It’ll be a year ago tomorrow–August 5th, 2012.
I had been in San Francisco for a couple of days by then for my uncle’s wedding. It had been the best couple of days, all leading up to the big one. On the 5th, I woke up, ready to witness my uncle get married. This day was also my grandpa’s 79th birthday. He was with us in San Francisco as well. Unfortunately, when I woke up on the 5th, it was neither my uncle’s wedding nor my grandfather’s birthday that everyone was talking about. I walked into my grandparents’ room, and their little t.v that was nestled in the closet was turned to CNN. The headline was something along the lines of
“Temple Shooting, Oak Creek, Wisconsin.”
My grandma saw me looking at the screen and said, “A gurdwara.”
I was 5 at the time of 9/11. I didn’t know what it was like to see the word “Sikh” on a t.v screen. After 9/11, my mom remembers seeing the word in the news every now and then, reporting a hate crime against a Sikh. Eventually, news coverage died down for crimes like these, but everyone in the Sikh community new they still happened just as often. But there was something about August 5th, 2012, that was such a shock. A Gurdwara. It happened in a Gurdwara. Maybe it’s because I’ve always considered my religion and my Sikh practices something separate from the rest of the world. I’ve never lived somewhere where there is a large Sikh community, so naturally I’d become used to saying things like “temple” or “church” instead of “Gurdwara,” and “my religion” or “my culture” instead of “Sikhism.” It wasn’t that I was ashamed of any aspect of my religion, it was just that I knew that that part of my life was something unique to my family, and not everyone would understand the words we use to describe it. And so to see the words “Sikh” and “Gurdwara” in mainstream news was really the strangest thing. It was one aspect of my life, one that it felt like no one else had ever known of, and all of a sudden, everyone was talking about it. It felt like everyone was talking about me, like it was me in the news. After getting ready, I remember being dropped off a short walk away from my uncle’s house, where the ceremony would take place. I had just gotten off the phone with my mom, who called us from the East Coast, to make sure we were okay. And as I walked up the street, I couldn’t stop the tears as I thought about what had happened some states away from me. People had gone to gurdwara on this Sunday, as we do, they did their Matha Taik, as we do, and sat down for Kirtan. How was it that some of them were now dead? So easily, so easily, that could have been me. On the Sundays I go to Gurdwara, that is me. To me, those things are so personal–Gurdwara, Matha Taik, etc. How had someone gone in to that space with the intention to kill? As a Sikh, I’m used to hate crimes against people like me. But this one was so invasive. It wasn’t a Sikh man walking down the street who was shot, or a Sikh woman in her car that was pushed off the road, but it was a man who went into a Gurdwara, our safe place, the one place where we are completely comfortable with our identities, and shot and killed us. Yes, we’re used to hate crimes. We’re used to being called names. But Oak Creek was like, in one moment, everything we’ve been through reached a boiling point.
Although the pain of Oak Creek was, and still is, hard to bear, it was obvious from the beginning that something positive would come from it. For once, it seemed that more people than just us had noticed this crime against us. Many different communities showed respect for our small one.
At least this tragic event, in an odd way, put Sikhism…on the map? That sounds weird, but it really did raise awareness of who Sikhs are. At least it got people wondering, you know? And, even though Sikhs aren’t often in the news, every time we are, I am constantly proud of how we present ourselves. It was notable, after this tragedy, that, instead of closing our doors in fear, Gurdwaras all over the world, including Oak Creek, welcomed people of all religions, as we always have done. Gurdwaras are open to whoever wants to sit, listen to prayer, or even just eat a warm meal. And not even this could shake that.
A year later, there are still hate crimes. Just this week a Gurdwara was vandalized. However, progress has been made also. Hate crimes against Sikhs are now tracked by the FBI–something the son of victim Parmjit Kaur testified in favor of. In fact, check out his whole speech. It really is worth it–(It’s copy-pasted down below, but I can’t get it nicely formatted, so you can read it HERE instead if you wish).
“My name is Harpreet Singh Saini. I would like to thank Senator Durbin, Ranking Member
Graham, and the entire subcommittee for giving me the opportunity to be here today. I am here
because my mother was murdered in an act of hate 45 days ago. I am here on behalf of all the
children who lost parents or grandparents during the massacre in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
A little over a month ago, I never imagined I’d be here. I never imagined that anyone outside of
Oak Creek would know my name. Or my mother’s name. Paramjit Kaur Saini. Or my brother’s
name, Kamaljit Singh Saini. Kamal, my brother and best friend, is here with me today.
As we all know, on Sunday, August 5, 2012, a white supremacist fueled by hatred walked into
our local Gurdwara with a loaded gun. He killed my mother, Paramjit Kaur, while she was
sitting for morning prayers. He shot and killed five more men – all of them were fathers, all had
turbans like me.
And now people know all our names: Sita Singh. Ranjit Singh. Prakash Singh. Suvegh Singh.
Satwant Singh Kaleka.
This was not supposed to be our American story. This was not my mother’s dream.
My mother and father brought Kamal and me to America in 2004. I was only 10 years-old. Like
many other immigrants, they wanted us to have a better life, a better education. More options. In
the land of the free. In the land of diversity.
It was a Tuesday, 2 days after our mother was killed, that my brother Kamal and I ate the
leftovers of the last meal she had made for us. We ate her last rotis – which are a type of South
Asian flatbread. She had made the rotis from scratch the night before she died. Along with the
last bite of our food that Tuesday…came the realization that this was the last meal, made
by the hands of our mother, that we will ever eat in our lifetime. My mother was a brilliant woman, a reasonable woman. Everyone knew she was smart, but she
never had the chance to get a formal education. She couldn’t. As a hard-working immigrant, she
had to work long hours to feed her family, to get her sons educated, and help us achieve our
American dreams. This was more important to her than anything else.
Senators, my mother was our biggest fan, our biggest supporter. She was always there for us, she
always had a smile on her face.
But now she’s gone. Because of a man who hated her because she wasn’t his color? His religion?
I just had my first day of college. And my mother wasn’t there to send me off. She won’t be
there for my graduation. She won’t be there on my wedding day. She won’t be there to meet her
I want to tell the gunman who took her from me: You may have been full of hate, but my mother
was full of love.
She was an American. And this was not our American dream.
It was not the American dream of Prakash Singh, who had only been reunited with his family for
a few precious weeks after 6 years apart. When he heard gunshots that morning, he told his two
children to hide in the basement. He saved their lives. When it was over, his children found him
lying in a pool of blood. They shook his body and cried “Papa! Get up!” But he was gone.
It was not the American dream of Suvegh Singh Khattra, a retired farmer who came here to be
with his children and grandchildren. That morning, his family found him face down, a bullet in
his head, his turban thrown to the side.
It was not the American dream of Satwant Singh Kaleka, president of the gurdwara who was
killed while bravely fighting the gunman.
It was not the American dream of Sita Singh and Ranjit Singh, two brothers who sang prayers for
our community and were separated from their families for 16 years. Their wives and children
came to this country for the first time for their funerals.
It was not the American dream of Santokh Singh or Punjab Singh who were injured in the
massacre. Punjab Singh’s sons are by his side day and night, but he may never fully recover from
his multiple gunshot wounds.
We ache for our loved ones. We have lost so much. But I want people to know that our heads are
My mother was a devout Sikh. Like all Sikhs, she was bound to live in Chardi Kala – a state of
high spirits and optimism. She was also taught as a Sikh to neither have fear of anyone nor strike
fear in anyone.
So despite what happened, we will not live in a state of fear, nor will be make anyone fearful.
Like my Mother, my brother and I are working every day to be in a state of high spirits and
We also know that we are not alone. Tens of thousands of people sent us letters, attended vigils,
and gave us their support – Oak Creek’s Mayor and Police Chief, Wisconsin’s Governor, the
President and the First Lady. All their support also gave me the strength to come here today.
Senators, I came here today to ask the government to give my mother the dignity of being a
statistic. The FBI does not track hate crimes against Sikhs. My mother and those shot that day
will not even count on a federal form. We cannot solve a problem we refuse to recognize.
Senators, I also ask that the government pursue domestic terrorists with the same vigor as
attackers from abroad. The man who killed my mother was on the watch lists of public interest
groups. I believe the government could have tracked him long before he went on a shooting
Finally, Senators, I ask that you stand up for us. As lawmakers and leaders, you have the power
to shape public opinion. Your words carry weight. When others scapegoat or demean people
because of who they are, use your power to say that is wrong.
So many have asked Sikhs to simply blame Muslims for attacks against our community or just
say “We are not Muslim.” But we won’t blame anyone else. An attack on one of us is an attack
on all of us.
I also want to be a part of the solution. That’s why I want to be a law enforcement officer like Lt.
Brian Murphy, who saved so many lives on August 5, 2012. I want to protect other people from
what happened to my mother. I want to combat hate – not just against Sikhs but against all
people. Senators, I know what happened at Oak Creek was not an isolated incident. I fear it may
happen again if we don’t stand up and do something.
I don’t want anyone to suffer what we have suffered. I want to build a world where all people
can live, work, and worship in America in peace.
Because you see, despite everything, I still believe in the American dream. In my mother’s
memory, I ask that you stand up for it with me. Today. And in the days to come.
Thank you for considering my testimony.
The more times I read Saini’s testimony, the more respect I gain for a man who I already admire. Although he spoke hardly over a month after his mother passed, he articulated so many things that needed to be said, and he did so very well. “So many have asked Sikhs,” he says, “to simply blame Muslims for attacks against our community or just say ‘We are not Muslim.’ But we won’t blame anyone else. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”
Such are the true teachings of our religion. It may sound corny, but I truly believe our Gurus are proud to hear someone who has endured so much pain be able to maintain a love for the rest of humanity, and not blame other religions for the problem, which is really the cause of this whole thing anyways. And he’s right. Hindus endure this kind of thing, and lord knows Muslims do too. So blaming each other really isn’t the solution.
So I don’t know how to wrap this up. Words of wisdom? Idk.
Just love, I guess. Love yourself, love Sikhs, love Muslims, Hindus, Christians, white people, black people, Desi people, Arab people, Hispanic people, just love them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to converse. And that goes for all of us. White people, brown people, me, you. Just have an open heart. Educate yourself. Don’t see someone as just their religion, and don’t solely focus on your differences. Because really, we’re all just trying to live in this world.
In memory of Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh, and in honor of Lt. Brian Murphy.