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Reuters , September 13, 2002


"Sikhs Hope to Raise Awareness in Post 9/11-U.S."

"With their distinctive turbans, beards and ceremonial swords, Sikhs have dubbed themselves the world's most visible minority.

"And after the Sept. 11 attacks last year, Sikhs in the United States found themselves among the most vulnerable as well. Four days after the attacks, Sikh Balbir Singh Sodhi was gunned down and killed at his Arizona gas station in an act prosecutors have called a hate crime."

"And hundreds of other Sikhs have said they were harassed, singled out by officials, or even beaten because people linked them to Osama bin Laden's Islamic al Qaeda network, which Washington has blamed for the attacks."

"But the community has responded to the attacks not only by mourning their lost family, friends and colleagues, but as a wake-up call to educate other Americans about their culture and religion."

"'They identified the enemy and the enemy looked like us,' said Mandeep Dillon, a Sikh American lawyer in California. 'It wasn't that people's attitudes had changed, it was that they didn't know,' he said. 'Even though we had lived here for generations the people around us didn't really know who we were.'"

"Galvanized by those incidents, many of the 1 million Sikhs in North America, including Dillon, have made a concerted effort to create educational materials, forums and other ways to enlighten Americans about who they are -- a sea change for a religious group that doesn't seek converts."

"PEOPLE DON'T KNOW 'WHO WE ARE'"

"The Sikh Coalition, one of several community organizations created in the aftermath of the attacks, has documented to date at least 235 incidents of hate crimes, harassment or abuse in the United States since last Sept. 11. 'We are certain there are many more than that,' said the group's media director, Ajeet Kaur Anand, whose office was in the World Trade Center."

"While the number of incidents spiked immediately after the attacks and have waned somewhat, the Sikh Coalition has since created a permanent network focused on education and awareness, she said. The issue, said Vijay Singh Chattha, is visibility."

"'The Indian community thought if they work hard, do their own thing, and don't bother anybody else, everything will be fine,' said Chattha, who is helping to organize an exhibition of Sikh artifacts at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington."

"'People just didn't know who Sikhs were.'"

"This year, the group's fundraiser for its Smithsonian exhibition, raised almost $500,000. The year before, when the Sikh Heritage Society began working with the museum, they raised $40,000."

"'Last year our goal was to create an exhibit space," said Chattha. 'After 9/11 the whole community got together and we thought a better idea would be to create a whole Sikh gallery.'"

"The first exhibition is set to open at the museum in December."

"WORLD'S FIFTH-LARGEST RELIGION"

"Sikhs first immigrated to the continent from their native state of Punjab, in India, more than one hundred years ago, settling first in the Western United States and Canada. The current community was given a big boost from migratory waves in the 1980s. "

"Sikhism is the world's fifth largest religion. Its 22 million adherents across the world follow the teachings of 10 gurus, their writings contained in the sacred Guru Granth Sahib."

"Sikhs believe in one god, and advocate living a holistic way of life that emphasizes community service, said Navtej Singh Khalsa, executive director of SMART, a Washington-based Sikh media and resource organization. Because one of main teachings of Sikhism is that everyone should be equal, Sikh men originally all took the name 'Singh,' which means lion, and Sikh women 'Kaur,' or princess, in an attempt to circumvent India's caste system, which is often distinguishable by family name."

"Sikhs traditionally wear the turban as way to neatly keep their hair, which they believe should not be cut, said Khalsa, who has explained this and other basics of Sikhism to Department of Transportation and other government officials, including Washington area police departments, since Sept. 11."

"As security has been heightened, some Sikhs have been asked to remove their turbans at airports, which Khalsa likens to asking 'a nun to disrobe.'"

"Sikhs also traditionally carry a kirpan, or ceremonial sword, as a hallmark of their faith. Since Sept. 11, part of Khalsa's job is to explain to governmental officials that this is part of their religious tradition, and their right to carry one has been upheld by the courts."

"He has also advised fellow Sikhs that the kirpan, which can be anywhere from a few inches to up to 3 feet (a meter) long, should be put in checked baggage when flying."

"'Our mission is to do (this) all over the country,' he said. The group produces brochures, media packs and pamphlets for Sikh families such as one called 'Helping Sikh Children Deal with Bullying.'

"Dillon, a Silicon Valley corporate lawyer, has approached California schools and several other states about providing them with a curriculum that can be used by teachers to explain Sikhism."

"He is also creating a 15-minute film of sixth and seventh grade Sikh Americans, shot over the summer at a Sikh youth camp he has run for the past ten years."

"'It's easy for us to explain ourselves to people around us," he said, "But it's important for us to have exposure in places where we don't live.' "

 


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