Sikhs In Fresno Worried After Recent Attacks

Jan 17, 2016
Originally published on January 23, 2016 10:32 am

In Fresno, California — the heart of that state's agricultural community — police are looking for whoever attacked two elderly Sikh-American men. The incidents happened a week apart over the holidays. One man was fatally stabbed, another badly beaten.

The attacks come amid reports of increased bullying and violence directed at Sikh-Americans around the country, apparently because they are mistaken for Muslims.

The unprovoked and apparently unrelated attacks are a hot topic on KBIF-AM in Fresno, where Gurdeep Shergill and his wife, Sonia, co-host a program on Saturday mornings for the 35,000 Sikh-Americans who live in Fresno.

"This morning I was talking about the hate crime, I was giving them the definition, what is hate crime, why they happen," Gurdeep Shergill says.

The subject of hate crimes is ripe in the community. The day after Christmas, a 68-year-old farmworker, Amrik Singh Bal, was attacked and beaten by two white men as he waited to be picked up for work. Bal was wearing a turban at the time.

Then on New Year's Day, another 68-year-old man, Gurcharan Singh Gill, was fatally stabbed in the liquor store where he worked. In that attack, Gill was not wearing a turban indicating he was Sikh, said Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer.

"But we are looking at this as a potential hate crime as well," Dyer says.

Dyer asked the FBI to help with their investigation. He said Sikhs have lived in Fresno for more than a century. As Dyer talked about what's happened in his hometown, his eyes became red and moist.

"I was at a community meeting last week with a number of those individuals, and you could just sense the fear," he says. "Are they being targeted as a result of being mistaken as a terrorist or extremist? Is it because of what occurred in San Bernardino or Paris? And those are all legitimate concerns."

National advocacy groups are concerned as well. A spokesman for the Sikh Coalition, Mark Reading-Smith, says since the San Bernardino massacre last month, it's received three times as many reports of hate backlash than in previous years.

The attacks are also unsettling to people attending Fresno gurdwaras — Sikh houses of worship. One man, who identified himself as "Mr. Singh," said he won't stay at home or be intimidated from wearing a turban in public.

"Anytime, anytime something could happen" says Singh as he shrugs his shoulders. He says Americans need to be better educated on the differences between Sikhs and Muslims.

But would the attacks on Sikhs stop if people realized they aren't Muslim? That question troubles many in the Sikh community, especially younger people.

"The problem in that kind of narrative is it actually implicitly says there is a proper victim," says Nandeep Singh, the executive director of the Jakara Movement, a youth-oriented nonprofit based in Fresno.

"When we see rising Islamophobia, are we to back away from our fellow Americans, or to embrace them that much tighter?" he says. "To say that attacks against all is wrong. It really isn't attacks against Sikhs that are wrong, but it's really attacks against anybody."

Singh expects attacks on Sikhs could continue. But he also sees an opportunity for those in the Sikh community not just to educate people about who they are — but remind them they are Americans too.

Radio host Gurdeep Shergill agrees.

"I tell my audience that we are Americans," he says. "And if we can't feel safe in America, there's no other place in the world where we can feel safe."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Fresno, Calif., two elderly Sikh men were brutally attacked in the last month. One of the men was fatally stabbed, the other badly beaten. It's believed the men were attacked because they were mistaken for Muslims.

NPR's Richard Gonzales went to Fresno, and he talked with members of the Sikh community there. They say there's a feeling of unease, but also there's talk of opportunity.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The unprovoked and apparently unrelated attacks on two Sikh men are a hot topic of this California radio station.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: This is the Central Valley's number one Punjabi weekend radio station, AM 900, KBIF, Fresno.

GONZALES: Gurdeep Shergill and his wife Sonia co-host a program on Saturday mornings that brings the latest news to some of the 35,000 Sikh-Americans who live in Fresno.

GURDEEP SHERGILL: This morning we were talking about the hate crime. I was giving them the definition - what is hate crime, why they happen.

GONZALES: The subject is ripe because the day after Christmas, a 68-year-old farmworker Amrik Singh Bal was wearing a turban as he waited to be picked up for work when he was attacked and beaten by two white men.

Then on New Year's Day, another 68-year-old man Gurcharan Singh Gill was fatally stabbed in the liquor store where he worked. In that attack, Gill was not wearing a turban indicating he was Sikh, says Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer.

JERRY DYER: But we are looking at this as a potential hate crime as well.

GONZALES: Dyer asked the FBI to help their investigation. He says Sikhs have lived in Fresno for more than a century. As Dyer talks about what's happened in his hometown, his eyes become red and moist.

DYER: I was at a community meeting last week with a number of those individuals, and you could just sense the fear. Are they being targeted as a result of being mistaken for a terrorist or an extremist? Are the - is it because of what occurred in San Bernardino or Paris? And those are all legitimate concerns.

GONZALES: National advocacy groups are concerned. The Sikh Coalition says since the San Bernardino massacre last month, it's received three times as many reports of hate backlash than in previous years.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Punjabi).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Punjabi).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Punjabi).

GONZALES: Outside a Sikh house of worship in Fresno, three Sikh men sit, wearing pastel blue and green turbans. One man, who identifies himself as Mister Singh, says he won't stay at home or be intimidated from wearing a turban in public.

Do have concerns about your own security?

MISTER SINGH: Anytime - anytime maybe it happen (laughter).

GONZALES: Singh shrugs and says anything could happen at any time. That he says Americans need to be better educated on the differences between Sikhs and Muslims.

But would the attacks on Sikhs stop if people realized they aren't Muslim? That question troubles many in the Sikh community, especially among younger people.

NANDEEP SINGH: The problem with that kind narrative is it actually implicitly says that there is a proper victim.

GONZALES: Nandeep Singh is the executive director of the Jakara Movement, a youth-oriented nonprofit based in Fresno.

NANDEEP SINGH: When we see rising Islamophobia, are we to back away from our fellow Americans or to embrace them that much tighter and to say attacks against all is wrong? It isn't just attacks against Sikhs that are wrong, but it's really attacks against anybody.

GONZALES: Singh expects attacks on Sikhs to continue for now. He also sees an opportunity for those in the Sikh community not just to educate people about who they are, but remind them they are Americans too.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Fresno Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.