Source: KJZZ / Naomi Gingold
The day after Sept. 11, 200, Rana Singh Sodhi and his older brother Balbir were out running some errands for their small businesses in Phoenix.
“People yell to us, using f-word and ‘Go back to your country!” Sodhi remembered the harassment.
Bu they were in their country. They’d immigrated to the U.S. more than a decade before.
The Sodhis belong to the Sikh faith. In Sikhism, the men don’t cut their hair; they wear it in turbans and have beards. And after 9/11, their Sikh friends were all having similar problems.
Rana said, in particular, his older brother Balbir thought someone might get hurt. So they and a couple other members of the Sikh community in Phoenix decided to hold a press conference the following Sunday. They planned to explain to people who the Sikhs were, that they believe in peace, and that they weren’t terrorists.
On Saturday, Balbir went shopping for an American flag to put up at his gas station. But he couldn’t find any left in the stores he went to.
On his way out of Costco that day, he stopped by a table for victims of 9/11 and gave them all the cash in his wallet; it was about $75.
Around 30 minutes later, he was dead.
A man who said he wanted to kill Muslims had driven up to Balbir’s gas station and shot him.
Love from the community amid tragedy
The Sodhis came to the U.S. to escape the violent persecution of Sikhs in India in the 1980s. Like many others, they saw the U.S. as a safe haven, a place where they would find religious freedom and live the American dream.
“I didn’t know that in America we have so much hate exist… until 9/11 happen,” Sodhi said.
In the midst of the tragedy, though, Sodhi said there was also an outpouring of love from the community. People brought flowers and cards to the gas station. Three-thousand people showed up at the city’s memorial service.
“That’s… really opened my heart,” Sodhi said.
The regional head of the Anti-Defamation League reached out to Sodhi. He, too, had lost a brother and they became close. Sodhi said he encouraged him to go out tell his story, educate people about Sikhs.
That was the start of Sodhi doing community outreach and education.
Today, Sodhi speaks at local schools and at events all over the country. He’s been featured in documentaries and been invited to the White house.
When he sees people staring at him now, he goes out of his way to say hi. And, if they have time, he tells them his story.
“I thought this is my responsibility,” he said. “I think this is every citizen of this country responsibility to educate their children educate their community, educate your neighbors.”