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    On The 20th Anniversary Of 9/11, Sikh Americans Are Sharing How The Tragedy Changed Their Lives Forever

    "We desperately needed people to know who we were."

    I was 3 years old when 9/11 happened. Though I was too young to recognize what was happening at the time, the tragedy would become a central factor in the way I approached being American.

    In this photo, I was almost 3 years old, sitting in my father's lap at a 9/11 memorial.
    David Mcnew / Getty Images

    This is a photo of me a month after 9/11, sitting on my father's lap, surrounded by a Sikh congregation. We were gathered in our local gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) to remember the victims of 9/11 and honor the lives cut far too short by this new evil force.

    The first time I saw this photo, I was struck by all the stars and stripes: the American flag in my dad's hand; the flag photo in my grandfather's, who was sitting beside us; the flags pinned on both of their chests; their red turbans. 

    Seeing this photo as a grown-up makes me sad. In the middle of mourning our fellow Americans, we were forced to prove our loyalty to this country, even though our community had nothing to do with the attacks. Maybe the flag pinned on my dad's shirt would make an ignorant person think twice before labeling him an enemy. Maybe his red turban would stop someone from assaulting him.

    Before we could begin to process the attack on our country, a fellow Sikh American was shot dead at his local business just four days after the attacks. Balbir Singh Sodhi was planning a press conference to share information about Sikhism with his local community when he was killed in a brutal hate crime. 

    All of a sudden, Sikhs were left to navigate two tragedies with a bright target on their backs.

    Proving patriotism became a theme of my childhood. I would grow up in awe of this country that did so much for my family and my dad would become an even more active member of our community, volunteering at food drives and getting involved at school. 

    We desperately needed people to know who we were. 

    Below are the stories of 15 Sikh Americans. Their post-9/11 experiences are an important reminder of the work we have left to do in this country.

    Navpreet Singh from Long Island, New York

    Navpreet smiling at the camera
    Navpreet Singh

    Navpreet was just 9 years old when 9/11 happened. Born and raised in Long Island, New York, he never expected to be viewed as a threat by his own classmates.

    "In the fifth grade, a classmate told me, 'Take that bomb off of your head.' After that incident, I realized that by many, I would always be seen as different and dangerous."

    Overnight, racist remarks and discrimination became a part of Navpreet's daily life.

    "I was deeply insecure about my dastar (turban) and beard. I was uncomfortable with my identity and I did everything I could to blend in. 9/11 exacerbated the issues of self-discovery within myself and it has only been in the last 10 years that I’ve grown to love my identity and my Sikhism as a whole."

    Navpreet said he is always on guard, evaluating his surroundings for his safety.

    "I look over my shoulder often when walking in public and I pay attention to the people in any room or establishment I am in. I never know when someone is going to decide they’ve had enough and unleash their hate and anger on me."

    Blending his love for educating others and writing poetry, Navpreet uses his TikTok platform to help others understand the faith better.

    "More people know of Sikhs and have learned about the faith and its tenets, but I think it’s still such a small percentage of the population. People fear what they don’t know. And they won’t know until they have an opportunity to interact with Sikhs."

    Sukhmani Kaur from Akron, Ohio

    Sukhmani standing in some grass, smiling for the camera while on a campus
    Chase Sutton

    "I always remember how the hate crimes against Sikh Americans were left out of the narrative."

    Sukhmani was a year old when 9/11 happened. She was too young to know what happened at the time but as she grew up, she personally felt the long-lasting impact of the attacks on the Sikh community.

    "It has been frustrating — to witness family members being stopped at the airport for wearing a turban, to field prying questions about the long hair on my body, to see Sikh friends wear patkas (smaller head coverings) [instead of a regular] turban in public."

    While she has dealt with her fair share of negative experiences, Sukhmani likes to focus on brainstorming ways to counteract the discrimination.

    "I attended the United Sikhs Advocacy and Humanitarian Aid Academy, where we lobbied Congress members to help combat bullying Sikh youth faced in schools. As a photojournalist, I hope to continue to provide Sikhs a voice in the media so they can feel more welcome and ready to share their stories.

    "Discrimination is not just physical or verbal, it takes an emotional toll on people. I think more education can be done in schools and more homogenous areas, so that people [can learn to be] accepting."

    Sukhmani's photos of the Sikh community in New York.

    Sukhmani Kaur

    Mohmeet Singh from Manassas, Virginia

    Mohmeet Singh standing in front of a statue of George Washington
    Mohmeet Singh

    When the attacks took place, Mohmeet's family had a thousand concerns running through their minds, including the safety of his dad, who was just minutes away from the Pentagon.

    Thankfully, he was okay, but their concern for their own safety is something that's continued for the last 20 years.

    "After 9/11, I remember that bullying in schools began to increase exponentially. I was always singled out for having a turban and being different from everyone. In first grade, another boy decided that it would be funny to rip my patka (head covering) off my head. I was left feeling embarrassed and hurt."

    In addition to dealing with bullying and hate speech, Mohmeet has had to figure out how to respond when people mistake him for being Muslim — he doesn't want them to be blamed for 9/11 either.

    "The response to the hate became difficult as it was a constant tug of war between defending my community and trying to defend another one. There were many times, even as a young child, that I was mistaken as Muslim, but I refused to throw another community under the bus."

    Despite the struggles, Mohmeet is happy with who he is.

    "Regardless of all my experiences, my faith has kept me strong and I’ve chosen to carry this identity with me for the rest of my life.” 

    Navjot Kaur from Queens, New York

    Navjot standing on a sidewalk in a residential area
    Navjot Kaur

    One of Navjot's earliest childhood memories is being the victim of a hate crime. At just 6 years old, she was targeted for the color of her skin and her place of worship.

    "I remember walking home with my mom from a gurdwara and a car of boys threw eggs at me and my mom. We also came home to our entire house egged but chose not to report it."

    For much of her life, Navjot found herself having to explain herself to the rest of America.

    "As a young person growing up in the shadow of one of the deadliest attacks on US soil, there was a constant back and forth between Sikhs and the community at large about how we were 'different' from the people who harmed us."

    But to Navjot, educating others about Sikhism doesn't mean abandoning other minority groups.

    "Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish communities across this nation are at risk. We need to stand together and find common solutions to protecting our communities."

    Harajeshwar Singh Kohli from Durham, North Carolina

    Harajeshwar standing next to his wife on a sidewalk near some grass
    Harajeshwar Singh Kohli

    Harajeshwar was a fresh graduate student at Columbia when 9/11 happened. He sat in horror with the rest of his class as they witnessed the attack on the Twin Towers. Minutes later, Harajeshwar, who wears a turban, began to fear for his own life.

    "People would shout 'Osama Bin Laden' from their cars while passing me by. One person brandished a gun at me. Once, while at a bar with some friends, someone punched me in the face from behind and removed my turban."

    "For several weeks, I remained on campus and didn’t venture into the city."

    Before 9/11, Harajeshwar already stuck out of the crowd. He was constantly trying to balance his American, immigrant, and Sikh identities. After the attacks, it became even harder.

    "I began to question more whether I would ever be truly accepted as American given my appearance and the backlash Sikhs, Muslims, and others faced."

    Today, Harajeshwar is raising three Sikh boys, one of whom has been the subject of discriminatory bullying at school. Like many Sikh parents, Harajeshwar has taken on the responsibility of educating his son's classmates about Sikhism.

    "We need more national education efforts and education about Sikhs in schools. I try to give an annual presentation at my children’s schools on Sikhs, which is well received."

    "I think Sikhs should seek to disarm people with conversation. I try and strike up a conversation with strangers so that they can see that we aren’t so different."

    Komal Chohan from Indianapolis, Indiana

    Komal holding a purse and standing in front of a brick wall
    Komal Chohan

    After 9/11, a lot changed for Komal and her family. Racist incidents drove them to leave their small town in Massachusetts for a new home. 

    "I was actually in kindergarten when it happened. I was treated like an unwanted outsider."

    She quickly developed a persistent concern for her grandparents and turban-wearing father, a truck driver. It's a fear many young Sikh Americans can relate to, 20 years later. Is today the day someone acts on an assumption about my family's identity?

    "When I am not around my elders, I think, What type of people they will encounter? Are they people who will treat them with respect or people who will try to hurt them?'"

    Komal says her father still experiences discrimination while on the road and that calling it out and educating others is the only way to stop it.

    "I always say that the best way to fight discrimination is through education and having proper representation in the public spotlight. Sometimes people just don't know where to start when learning who [Sikhs] are and we should be that guide."

    Amandeep Singh Sidhu from Washington D.C.

    Amandeep in a work photo for his law firm
    Winston & Strawn LLP

    Driving past the Pentagon was part of Amandeep's daily commute in 2001. As he drove past it on the morning of 9/11, he turned up his radio to hear that the US was actively under attack. Minutes later, he arrived to work, joining the huddle of coworkers watching the news.

    "As we started to understand the gravity of the situation — that our country had been targeted by terrorists and thousands of my fellow Americans were now dead, our lives changed forever — I was overwhelmed with sadness and anger as an American."

    As news channels plastered images of Osama bin Laden across people's television screens, Amandeep realized there might be even more to worry about than he thought.

    "I knew that there would be a backlash against the Sikh community — along with the Muslim, Arab, and broader South Asian community. It was only a few hours before I started to see emails reporting hate incidents against Sikhs."

    Having faced racism in Virginia prior to 9/11, Amandeep knew he had to do something to help the Sikh narrative post-9/11. Joining hands with like-minded individuals, he formed the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh advocacy organization in the US.

    "What I can say is that Sikhs are more visible in places where we have the potential to change policy and, equally important, hearts and minds."

    "It’s going to take decades to eradicate hate, if that is even an attainable goal in this world. We need only look to our Black and Jewish brothers and sisters to understand that the work will continue for generations."

    Mandeep Kaur from Garden Grove, California

    Mandeep sitting at an outdoor table at a restaurant next to a dessert on her table
    Mandeep Kaur

    When Mandeep was 11 years old, she added the word "terrorist" to her vocabulary. She remembers learning the word in her sixth-grade classroom the morning of 9/11. At the time her teacher explained it, Mandeep didn't realize that that new word would be thrown at her family for the next 20 years.

    "I did not know what a hate crime was before this time but I quickly learned in the days following 9/11."

    After the attacks, Mandeep went from being a regular sixth-grader to being a child with very real fears and worries about the safety of her own family.

    "I soon accepted that I would always be the minority among minorities — we would always be misunderstood. A part of my innocence matured rapidly and I began to keep my head on a swivel to be aware of my surroundings."

    It became an even bigger issue for Mandeep when her younger brother became a target of hate speech at school — something he still deals with today.

    "Just this past year, opposing parents and spectators hurled racial slurs at my brother while he played in a high school volleyball game. The emotional aftermath stayed with my brother for many days."

    Vishvajit Singh from Washington, DC

    Vishvajit Singh in a Captain America uniform walking out of a subway station
    Fiona Aboud

    As the news unfolded of the attacks on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Vishvajit joined his coworkers in the cafeteria to gather around the TV.

    "My life changed forever. People rolled down windows on highways to flip me off and the name-calling never stopped. I understood ignorance, fears, and vulnerability played a role in all of this but it was not fair to the community being targeted. Even 20 years later, most Americans do not know who Sikhs are."

    After experiencing hate firsthand, Vishvajit felt compelled to start educating others. He gave up his career as an engineer to become a cartoonist and performance artist — a superhero who fights ignorance.

    "I have been verbally abused nonstop for the last 20 years. My wife was once physically assaulted in NYC while returning from work."

    "Sikhs need to invest in storytelling vocations. As we tell our stories across all the available platforms, things will change. To tell my own story, I'm creating the first animated movie in America to feature a Sikh protagonist, American Sikh."

    Herman Singh from Visalia, California

    Herman standing with his hands clasped together
    Jose Romero

    On Sept. 12, 2001, Herman walked into a new and unfamiliar school experience.

    "Everything changed. My friends wouldn’t talk to me, teachers were treating me differently, and I still had no idea what the problem was. I started keeping to myself so I wouldn’t make others feel uncomfortable."

    Looking back, Herman is sad that he felt forced to keep to himself in the second grade. Many Sikhs felt they needed to change their behaviors and stay under the radar to avoid being attacked by a fellow American.

    "It angers me that we have elders who can’t walk to their community park, visit gurdwaras in peace, or shop for groceries because of who they may run into."

    Herman has noticed that whenever there is mention of terrorists in the news, Sikhs feel impacted. It reignites the enemy lens that so many Americans see Sikhs through.

    "With the current situation in Afghanistan, we have noticed once again that people cannot differentiate between the Taliban and Sikhs."

    While it seems daunting to completely erase the ignorance that exists in this country, Herman is hopeful. He's seen positive change since he was that bullied student in second grade.

    "I’ve seen people change their perspectives on me because they got to know me. Our ideals are very similar to a lot of others' once you sit down and listen. I’m hoping for change, not just for myself but also for the Sikh elders, parents, and kids who face discrimination every day."

    Deepjyot Kaur from Springfield, Ohio

    Deepjyot standing in front of some trees
    Deepjyot Kaur

    Before 9/11, Deepjyot had only accumulated positive experiences while growing up in rural Ohio. Her teachers were caring, her classmates — though different than her — were welcoming, and she was able to find balance between her Western identity and Sikh and Punjabi roots. 

    When the attacks took place during her first year of high school, everything seemed to change in an instant.

    "All of a sudden, kindness and open-mindedness weren't the norm; stares, questions, and judgment were. My turban-wearing father and brother were no longer interesting aberrations from 'normal' dress; they were deemed to be potentially affiliated with violent and scary terrorists."

    "Overnight, I became afraid of the terrorists who had committed this horrific crime upon my country and afraid of people in my country who were judging and attacking people who looked like my family, who looked like me."

    As she got older, Deepjyot realized people's biases about appearance were at the root of the problem.

    "I fear the insidiousness of normalizing certain appearances and othering those that do not mirror the accepted norm. This kind of persistent othering is powerfully infiltrative through its subtle and nuanced messaging."

    According to Deepjyot, the heart of the solution lies in intention.

    "To offset a universally recognized image like that of Osama bin Laden can feel impossible. To oppose discrimination based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any 'other' will require a deliberate intention to expand what we accept as 'normal' and to reexamine what we distinguish as 'other.'”

    Manpreet Singh from the Bay Area of California

    Manpreet smiling for the camera
    Manpreet Singh

    "'Osama,' 'Bin Laden,' 'terrorist,' 'towel head.'"

    These are the labels Manpreet's peers assigned to him in grade school. It caused him to develop early fears, not only of the foreign attackers who violated his country but also of locals who made assumptions about him.

    "I was scared I was going to die, that someone somewhere was going to attack me or beat me up when I was defenseless."

    Manpreet believes the key to change is more education, more awareness, and more knowledge — but sometimes it feels like that's not enough.

    "I wish people were able to understand that just because you're brown, have a beard, and have a turban does not make you a terrorist."

    "Will the discrimination and hatred ever stop? Definitely not. There are some things that are so ingrained in our society, we would basically need to start from scratch."

    Gurpreet Singh from Chicago, Illinois

    Gurpreet standing in front of the Punjabi Grocery & Deli in New York City
    Gurpreet Singh

    In third grade, Gurpreet learned an important lesson: When you're in public, do what you can to prove to others you aren't a threat.

    It was a harsh reality check for an 8-year-old boy. But after witnessing several hate crimes against Sikhs that followed 9/11, his family couldn't risk becoming victims of another.

    "Life changed quite suddenly." 

    "I've been told, 'We don’t serve your kind here,' at restaurants and stores. I've had cops search my bag that contained water and my inhaler, when walking at the pier with friends. I've been followed around and confronted in a Walmart by another shopper who wanted to know whether or not I was 'staying out of trouble.'"

    It hasn't been easy. Despite the efforts Sikhs have made to educate others, they haven't been able to make every single American comfortable.

    "There is no magic formula other than to fight hate with love and patience. Doing so will help shape others' understanding of who we are as a community, hopefully leading to fewer instances of discrimination and hate."

    Parvinder Mehta from Detroit, Michigan

    Parvinder smiling for a photo in front of some wall decorations
    Parvinder Mehta

    Parvinder's family has a different airport routine than most American families. She stands by at TSA, watching as her husband and two sons go through extra pat-downs and screenings before heading to their terminal. When Parvinder immigrated to the States in '94, she didn't expect this to become her children's future. 

    "After the attacks, the racist backlash and the fears of discrimination and hate crimes became an unfortunate reality. I remember having to prove our patriotism as Americans by displaying US flags on our homes and vehicles."

    While the need to openly prove their loyalty to their own neighbors has subsided over the last 20 years, Parvinder's family still deals with obstacles when trying to peacefully practice Sikhism.

    "More still needs to be done to sustain our right to maintain our ethnic uniqueness as Sikh Americans. One way to stop discrimination / hate crimes against Sikhs is to actively foster a culture of mutual respect and dignity for all.

    "We need to revisit the implications of moving beyond peace and tolerance to a genuine validation of our differences."

    Salvin Chahal from Sacramento, California

    Salvin leaning against a barbed wire fence
    Amanda Lopez

    "Anytime my parents were running late when picking me up from school, I feared I would turn on the news and learn about a hate crime wherein they would be the victims."

    Salvin was just a first-grader when 9/11 happened. Before he even got the opportunity to understand himself, there were people around him making judgments about who he was.

    "In the days after 9/11, I began to understand that my identity was political — that who I am and who my parents are created fear in the lives of those around us. As a kid, that’s a very tough feeling to sit with."

    For years, these assumptions prevented Salvin from learning more about his Sikh roots. It wasn't until college that he found a supportive community through which he could better understand his religion.

    Though he believes education can make a difference, Salvin feels that the onus is on those who hold biases.

    "The most we can do is educate, which is different from telling people not to fear us. But the responsibility of stopping discrimination should be on those who create and sustain the biases that lead to the murders of our community members."

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