Selma, California: The freshman students in Alison Sickler’s English class may not have asked Simran Kaur many questions about her presentation on the Sikh community. But, what they wrote immediately after her talk showed that they had learned something that morning. As one student wrote: “I learned that I have a lot of Sikh friends. I didn’t know anything about Sikhs or even what they did. Also that they are not bad at all in any way and they shouldn’t be treated different because they look different.”
And, that is what Kaur and other members of the Sikh community are hoping to achieve.
“The education systems are the places where we can actually impact change,” said Kaur, advocacy manager for the Sikh Coalition. The civil rights organization was established soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the aftermath of that day, Sikhs were assaulted in retaliation for those attacks. And, just last August in Wisconsin, a lone gunman, who had ties to white supremacist groups, killed six members of the Sikh faith at their temple before killing himself.
The May 5 beating of an 82-year-old Sikh man in Fresno has prompted more local outreach by the Sikh Coalition, which has offices in Fremont, New York City and Washington D.C. The Fresno County District Attorney’s Office has called the assault a hate crime, and a relative of the victim asked the coalition to help educate people about the Sikh community.
Selma High School was one of the schools that the coalition approached, and Kaur said school officials “responded incredibly warmly” to the request.
Principal Mark Babiarz explained why they welcomed the opportunity: “It is important that Selma High students as well as all students and adults throughout the community of Selma continue to learn about the Sikh culture because the Sikh community is an important and integral part of our community.
“We need to educate others outside the community of Selma about the many contributions that the Sikh community makes to Selma, the state of California and throughout the nation. Education is the key to eliminating stereotype bias and ignorance about any culture.”
Kaur spoke to 10 classes at Selma High, which meant she reached an estimated 300 students. The coalition hopes to make presentations at more campuses in the region when the 2013-14 school year is underway.
In Sickler’s class, Kaur spoke and used slides to help answer the question: “Who are the Sikhs?” She mentioned the crime involving the elderly Fresno man and that “he was attacked because he looked different.”
Kaur’s presentation included some basic information:
l Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world. There are 25 million Sikhs.
l Sikhs have lived in the United States for more than 100 years. They have forged careers as farmers, engineers, politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and scholars among a broad spectrum of professions.
l Sikhs believe in one God. As Kaur said, “a universal God who loves and sustains all of humanity,” and that “all are equal in the eyes of God.”
l There are three things that a Sikh seeks to do each day: To earn an honest living, to give and share with the community and to remember God throughout the day.
Kaur also addressed misconceptions about Sikhs. For example, the Sikh religion isn’t a blend of Islam and Hinduism. It is its own unique religion and a relatively young one compared to other traditional religions. According to the coalition’s website, 10 Gurus founded Sikhism, beginning with Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469. (The word “Guru” in Sikh means an enlightener and a prophet.)
Guru Nanak, the website said, “rejected the ritualistic practices of the dominant religions in South Asia and he based his message strictly on divine revelation. Nine other living Gurus followed Guru Nanak. The last living Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666 to 1708) crystallized the practices and beliefs of the faith and determined that no future living Guru was needed.”
Each year in Selma, there is a Sikh parade to commemorate Vaisakhi, when Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa (which means “the Pure”) of initiated Sikhs. The parade, known as Nagar Kirtan, includes bringing forth the Guru Granth Sahib, which is the Holy Scriptures of the Sikhs.
Kaur explained that a “Gurdwara” is a Sikh house of worship, and that a “Langar” is a free community kitchen found in all Gurdwaras.
Sikhs also wear articles of faith, such as “kes” (uncut hair, reflecting a natural state “living in harmony with the will of God”) and “kara” (a steel bracelet reminding the wearer that he or she is a servant of the Guru).
Kaur explained what the turban means to Sikhs. In the United States, 99 percent of people wearing turbans are Sikhs. Wearing the turban, as the coalition website said, “declares sovereignty, dedication, self-respect, courage and piety.”
“Unless we educate everyone in the community, people are not going to recognize the differences,” Kaur told the students.
Freshman Bibi Chavez, who wants to be either a cardiovascular surgeon or cosmetic surgeon, already has an appreciation of the Sikh community. She said most of her friends are Sikh.
She’s also heard some of the hurtful things that people say about them. “To see how they look after someone says something, it hurts me,” Chavez said.
But, she said, she’s not one to stay silent. “I hear a lot of things people say, and I’m like ‘You don’t even know anything about it,’” Chavez said.
She also said having the Sikh awareness presentations at Selma High was “a very good thing.” She hoped that other students would listen. “They don’t know what it is to get discriminated [against] and to get bullied a lot because of how they look,” Chavez said.
Danielle Hernandez, a freshman who wants to be a psychologist, said she learned that there was a lot of criticism directed toward the Sikhs and that it shouldn’t be allowed because “they are the same as we are.”
Sickler had asked the students to write not only what they learned but what they each could do to help stop bullying. Hernandez said that if she saw it happening, “I will tell them to stop … It’s not fair that people are bullied because of how they look.”
In reading through the written statements, it was apparent that many of Hernandez’s classmates felt the same way about treating people fairly and stopping bullying. As one student wrote: “ … because if someone were bullying me, I’d want someone to help me.”
And, another student wrote this after Kaur’s talk: “I learned that people shouldn’t judge a person by how they look or what religion they are. They should get to know the person.”