crowd the importance of hair in their religion.
“As a Sikh, if you could come to me and hit me in the face with a baseball bat, I could eventually forgive you, but if you cut my hair, I don’t think that I can personally forgive you,” said Tejinder Singh, the lawyer for United Sikhs, which hosted the event in conjunction with The Interfaith Center of New York. “The last prophet asked us as a sign of faith to keep our hair in its natural state. It’s our identity.”
Because of their headdresses, nearly half of Sikh boys questioned by the Sikh Coalition who wear turbans or patkas - the typical head covering for young boys - report being subjected to some form of physical harassment like hitting, punching or “disrespectful” touching on the head, a survey recently released by Coalition found.
The Coalition interviewed 200 Sikh boys and girls citywide over the last six months. Of the 80 kids from Queens, about 75 percent, most of whom live in Richmond Hill and Flushing, said that they have been harassed or teased because of their religion.
According to surveyors, many of those citywide who are harassed complained to school personnel, and about one-third told the group that their complaints went unheeded.
However, at the recent Richmond Hill gathering, Jennifer Rappaport from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) mentioned that Schools Chancellor Joel Klein specifically cited the Newtown incident at a press conference marking the end of the “No Place for Hate” program.
“We know that he and the Department of Education (DOE) are taking this seriously,” she said. A DOE spokesperson said that the department had no records of complaints filed by the Sikh student victimized at Newtown.
“The Department of Education does not tolerate discrimination, harassment or bullying,” a statement released by the DOE read. “Any student who engages in this kind of behavior will face disciplinary action up to and including expulsion.”

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