Virginia Commonwealth University

Richmond’s Sikh community works to fight discrimination and educate others

Posted: November 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Portfolio | No Comments »

By Doug Callahan

The Richmond Gurdwara is the center of the local Sikh community.

RICHMOND, Va. -­ “Anyone can be a Sikh,” said Dr. Baljit Sidhu.

An orthopedic surgeon from Chester, Dr. Sidhu recently spoke about Sikhism to a religious studies class at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“We believe in love for all mankind,” Dr. Sidhu said. “No difference in gender. No difference in race.”

Sikhism is the fifth largest organized religion in the world, but it might be the most misunderstood. The problem for Sikhs mostly stems from their appearance. With turbans on their heads and untrimmed beards, they are often mistaken for Muslims, and they have been wrongly associated with terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Dr. Sidhu explained that Sikhism is the world’s youngest organized religion, as it is only about 500 years old. The U.S. Census Bureau does not provide an accurate count of American Sikhs, but unofficial estimates suggest the number is around 500,000.

Dr. Sidhu also took time to emphasize the open-minded nature of Sikhism.

“We don’t ask people to convert to Sikhism,” he said. “That is something we have never done and something we will never do. We believe in respect for all religions.”

Kunjit Singh, the local granthi, or priest, said he is regularly affected by discrimination and hateful language, but he explained that he does not hold it against the people trying to hurt him.

“So many times, when I pass, they shout ‘Laden! Laden!’” he said. “I never mind because it is just ignorance. They don’t know about us.”

Click here to hear more from Granthi Kunjit Singh.
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“It’s definitely a religion a lot of people don’t know about,” said Jasmine Khokhar, Dr. Sidhu’s niece.

Khokhar, 24, is an active member of the VCU Sikh Student Association. She said she doesn’t feel very different from other students, but she was quick to point out that she has one advantage that helps her blend in. Most Sikh women do not wear head coverings.

“I guess it’s harder for a guy because of the turban,” she said. “And their appearance is very different from the average American.”

Raj Goomer, 29, who co-founded the Sikh Student Association when he was attending VCU, echoed Khokhar’s sentiment.

“The guys do tend to bond a little more because they deal with identity issues, because they stand out a little bit more,” he said. “Especially after Sept. 11.”

Goomer was attending VCU and in his Richmond apartment at the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and things changed instantly for him. He recalled trying to reach his parents in New Jersey to make sure their New York friends were safe.

“I finally got hold of them,” Goomer said. “And my dad told me, ‘Don’t go outside, and if you do go out, wear a bandana. Don’t wear a turban.’ I was like, ‘Why? You’re being silly.’ And after I hung up with him, one of my friends came over and said to stay inside because there’s guys walking around, and this is at VCU, a very diverse campus, and people were walking around campus with baseball bats threatening to beat up anyone they thought was a terrorist.”

“So for a few days I had to walk around with an entourage of three or four guys and didn’t really go out at night,” he said.

Goomer is now living in East Brunswick, N.J., working as a paralegal and attending law school in the evening. Every year, he gives a presentation about Sikhism and discrimination that is broadcast live to all the middle schools in his area.

Goomer said such incidents have become less frequent in recent years. But Balraj Singh Bajaj, 20, a rising VCU senior and Student Sikh Association secretary, said he has also dealt with many.

“It might have died down a little bit, but it’s still a prominent issue,” he said.

Bajaj said clearing up the misunderstanding surrounding Sikhism is one of the club’s driving motivations.

“We have become much more active this year,” Bajaj said. “And increasingly every semester, we’re doing more things. We’re definitely more active now than we ever have been.”

An important part of a Sikh service is Langar, a meal at which anyone can come and eat for free. Bajaj said the Student Sikh Association applies the same idea once every semester on VCU’s campus.

“We cater food from a restaurant and offer it to anyone who is walking to or from class,” Bajaj said. “We have a table set up and we’re just handing out food and teaching kids about the Sikh religion. There’s a lot of misconceptions around campus.”

Click on the image to see a slideshow about the Sikh tradition of Langar

The Sikh Student Association is most active on campus, but away from VCU’s urban setting, the real center of Sikhism in Richmond seems like another world.

The Richmond Gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, is a large, white building off of Chippenham Parkway. Once inside, visitors must remove their shoes and cover their heads before walking into the high-ceilinged, blue-carpeted room where the Guru Grainth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, sits. Sikhs regard the book as a living guru and bow to it when they enter.

Granthi Kunjit Singh is a 53-year-old Indian man with a long, white beard and a warm smile. He said the Richmond Gurdwara was built in 2003, and there are about 250 Sikh families who attend.

“When we started this, there was only about 50 or 60 families, but we are growing,” Singh said.

“Every Sunday, we start our service,” he said. “We read from the holy book for about two hours, then we sing praises, then we have community kitchen called Langar. Everyone is welcome. Any religion, any race. The only rules are: no shoes, cover your head, and no intoxicants.”

“Intoxication is our first sin,” he said.

That strong disapproval of intoxicants introduces another difficulty for Sikh college students.

Goomer, the co-founder of the Sikh Student Association, said that it’s really a matter of choice.

“Of course every religion has different levels of orthodoxy,” Goomer said.

“It’s been hard,” Bajaj, the VCU student, said. “You always see people drinking and even Sikh kids get pressured into it, whether they want to or not. But if it’s something that’s important to you, like it has been to me and my brothers and even my roommates, none of us drink. It’s been tough, but I never want to do it.”

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