Collateral damage can sometimes be as devastating as initial damage. The villainous attack on September 11, 2001 affected not only the lives of those who lost loved ones but also the lives of countless others in countless other ways. It changed my life, leaving internal scars which may never heal.
I remember that first day of kindergarten distinctly. For me, it was the calm before the proverbial storm, a harbinger of a horrific, life-altering event yet to come. My teacher, Miss Julie, enthusiastically laid before us the variety of scintillating activities into which we would delve not only that day but also during the entire school year. I remember clearly that she began to read the first few pages of some childhood fairy tale whose name I have long since forgotten. I was extremely nervous because kindergarten seemed much more grown-up than pre-school, and I wanted to make a good impression. Making friends was especially important to me, so during my free time, I started talking with Josh, who, I hoped, would become a long-time buddy. We discussed our favorite Pokémon; naturally, Josh and I became fast friends on that first day. We continued our conversation centering on our favorite books and stories. My first foray into the kindergarten world seemed to be turning out to be wonderful, and my enthusiasm skyrocketed. However, at around 9:30, what had begun as a marvelous first day turned into a ghastly nightmare of a day. A major disruption turned my world upside-down.
All at once, parents were scurrying to pick up their children early from school. Even my new friend Josh disappeared before I knew what was happening. I did not know exactly what was going on, but I did know that chaos pure and not-so-simple reigned. I was bewildered that parents could pick up their children whenever they wanted. I later learned that the mass exodus occurred because something “bad” had happened. Within a few hours, the building had become almost completely emptied. Even my mother had rushed to pick my sister and me up from school. Arriving at home, I found my dad and uncle sitting on the couch, their eyes glued to the television: a most unusual sight. By this time, they would normally already have left for work at their offices in New York City near Times Square. What I saw on the T.V. confused, and on some subconscious level, scared me. Watching the strained attention my dad and uncle gave the T.V. event sent a shiver sliding icily down my spine; I knew not why. Somewhat tremulously, I peaked over their shoulders and saw a tremendous fire consuming two tall buildings. What was happening –and why was this of such great concern? Trying to get answers from my dad was an exercise in futility. He told me to go upstairs to my room and read a book, so I did. Shrugging my shoulders, I did not give it another thought.
The next day at school, Miss Julie tried anxiously to direct what she thought would be an age-appropriate discussion about the catastrophic event. She asked us in class if we thought the pilot of the plane had dropped his coffee cup making him steer the plane in the wrong direction causing the crash. Then she asked if we thought the crash was purposefully perpetrated. Completely oblivious to the concept of terrorism, as were my classmates I am sure, I figured the annihilation of the Twin Towers, as I had come to know them, had to have been an accident because no one would commit such a monstrous crime on purpose. I was confused, but mostly I was consciously aware of the angst my teacher brought to the discussion. Later, I learned that President Bush told the country that the attacks had been orchestrated by an extreme-Islamist terrorist organization known as Al-Queda led by a madman, Osama Bin Laden. When I saw a photo of the man, I thought that he looked just like the men in my family; he wore a turban and a grown-out beard similar to my dad’s, the man who had my complete love and respect. Again, confusion overtook me.
It was not long before the questions started coming at me fast and furious in school. Is your dad Osama? Why do you wear that thing on your head? Someone even told me to go back to my own country, implying that I was a foreigner. I wondered why I should do such a thing; I had been born and raised in the United States, just as all of my friends had been. The questions soon spun out of control and slipped into subtle prejudices totally out of my young realm of experiences. Josh stopped talking to me because his father told him that my people were “bad”. I never understood why because in my eyes everybody in my family was “good”. I was brought up in the Sikh religion. Sikhs follow the basic principles that there is one God, everyone is equal, and non-violence is of paramount importance. I refrain from cutting my hair because we believe our hair is a gift from God, and I wear a turban in public to keep my hair neat. This made me look different from the other students in my school. I guess that is how I learned that people fear that which is different, and that fear soon morphs into prejudice.
Trying to “fit in” from then on became a wasted effort. Because I began to shrink inside of myself, a result of how I perceived I looked, my parents moved me to a private school. It was worse for my Sikh friends who still attended public school. They were being picked on unmercifully. They were looked upon as social outcasts, and many were pressured into cutting their hair in order to look as though they “belonged”. It saddened me that as time progressed, fewer of my friends kept their hair long and uncut. They were afraid, and their parents understood. Things went from bad to worse for Sikhs. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Arizona, was shot and killed for resembling the extreme-Islamist pictured on television. The same day as Sodhi’s murder, the same shooter gunned down a Lebanese-American gas station clerk and shot into the home of an Afghan-American family. A Sikh cab driver had been pulled out of his car and badly beaten because he looked like Osama Bin Laden. It struck me only then how real the ramifications of 9/11 were likely to become in my life.
The senseless slaying of the victims resulted in great indignation from the Sikh community as it was trying to comprehend the series of events that had taken place over the past few days. Although I did not understand the situation in its entirety, I attended Gurdwara, the Sikh temple, on the Sunday after 9/11 only to find visibly distressed and over-wrought families. Unsure of what to do, we were told to remain calm and to begin to educate other people about our religion. My friend’s father sent out letters to his neighbors in an effort to acquaint them with the Sikh religion. I remember my dad brought home an American flag one day from my uncle’s house to put in front of the porch in order to signal the undeniable fact that we are Americans –not terrorists. Because they feared being assaulted, many Sikhs living in New York City had not left their apartments for over 5 days. As a result, a few courageous Sikhs took appropriate action. They called together all of the Sikhs to meet in Central Park to discuss measures that might help to ensure their security. This led to the creation of the Sikh Coalition only a few days after 9/11. Its mission was to inform people about Sikhism and to raise awareness of the dilemma Sikhs were facing; it became the voice of oppressed Sikhs. I remember how my family lauded the creation of the coalition because it was a non-violent response to any and all inhumane acts due to prejudice towards minorities in the United States. Yet the Sikh Coalition could only do so much, and I began questioning myself internally as to the strength of my own commitment to my religion.
Ever since I can remember, my wearing a turban has defined me when I am in public. I was very visibly different when I walked down the street and even when I went to school. My strong conviction in the beliefs of my religion is demonstrated by the wearing of my turban, and I have always worn it proudly. However, at that time, as it made me more visible in a negative way, it made me less comfortable. It is still true. Curious people rarely seek information about my religion. Instead, I often become the recipient of defiant glares, which people believe they are surreptitiously hiding. Their body language, however, speaks volumes. This, more than anything, makes me wonder if it is worth wearing a turban everywhere and becoming the center of attention most times. Now, just as when I was in kindergarten, I just want to look normal.
Even then, it was not as if anyone had abused me in any tangible way; it was my heart that had been bruised, and that was immeasurably worse. I know that people still look at me as someone different –as some sort of alien. It has never truly stopped. One recent encounter I had was with a police officer who asked me from which country I came. I confidently, but with a bit of condescension, replied, “The United States of America.” I felt that a police officer should have had the intelligence to recognize me for who I was, or more importantly, who I was not. I felt not just defeated but even humiliated knowing that I could never truly fit in. More than anything, I know that I had to speak up. After countless encounters with ill-advised people, I realize that a person’s pre-conceived negative assumptions can lead to major misunderstandings, and that the only chance to rectify the situation is through education. I do not blame people, for judging me and my heritage based on a video of Osama Bin Laden as seen on television; we look so very similar. I do blame our education system and even the Sikh community itself for not taking a more active role in teaching Americans, and, in general, the inhabitants of the Western world about Sikhism, the 5th largest religion in the world. I actually went looking through some social studies textbooks. Information abounds about “Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism” but never “Sikhism”. Why is information so sparse about my religion? Throughout my youth and to this day, I continue to give deep thought to these questions; they persistently accumulate in my psyche. They are questions that will not go away because the problem has not gone away. Unable to truly express who I really am as a person, I fear that people will judge me and draw erroneous conclusions about me and my beliefs. The risk of being a visible Sikh has not disappeared. Since 9/11, over 1,000 incidences of attacks on Sikhs have been recorded by Sikh advocacy organizations. That number does not take into consideration the unreported attacks and inestimable number of slurs. It certainty does not take into consideration the internal angst that plagues many Sikhs, including me.
This constant fear has undoubtedly changed my personality. In many ways, I am by nature what my name implies: “peace” and “quiet”. Since I was five years old, in 2001, the year of the infamous events on 9/11, I have attended a camp for the Sikh youth. Its goal is to enhance our understanding of Sikhism and to openly practice the Sikh way of life. I have come to realize that the camp community, within itself, is a major support group because these people truly understand what their fellow Sikhs are going through. We all understand one another’s backgrounds and the inherent doctrines of our religion. Once a year at Sikh camp, I finally become more comfortable in my own skin, and my true self emerges. I can breathe.
Through adversity sometimes comes strength of spirit. For me, being an object of thoughtless, uneducated prejudice has made me strong with an evolving vision of life’s expectations and a passionate involvement in my own beliefs. Expanding my horizons as to my internal ideas of friendship, family, and love for life, I have begun a path toward being more proactive about my religion. The course is sometimes bumpy, and, at least for now, success can be measured only one person at a time. Winston Churchill said it well, “A man does what he must –in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures –and that is basis of all human morality.” The up side of the dilemma in which Sikhs find themselves is that the challenge builds character. I draw strength from my convictions and welcome the challenge of one day becoming respected for who I am. It is my hope that future generations will cease looking through the clouded mirror of prejudice and begin to reflect the ideals of moral conscience. Only then can we rise, healed, from the rubble of 9/11.
Sahej Suri, Age 16, Grade 11, Horace Mann School, Silver Key