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Caught in 9/11 MAG
The attacks of September 11, 2001, affected not only those who lost loved ones, but countless others. They changed my life, leaving internal scars that may never heal.
I remember that first day of kindergarten distinctly. For me, it was the calm before the proverbial storm, a harbinger of a horrific, life-altering event yet to come. My teacher, Miss Julie, enthusiastically laid activities before us. I remember she began to read the first few pages of some fairy tale whose name I have long forgotten.
Making friends was especially important to me, so during my free time, I started talking with Josh, who I hoped would become a long-time buddy. We discussed our favorite Pokémon, then moved on to favorite books; naturally, Josh and I became fast friends on that first day. My first foray into the kindergarten world was turning out to be wonderful, and my enthusiasm skyrocketed. However, around 9:30, what had begun as a great first day turned into a ghastly nightmare. My world turned upside down.
All at once, parents were scurrying to pick up their children. Even my friend Josh disappeared before I knew what was happening. Chaos reigned. I later learned that the mass exodus occurred because something “bad” had happened. When I arrived home, I found my dad and uncle sitting on the couch, their eyes glued to the television – a most unusual sight. Normally, they would have already left for their offices in New York City, near Times Square. Somewhat tremulously, I peeked over their shoulders and saw a tremendous fire consuming two tall buildings. What was happening – and why was this of such great concern? Trying to get answers from my dad was an exercise in futility. He told me to go to my room and read a book, so I did. I shrugged and didn't give it another thought.
The next day at school, Miss Julie tried anxiously to initiate what she thought would be an age-appropriate discussion about the events of the previous day. She asked us if we thought the pilot had dropped his coffee cup, causing him to crash the plane. Then she asked if we thought the crash happened on purpose. Because I was completely oblivious to the concept of terrorism, as were my classmates, I figured that the annihilation of the Twin Towers had to have been an accident: no one would commit such a monstrous crime on purpose.
Later, I learned that President Bush told the country that the attacks had been orchestrated by an extreme Islamist terrorist organization known as Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. When I saw a photo of this man, I thought he looked just like the men in my family; he wore a turban and a beard just like my dad, the man who had my complete love and respect. Again, confusion overwhelmed me.
It was not long before questions started coming at me, fast and furious. Is your dad Osama? Why do you wear that thing on your head? Someone even told me to go back to my own country, implying that I was a foreigner, even though I was born and raised in the United States. The questions soon spun out of control and slipped into subtle prejudice totally out of my realm of experience. Josh stopped talking to me because his father told him that my people were “bad.”
I was brought up in the Sikh religion. Sikhs follow the basic principles that there is one God, everyone is equal, and nonviolence is of paramount importance. I refrain from cutting my hair because we believe our hair is a gift from God, and I wear a turban in public to keep my hair neat. This made me look different from the other kids in my school. I guess that is how I learned that people fear what is different, and that fear can morph into prejudice.
Trying to “fit in” became a wasted effort. I began to shrink inside myself, and my parents moved me to a private school. It was worse for my Sikh friends who still attended public schools. They were picked on unmercifully. They were looked at as social outcasts, and many were pressured to cut their hair in order to look as though they belonged. It saddened me that as time progressed, fewer of my friends kept their hair long. They were afraid, and their parents understood. Things went from bad to worse for Sikhs. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Arizona, was shot and killed for resembling the extreme Islamists pictured on television. On the day of Sodhi's murder, the same shooter shot at a Lebanese-American gas station clerk and into the home of an Afghan-American family. A Sikh cab driver had been pulled out of his car and badly beaten because he looked like a “terrorist.” It struck me only then how real the ramifications of 9/11 were likely to be in my life.
These senseless slayings caused indignation in the Sikh community. I attended Gurdwara, the Sikh temple, on the Sunday after 9/11 only to find visibly distressed and overwrought families. We were unsure of what to do, but were told to remain calm and to try to educate others about our religion. My friend's father sent letters to neighbors to acquaint them with our religion. One day my dad brought home an American flag to hang on the front porch, a signal that we were Americans – not terrorists.
Because they feared being assaulted, many Sikhs living in New York City wouldn't leave their apartments. As a result, a few courageous Sikhs took action. They called together all Sikhs to meet to discuss ensuring their security. This led to the creation of the Sikh Coalition soon after 9/11. Its mission was to inform people about Sikhism and to raise awareness of the dilemma Sikhs were facing; it became the voice of oppressed Sikhs. My family praised the creation of the coalition because it was a nonviolent response to prejudice toward minorities in the United States. Yet the Sikh Coalition could only do so much. I began questioning the strength of my commitment to my religion.
Ever since I can remember, wearing a turban has defined me in public. I am visibly different when I walk down the street and even in school. My strong conviction in the beliefs of my religion is demonstrated by my turban. However, at that time, as it made me more visible in a negative way, and made me less comfortable. It is still true. Curious people rarely seek information about my religion. Instead, I often receive defiant glares. This, more than anything, makes me question wearing a turban. Now, as in kindergarten, I just want to look normal.
No one has abused me in a tangible way, but my heart has been bruised, and that's immeasurably worse. I know that people still look at me as different – as some sort of alien. It has never truly stopped. Recently, I encountered a police officer who asked me which country I came from. I confidently, but with a bit of condescension, replied, “The United States of America.” Couldn't the police officer recognize me for who I was, or more importantly, who I was not? I felt defeated and even humiliated, knowing that I can never truly fit in. More than anything, I knew that I had to speak up. After countless encounters with ignorant, prejudiced people, I learned the only chance to rectify the situation is through education.
I do not blame people for judging me and my heritage based on the video of Osama bin Laden; we do look similar. I blame our education system and even the Sikh community for not taking a more active role in teaching the Western world about Sikhism. I recently looked through some social studies textbooks. Information abounds about Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, but not Sikhism. Why is information about the fifth-largest religion in the world so sparse? I give deep thought to these questions. They will not go away because the problem has not gone away. I still fear that people will judge me and draw false conclusions about me and my beliefs. The risks of being a visible Sikh have not disappeared. Since 9/11, over 1,000 attacks on Sikhs have been recorded by Sikh advocacy organizations. That number does not take into consideration the unreported attacks and inestimable slurs. It certainty does not take into consideration the internal angst that plagues many Sikhs, including me.
Since 2001, I have attended a camp for Sikh youth. Its goal is to enhance our understanding of Sikhism and to help us openly practice the Sikh way of life. I have come to realize that the camp community, within itself, is a major support group because these people truly understand what their fellow Sikhs are going through. We all understand one another's backgrounds and the inherent doctrines of our religion. At Sikh camp, I finally become more comfortable in my own skin, and my true self emerges. I can breathe.
Facing prejudice has made me strong and passionate about my beliefs. I have begun being more proactive about my religion. The course is sometimes bumpy, and, at least for now, success can be measured only one person at a time. I draw strength from my convictions and welcome the challenge of one day being respected for who I am. It is my hope that future generations will cease looking through the clouded mirror of prejudice and begin to reflect the ideals of moral conscience. Only then can we rise, healed, from the rubble of 9/11.