Note: In light of the shooting today at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, here is a story from last year I wrote for the Detroit Free Press that explains some of the challenges the Sikh community faces.
Growing Sikh community struggles for acceptance
By Niraj Warikoo
Free Press Staff Writer
2/5/2011 – Page 1A, Detroit Free Press
Sitting in the barber’s chair, TejKiran Singh was torn. As a Sikh man, he had never cut his hair and kept it wrapped in a turban. But, tired of the laughs and insults from others, he decided to cut it in 1999.
For months afterward, he was wracked with guilt. “I didn’t sleep well for a really long time, ” Singh, 47, recalled.
So in 2005, he decided to again grow his hair and beard and wear a turban, in keeping with Sikh traditions. Singh’s challenges are reflected across metro Detroit as the Sikh community grows.
In recent months, the community of roughly 2,000 metro Detroit families has gotten increased attention after a Sikh student in Canton was found with a kirpan, a small religious dagger, in school, prompting the district to enact a new policy this week. While schools have made accommodations for other faiths, this is thought to be the first case involving a Sikh kirpan in metro Detroit.
As with some Jewish men wearing kippahs and Muslim women wearing hijab, the unique appearance of Sikh men has made them targets. But Sikhs say it’s worse for them because so many are unfamiliar with Sikhism.
Inside a Sikh temple in Canton on Thursday night, the melodious words of a priest praising God in Punjabi could be heard. Outside, a sign reads: “God is One.”
Kanwal Singh couldn’t take it anymore.
For about a year, the Canton teenager had tried living in metro Detroit wearing a turban over his uncut hair – as mandated by his Sikh faith.
But the stares and insults were too much.
“Terrorist!” Singh remembers some students in his high school blurting out at him. And so, in 2007, he got his hair cut and shaved his beard – one of many Sikh boys and men who are giving up their articles of faith to avoid discrimination and harassment. Singh and others say a majority of young Sikhs in metro Detroit have cut their hair out of fear.
“You get a haircut because you want to fit in, ” Singh, 19, said Thursday evening inside the Gurdwara Sahib Singh Sabha of Michigan. The Sikh temple (gurdwara) in Canton is the biggest in Michigan.
The challenges faced by Singh and others come as the Sikh community grows in metro Detroit, home to about 2,000 Sikh families.
The community came into the spotlight in recent months after controversy erupted over a fourth-grade Sikh student who brought a religious dagger to school in December. Initiated Sikhs are required to wear the dagger – called a kirpan. The kirpan, which was tucked inside his clothes, accidentally fell out while the 10-year-old boy was on the playground. Some parents voiced concerns about a weapon being brought to school. It’s believed to be the first such case in metro Detroit, though similar disputes have arisen in other U.S. cities.
The Plymouth-Canton School District initially banned the kirpan, but, on Monday, established a new policy that allows Sikh students to carry the daggers, albeit with restrictions. The kirpans must not exceed a certain length, must be kept in and tied to a sheath, and must be hidden under clothing.
“It’s to follow my religion, ” the fourth-grade boy said of his kirpan.
Misunderstanding over dagger
Like other young Sikhs, he keeps his long hair bundled on top in a knot covered by a piece of cloth known as a patka; when the boys get older, turbans replace the patkas.
“Some kids make fun of my hair, ” the boy said inside the Canton temple. “What’s that on your head? It’s weird, ‘” he said other kids say to him. “I just ignore them.”
The misunderstanding over the kirpan – which symbolizes the idea of protecting good – and of turbans and beards comes from a lack of knowledge about Sikhism, local Sikhs say.
“People don’t even know who we are, ” said Jaspal Neelam, 44, of Troy. “When they see the turbans and beard, right away, the association is some sort of terrorist organization. A lot of time, people just think you’re Muslim.”
In India, the turbans and beards that Sikhs wear are well known, and so not a problem. But in the U.S., they have attracted hateful attacks.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, one of the first men to die in a backlash hate crime, Balbr Singh Sodhi, was a Sikh man shot dead in Arizona by a man targeting people he thought were Middle Eastern.
To avoid harassment, some Sikh men keep their hair long, but go outside wearing baseball caps instead of turbans.
Still, the community’s visibility is increasing as it has opened several centers that feature morning and evening prayers, along with weekend services that draw the biggest crowds.
There are now seven gurdwaras in southeastern Michigan, in addition to centers in Kalamazoo, Lansing and Grand Rapids.
Oases of tranquility
To help inform the public about the faith, the Sikh community held an open house at Singh Sabha last Sunday, and it plans to hold another one this Sunday at Gurdwara Sahib Hidden Falls in Plymouth Township. Sikh gurdwaras are oases of tranquility, places where they come to reconnect with the Lord, known as Waheguru. On the wall inside Singh Sabha, a large sign reads:
“Sikh Religion. One, in whose heart there is love, he attains salvation.”
As Thursday’s evening prayers neared completion, Gurmeet Kaur, 67, of Canton talked about the community’s changes. She and her husband immigrated to metro Detroit from India in 1974, one of the first Sikh families here.
“People looked at us like we were aliens, like we are from another planet, ” Kaur said. “But we didn’t give up.”
Kaur recalls her husband being told he wouldn’t be hired because of his turban, and her 5-year-old son would come home in tears because of teasing at school. He refused to go back to school at one point, and so they got his hair cut. He never grew back his hair.
With the growth of the community, there’s now a support network. And the opening of the Canton gurdwara in 2008 has given the community a point of pride.
“It’s very peaceful here, very peaceful, ” Kaur said. “I can’t explain the feeling.”
Contact Niraj Wariko: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-223-4792