A group ranging in age from 8 to 64 was gathered around a table at the Sikh Center of the Pacific Coast in Selma early Dec. 25. They weren’t opening presents. Instead, they woke as early as 5 a.m. to spread sauce, cheese and toppings making 100 pizzas for the homeless and hungry.
“Our foundation is based on helping others out and being humble,” said Jasmeet Brar, a Selma High senior helping make pizzas.
Yet Sikhs continue to be mistaken for radicals and terrorists. The next day, Amrik Singh Bal, a 69-year-old Sikh man, was beaten and hit by a vehicle in Fresno while he waited early in the morning for a ride to work. Fresno police are investigating the incident as a hate crime.
Gurcharan Singh Gill, 68, was stabbed repeatedly shortly before 4 p.m. Jan. 1 while working at central Fresno convenience store. Although Gill was not wearing Sikh attire, Fresno police have not ruled out the killing as a hate crime.
“This is the latest episode of what Sikhs have been enduring when they are very peace-loving and hard-working citizens of this great country and not members of Al Qaida or ISIS or any other radical group,” Ike Grewal, a member of the Sikh Council of Central California, said.
In another incident, Sikh men from Fresno were ordered by security to remove their turbans while attending a football game in San Diego Dec. 6.
As of late, Selma Police Chief Greg Garner says there have been no acts of violence to the Sikh places of worship known as gurdwaras.
“We’ve had no complaints or concerns raised of late by any of Selma’s Sikh community. No ‘hate’ incidents of any kind have occurred in conjunction with the annual Sikh parade since I’ve been here. We advise all residents to be aware of their surroundings, report any activity they may believe warrants a police response, and do not engage in any dangerous lifestyle choices,” Garner said.
Sheriff Margaret Mims said the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department is taking threats of terrorism seriously but that the Sikhs’ goals are similar to what most think of as the typical American dream.
“(What) drives Americans is what drives the people from India. They want to succeed and be business owners, earn a living and contribute to their communities.”
The pizza project is just one effort local Sikhs have made to contribute to the community. Leaders at the Selma temple emphasize this is just one aspect of their faith they hope more will learn about.
“People don’t know about Sikhism. We want to spread the word that we’re members of the local community,” Nick Sahota said. “We want to make sure people know we’re here for them, that we celebrate with them and want them to celebrate with us.”
“We’re peaceful peoples and we want to help build up America. We just want to spread that message.”
As the main instructor for the students, Jaswinder Singh Tekher said their faith is not about uprisings, but is founded on the concept of seeing all people as equals.
“The Sikh religion is not a terrorist group. The people that come here know if they do something wrong, they have to face the group.”
Sahota reminds residents they may attend the April Sikh parade which winds through town where more food items are given away to parade-watchers.
“One of the messages from our gurus is that the food is for the people, it’s not for the individual person, but for everybody,” Sahota said. “Every Friday there’s free pizzas from 6-8 p.m. Anybody can come here.”
In their effort to share meals, two cooks work full-time at the kitchen of the Sikh Center’s dining hall, known as a lungar. They prepare vegetarian foods for regular meals that are open to the public.
The food they made that morning would be driven to hungry residents in Fresno later that morning. They’ve made similar efforts during Thanksgiving and New Year’s as well. They would bring blankets as part of their deliveries that morning and would return later that day to clean up.
“You see so many homeless people on the streets asking for food or money. It’s sad, so what can we do? At least give them food,” said Gagandeep Dosangh, 19, a biology major who was visiting on her winter break from California State University, Stanislaus.
Local residents such as Simran Sahota, 13, an Abraham Lincoln Middle School student, said she really wanted to take part in this project rather than just sleep in that morning.
“This is my wish to help all the poor people here. Some people are really struggling and don’t have any food or nothing for Christmas and this is what Christmas is all about – giving happiness to others and receiving happiness.”
Their only requirements are that attendees wear a head covering out of respect for God, not smoke or drink alcohol on the premises and note that all their meals are vegetarian.
And that day the cooks were getting extra help. Religious music played over the speakers while cook Ranveer Singh stirred red kidney beans. Harmeet Singh cooked onions and ginger while large pans of basmati rice steamed nearby. Varinder Singh, one of the regular priests normally engaged in prayers or music lessons, also helped in the kitchen by boiling milk.
It’s typical for the students to be on the gurdwara grounds taking music, language or spiritual lessons in their holy writings known as the Shri Guru Granth Sahib. Some of the students helping prepare food that day are also starting a club at Selma High so Sikh students can organize service projects.
“The club is mainly about helping others,” Brar said, but efforts will be made to help others understand their faith better as well. Although students learn some basics about other prominent faiths, little is taught about Sikhism in public schools, she said.
“There are many stereotypes and assumptions as to who Sikhs are,” Brar said. “Not many children know about it.”
Reza Nekumanesh with the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno released a statement Dec. 28 on behalf of the center to show a stand of solidarity with the Sikhs.
Nekumanesh says that while Sikh-Americans are innocent of the crimes of extremists, he asserts it’s also inaccurate to say they are the wrong targets of violence.
“Refrain from language that suggests that Sikh men and women are the ‘wrong targets’ because none of us are the ‘right targets.’ No one should have to fear assault due to the perception of hateful people. We have to remain united against all terror and fanaticism because when one of us is attacked, we are all victims.”
Nekumanesh went on to say that while Sikhs and Muslims are “productive members of our society who want only to contribute to its welfare,” a symbol of their faith – the turban – makes them easier to identify and thus targets for violence.
“Our country is a place of refuge for people of all religious, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. That is what makes our country so beautiful- the diversity of thought and expression from its citizens. Unfortunately, there are people in our world who, motivated by hatred and misguidance, are driven to violence and crime. In addition, many of these crimes are committed falsely in the name of America while that very same America honors our differences. These acts need to be dealt with swiftly and sternly as to deter others from acting out their anger through violence.”