Phoenix-Area Sikhs Adopting a New PR Strategy to Combat Rising Hate Crimes

Rana Singh Sodhi's brother was killed in the first hate crime after 9/11.
Rana Singh Sodhi's brother was killed in the first hate crime after 9/11. Antonia Farzan
Four days after September 11, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was outside the Chevron station he owned in Mesa tending to his flowerbed when Francisco Silva Roque pulled up and fired several shots, killing Sodhi instantly.

In the days that followed, it became clear that Roque, a 42-year-old airplane machinist, had been seeking revenge for 9/11. He’d thought that Sodhi — a Sikh man who wore a turban — was a Muslim.

Each year since then, Sodhi’s family has held a memorial at the gas station on the anniversary of his death. A few years ago, his brother, Rana Singh Sodhi, was picking up flowers at Sam’s Club when he saw two women who looked familiar.

“I told them, ‘It seems like I know you. I have an Indian restaurant — maybe you are one of my customers?’” he remembers.

But that wasn’t it.

As he was paying for the flowers, Sodhi suddenly realized who they were: the wife and daughter of the man who had killed his brother. He went back and invited them to join his family at the memorial dinner.

That chance encounter ended up leading to a phone conversation between Sodhi and Roque, who is currently serving a life sentence in prison. During the call, Roque apologized for killing his brother, Sodhi says.

“He realized that he made a mistake. And he accepted it — he said, ‘I’m so sorry for what I did.’ It gave me relief, and it gave him relief. We both cried.”

The two agreed that if Roque ever gets out of prison, they’ll work together to educate the public about who Sikhs are and what they believe in.

”In the past, Sikhs didn’t feel like we needed to educate people, because we don’t believe in preaching our religion,” Sodhi says. “After 9/11, that changed. I don’t want anyone else to lose a loved one to hate.”

In the years since his brother’s death, Sodhi had made educating others about his religion a personal quest. He regularly makes the rounds to give talks to schools and community groups, explaining the basic tenets of Sikhism and answering questions like, “Why don’t Sikhs cut their hair?”

Now, Sodhi and other members of the Sikh community are turning to a new strategy: advertising. In an unusual, but also very American move, the National Sikh Campaign is launching a $1.3 million ad campaign on Fox News and CNN, in an attempt to educate the public about their faith.

It’s funded primarily by individual Sikhs in cities around the country. This past Sunday, Sodhi held a banquet at Indian Delhi Palace, which he owns, and invited more than 200 Sikhs from around metro Phoenix to attend. They ended up raising $115,000 for the campaign.

“I’m doing my part by going to community colleges, high schools, kindergartens, churches,” he explains. “But how much can I do, by myself?”

The ads show Sikh men and women talking about how the values of their religion — tolerance, religious freedom, gender equality — go hand in hand with American values.

They also name-check Game of Thrones and Star Wars, highlighting the fact that Sikhs have embraced American pop culture. “I’ve seen every episode of SpongeBob, because that’s what my daughters like to watch,” one bearded man with an accent and a black turban says.

It’s unfortunate that Sikhs had to spend more than $1 million on an ad campaign in hopes of avoiding being the the targets of future hate crimes, Anjleen Kaur Gumer, a local Sikh advocate, admits.

But she feels that it’s necessary, in light of recent events.

In March, a Sikh man in Washington was shot in what appears to be a hate crime. A few weeks later, a man was arrested after he attacked a woman inside a Sikh temple in Oregon. And, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, hate crimes against minority groups have been on the rise for the past two years.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Gumer says. “Every time my husband walks out the door, I’m scared that something is going to happen to him because he wears a turban.”

She also worries about her two sons, who are 3 and 4 years old. A study by the Sikh Coalition showed that two-thirds of Sikh kids who wear turbans report being bullied in school. And, she adds, the true number is probably even higher, since kids don’t necessarily come forward and tell adults when it happens.

“With what’s going on in the political spectrum, we’ve seen a spike in hate crimes again,” she says. “We thought it would die down after 9/11, but it hasn’t.”

Thanks to Osama Bin Laden, many Americans have come to equate turbans and beards with terrorism. That’s obviously untrue, but it’s also dangerous for Sikhs, since most people in the U.S. who wear turbans are, in fact, Sikh and not Muslim.

But plenty of people don’t realize that. Back in 2015, the National Sikh Campaign commissioned a study that revealed that 60 percent of Americans admitted to knowing nothing about Sikhs, even though it’s estimated to be the world’s fifth largest religion.

“It was kind of surprising to me,” admits Jaswant Singh Sachdev, a neurologist who’s lived in Phoenix for more than 40 years.

For years, Sachdev been trying to demystify the Sikh faith. When a new gurdwara — the traditional name for a Sikh house of worship — opened on North 51st Avenue in 2005, he invited people from the neighborhood to come for lunch and ask questions about the religion.

And for the past 17 years, he’s organized monthly trips to the Phoenix Rescue Mission. People from the Valley’s three Sikh houses of worship show up with heaping bags full of groceries, and help to serve dinner to the homeless. The trips serve a dual purpose: they fulfill the Sikh commitment to community service, and also demonstrate what Sikhs are all about.

Sikh immigrants have lived in the Valley since 1946, when Rala Singh bought land in what is now Maryvale and began growing crops like onions and watermelons there, Sachdev says. He remembers going into stores in New York, where he arrived when he first immigrated to the United States, and seeing boxes of produce marked “Singh Farms — Phoenix, Arizona.”

More Sikh families started arriving in the 1970s, he recalls. “What happened was what happens with all immigrant groups — their friends and relatives are there, so they want to go there.” These days, metro Phoenix is estimated to be home to about 4,000 Sikhs.

Despite that, Anjleen Kaur Gumer says, there are plenty of people in Phoenix who have ever met a Sikh person before. That’s why she and other community members are planning to raise money to run a local awareness campaign with ads on billboards, city buses, and local TV channels, once the national campaign has ended.

“We want to let them know we’re like everyone else, we’re Americans,” she says.

It’s a line that could have come right out of the playbook that Hart Research Associates, the public opinion research firm hired by the National Sikh Campaign, created.

Some of the firm’s recommendations are unsettling to read.

“Talk about the Sikh Americans’ history in this country not as victims of discrimination, but as striving to build better lives for your families through hard work,” their report suggests. “Americans react most positively when they see immigrants as making efforts to integrate into their communities and showing pride in America.”

In other words, assimilate, prove you fit in here, don’t complain too much, and maybe you won’t get killed.

But it seems like that's where we’re at as a country right now.
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.