[ARTICLE] Sikh Awareness Initiatives in New York City

Amid a recent spate of hate crimes, Sikh organizations in New York City are seeking to raise consciousness about their religion by giving awareness presentations at schools, workplaces and community centers.  Sikhs are sometimes mistakenly associated with terrorism because they wear turbans and long beards.  Organizations like United Sikhs and the Sikh Coalition say they want the public to understand that Sikhism is a peaceful religion.

Mankanwal Singh, national community empowerment director of United Sikhs, said that when the organization first wanted to go into schools and workplaces after 9/11 to educate people about Sikhs, the public wasn’t interested.  “It took awhile to get people to listen,” he said.

“People misunderstand our practices,” said Singh. “It is always hard in a culture where the predominant culture is not yours.”

Hate crimes against Sikhs spiked after 9/11, and still continue. Last August, six were shot and killed at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  Schools, businesses, police stations, and houses of worship eventually started opening their doors to presenters as they recognized the need for educating the public in the post-9/11 years. Now, Sikh organizations conduct presentations in the greater New York City area and throughout the country.

Inder Kohli, a volunteer with the advocacy group Sikh Coalition, presented Sunday, October 14 at First Presbyterian Church in Rutherford, N.J.  Kohli explained Sikh beliefs and practices and brought in children to sing stanzas from Sikh scriptures during the service. Afterwards, he answered questions from the audience.

First Presbyterian asked Kohli to come in after some members saw him at an interfaith “community solidarity” event that followed the August shootings.  At his gurdwara, or temple, in Glen Rock, New Jersey, Kohli gave back-to-back Sikh Awareness Presentations on the Sunday after the shootings.

“There are no overtones of religious conversion in these talks,” Kohli said.  “Nothing is about conversion. The belief itself does not have conversion.”

“We are just explaining the way we worship,” he added.

The Sikh religion began in the Punjab region of what is now India about 500 years ago.  At the time, Sikhism broke with Hinduism in part because Sikhs rejected the caste system.  Sikhism is a monotheistic religion, and Sikhs believe in equality, service, self-restraint and modesty.  The turban is one of the Sikh articles of faith–Sikhs wear it over their uncut hair. Sikhs avoid cutting their hair or beards to honor the creator’s intention.

Kohli was trained through the Sikh Presenter’s Course at Sikh Coalition. The group has been conducting presentations for the past seven years. His presentation at First Presbyterian was the first he gave to a church group.  In the past, he has spoken primarily to students at both the high school and university level.

The school presentations are designed to “fight ignorance and bullying,” Kohli said.  “The younger generation faces this the most.”

Manbeena Kaur, education director at the Sikh Coalition, said there is a huge disconnect between television and real life. Images of turbaned, bearded terrorists, such as Osama Bin Laden, were splashed all over American news broadcasts for years.  While Americans therefore associate the appearance with terrorism, Kaur said that “99% of the people you see with a turban and beard are actually Sikh.”  She added, “We couldn’t be further from terrorism.”

School presentations typically include a short video on why Sikhs wear turbans and a power-point presentation on the story of Sikhs in America. For younger students, presenters will sometimes bring Punjabi food for students and teach them how to write their names in Punjabi.  They also sometimes do a turban-tying demonstration.

The turban-tying “demystifies what is underneath the turban,” and allows the students to observe with what “care, respect, and love we tie the turban,” Kaur said.

Presenters are brought in at the request of parents, counselors at the schools, and students themselves to combat bullying.  “Eighty percent of the time, it is preventative,” Kaur said.

Robin Stolar, a guidance counselor at P.S. 161 in Queens, said Sikh students faced a lot of bullying in years past.  She credits the presentations with helping to cut down on the bullying.

“Students have a positive reaction to the presentation because it talks about prejudices in all cultures,” Stolar said.

Kaur said the Sikh Coalition went through a multiple-round vetting process before deciding on the content and format of the talks. The group was careful not to use the language “Sikhs aren’t Muslims” because the point of the presentations isn’t to place blame or associate Muslims with terrorists, but to increase understanding of Sikhs.

Tejpreet Kaur, director of community development at the Sikh Coalition, leads the Junior Sikh Coalition for Sikh youth. The group conducts Know Your Rights workshops that teach students how to respond to bullying. Young Sikhs learn to identify what bullying is, how to stand up for themselves, and who to turn to. While a school is required by law to report a bullying incident within 24 hours, Tejpreet said this doesn’t always happen.

Tejpreet said the Sikh Coalition is preparing to begin training students to give their own Sikh Awareness Presentations at schools. “They all know why they practice the way they do,” she said. The students’ challenge will be “translating and articulating that to a non-Sikh audience.”

Dr. Uma Mysorekar, the president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America and a prominent leader in New York’s Hindu community, is heavily involved in interfaith initiatives in the city.  She said that the issues Sikhs face come down to misunderstanding and lack of education.   She recounted an incident when a student group came to tour a Sikh temple in Flushing, Queens. They were uncomfortable with covering their heads in the temple, and refused to go in.

Mysorekar said the incident illustrates the importance of information and understanding.  “I don’t blame the students. It came as a shock,” she said.  “The teachers should have explained this rule to them before they even went so they wouldn’t be surprised.”

Manbeena Kaur said she has received an overwhelmingly positive response to the presentations, and that audiences react with curiosity and intelligent questions.  While presenting, she said, it’s important to “be alive, animated, and genuinely be there because you want to teach them the beauty of the religion.”