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Phoenix's Role In Post-9/11 American Hate Crime Rise

By Naomi Gingold
Published: Tuesday, September 20, 2016 - 3:39pm
Updated: Friday, March 24, 2017 - 7:12pm
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(Photo by Naomi Gingold - KJZZ)
Children stand in front of the memorial to Balbir Singh Sodhi at his gas station in Mesa

The day after Sept. 11, 2001, 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."

In 2016, 'Being brown in general is rough living'

In 2016, hate crimes against Muslims or those mistakenly perceived as Muslims are still more than double what they were before 9/11.  Last year, they spiked to record highs.

There are the big ones, like the mass shooting at a Sikh temple in 2012, and the small ones that never make the news.

Sodhi has had someone walk into his gas station and tell him, “You leave or you will die.” Another one of his brothers was killed in suspicious circumstances in San Francisco.

Still, Sodhi is amazingly positive.

One time, he said, when he was out shopping, a woman with two kids stopped and asked him if he was the person featured in the PBS documentary.

“Then I say yes. And she says thank you to educating my children," Sodhi said. "That’s… I .. feel so good.”

He said at least his brother’s life could be used to educate people.

Sodhi has a large extended family in Phoenix and has raised three kids here.

His 21-year-old son Satpreet he does not have a turban.

“I cut my hair literally a year ago,” he said. 

He went through most of his life with one and said, of course, people gave him a hard time.  But that’s not why he decided to cut his hair. He did it because he wanted to feel what it’d be like to do it, for the first time ever.

Today, almost none of the younger men in the Sodhi family wear turbans.  Satpreet said, after all, he loves his culture but it’s up to them to decide how to live their Sikh and American identity.

When asked if taking off his turban has made life easier, he said yes.

“It definitely has. But at the end of the day, just being brown in general is rough living," Satpreet Sodhi said. "But at the same time, we’ve gone through it for so long, that it’s just normal now. Even after my haircut, I still get dirty looks from people. I mean, there’s no other reason besides my skin color now. I don’t wear something on my head. “

Last Thursday night, on the 15th anniversary of Balbir’s death, around 130 people gathered in the parking lot of his gas station for a memorial service, Sikh and non-Sikh. One woman who’d lost her stepfather on 9/11 even flew in from New York.

At the end of the service, Rana Singh Sodhi spoke.

“Before the death of my brother, half-hour before, he called me “

He asked him to bring an American flag.

“That’s his last wish. He wanted to put a flag on his gas station.”

Sodhi invited up two police officers, and everyone watched as they raised the American flag right next to the spot where Balbir was murdered.  Then, the children in the audience came up and lead the group in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Today, Balbir Singh Sodhi’s turban and diary are in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. 

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