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Sikh temples in the Bay Area shine their lights

Hayward, San Jose, and Fremont joined more than 100 other cities across the country Thursday night to commemorate the Sikh temple killings in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Organizers say the idea was for all the temples to shine their lights collectively in a show of strength. 

Around 1,000 people came to support the victims and connect with their community. The candlelight vigil on the shores of Lake Elizabeth brought people out fropm all walks of the Sikh community – young professionals, monolingual immigrants and multi-generational families. 

As daylight turned to dusk, parents hushed their children, and speakers expressed solidarity with the mourning crowd. 

“Just because somebody came and shot down six of our people doesn’t mean that we are angry at anybody,” says Prebhdev Singh, a 26-year-old software engineer. He says for him, the Wisconsin shooting was a like a small-scale 9/11.

Since 9/11, Sikhs have become unwitting victims of hate crimes aimed at the Muslim community. More than 300 cases were documented within the first month of the attacks. 

For UC Santa Cruz-bound student Japneet Kaur, it doesn’t matter whether the intended targets were Sikhs or Muslims. “We’re not here to, as so many people have been doing, make a distinction between ourselves and Muslims,” she says. “Because they don’t have a right to suffer just because they’re Muslim.”

The Sikh Coalition, a national civil rights group founded after 9/11, estimates almost three-quarters of turban-wearing Sikh boys in the Bay Area have endured harassment because of their faith. 

Harjeet Singh is a board member of the Fremont temple, or gurdwara. He says when you are persecuted for your physical appearance, there are two ways to respond. “Either you give up your article of faith, or you feel more proud to wear them,” says Singh. “Given the Sikh’s background, we take pride in our turban and open beard because this is our supplication to God – the way it has been made, the way it should be. I still wear my turban, I feel proud.” 

There were turbans of many colors together in Fremont last night. And beyond that, people of many faiths – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, as well as Buddhist monks in saffron robes. They shared tenets of Sikhism, which is based on equality, and says salvation comes through the expression of love and service to those less fortunate. During the two-hour gathering to remember victims of recent attacks, there were no angry calls for retribution or justice.