WASHINGTON, DC — Filmmaker Pardeep Singh Kaleka lost his father Satwant Singh Kaleka on Aug. 5, 2012, when avowed neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page stormed the Oak Creek, Wisconsin gurdwara during Sunday morning prayers, murdering six Sikh Americans before he was killed by police.

Satwant Singh Kaleka was shot five times at close range as he confronted the killer with his kirpan, preventing him from entering the kitchen where women were preparing the afternoon feast.

FedEx Shooting

Komal Kaur Chohan lost her beloved grandmother Amarjeet Kaur Johal April 15, 2021, when young white supremacist Brandon Scott Hole started shooting inside a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, Indiana, at which 90 percent of the workers were Sikh Americans.

Filmmaker Pardeep Singh Kaleka, at the mic, lost his father Satwant Singh Kaleka, during the Aug. 5, 2012 white terrorist attack at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin gurdwara. To his left are Deanna Singh, and Komal Kaur Chohan. Behind him is Bachan Singh. (Photo by Sunita Sohrabji for India Currents)

Hole killed eight people during his rampage, before turning the gun on himself. Law enforcement identified the horrific tragedy as a “suicidal murder,” despite ample evidence indicating the attack was fueled by racist hate.

Deana Singh’s fondest moments of childhood were helping her father Bachan wrap his turban. “He made it a game, a tug of war, pulling me in slowly, so that I had some power. The turban represents safety and support. And in those moments with my father, I felt incredibly safe.”

The Aftermath Of 9/11

On Sept. 12, 2001, Singh told her father to do the unthinkable: to remove his turban and not wear it again.

Singh’s fears were founded: Balbir Singh Sodhi was the first person to be killed in a hate crime post-911. He was killed by Boeing aircraft mechanic Frank Silva Roque, who profiled Sodhi as an Arab American and held him responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I knew my dad was unsafe, because he was wearing a turban. It was the first time in my life I told my dad: ‘take your turban off.’ I felt so ashamed,’” said Deanna Singh, as her father Bachan stood beside her onstage during the first ever National Unity March June 25 in Washington DC.

Stop AAPI Hate

“My dad did not take off his turban. He wears it proudly,” said Singh, as her father beamed. “He always reminds me that it is important to be who you are, especially when you’re feeling attacked. He reminds me to replace fear with curiosity and love,” she said.

More than 15,000 people gathered at the National Mall in Washington DC for the first National Unity March. (Photo by Sunita Sohrabji for India Currents)

One by one, survivors took to the stage at the National Mall to put a human face on the statistics of anti-Asian hate crimes. The web portal Stop AAPI Hate — which allows victims of hate crimes to self report incidents in one of several Asian languages, including Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu — issued a report July 20, documenting 11,500 hate incidents since March, 2020. The incidents included physical attacks targeting elderly people and women, verbal harassment, and school bullying.

We Need To See Ourselves In Each Other

More than 40 organizations, representing the full spectrum of AAPI sub-ethnicities, arranged the three-hour noon event, led by APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice–AAJC.

The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund was one of several South Asian American organizations which organized the rally and march. (Photo courtesy of SALDEF)

South Asian American organizations involved in the event included the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Sikh Coalition, South Asians For America, the Indian American Impact Fund, and the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute.

A crowd of more than 15,000 people gathered against the backdrop of the Capitol Building in the sweltering humidity of a mid-summer day in DC.

Parvesh Cheema with actress Tamlyn Tomita. (Photo by Sunita Sohrabji for India Currents)

The American Dream?

The overarching theme of the rally — echoed by many of the speakers onstage — was the hope that what Americans share in common is greater than what divides us.

“We need to see ourselves in each other,” said Pardeep Kaleka, who led off the rally with a prayer.

“Just before he died, my father had retired. He told me: ‘Pardeep, this is a wonderful country. When you retire, they pay you.’ He had reached the American dream,” Kaleka recalled.

My Father Prayed For All Of Us

“My father never abandoned his temple. He fought the gunman, who fired five shots at him, all at close range. My father sacrificed his life.”

“My dad’s final words were a prayer. He did not pray for himself. He prayed for all of us,” said Kaleka. “It is amid our challenges that our light truly shines.”

Sikh American activist Komal Kaur Chohan. (Photo by Sunita Sohrabji for India Currents)

The Oak Creek massacre and the atrocities at FedEx were nine years apart. But activist Komal Kaur Chohan believes that media and law enforcement handled them the same way: a flurry of coverage and concern, before abruptly moving on.

Moments Of Joy, Not Fear

“It made me understand that we have to take this into our own hands, be proud warriors, with the strength of our ancestors. We need to fight back against the atrocities leveled on us,” she said.

Young Sikh American activist JJ Kapur led the enthusiastic crowd in a Sikh spiritual song, “Satnam Waheguru.” As the Mall echoed the chants, Kapur said: “I want us all to know each other like this: in moments of joy, not fear.”

Sikh activist JJ Singh Kapur. (Sunita Sohrabji photo for India Currents)

Kapur was just two on Sept. 11, 2001. “That evening, as my parents watched television, I thought I saw my father. But it wasn’t him. It was Osama bin Laden.”

‘Turban, Beard, Terrorist’

“My father was afraid that people would see him — as I had innocently done — as a villain, a terrorist to be taken down. Turban, beard, terrorist. The news casts kept repeating that.”

Parvesh Cheema, a board member of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, said: “After 9/11, we all felt so much fear. We tried to distinguish ourselves from Muslims. But we are all the same. We are all struggling for our place in the American dream.”

This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

Sunita Sohrabji is the Health Editor at Ethnic Media Services.