SeekingHope

Sikhism in North Carolina

By Adrianne DeLuca, Majorie Anne Foster, Katie Kane, Whitney Miller, Wesley Smith

 

I didn’t realize I would break down into tears in my class, but I did,” says Assistant Professor of Management at Elon University Barjinder Singh. “My students who have been with me through the last semester, they know. Everybody knew about him.”

 

Singh struggled to teach his classes the day Deputy Sandeeo Dhaliwal was murdered. His students urged him to take time off for himself, but he insisted: “I have to do my job.”

“I lost a close friend and someone from the same faith,” says Singh. “It hurt doubly.”

 

Dhaliwal was a close friend of Singh’s and was the first Sikh police officer in Texas allowed to wear an item of faith while on duty. He was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop. 

“This turban makes us duty-bound,” says Singh. “We have to help people in need if we see something wrong happening in front of us, we have to do something about it, we can’t just close our eyes and walk away.”

A women listens to worship music at the Sikh Gurudwara of North Carolina. 

What is Sikhism?

Sikhism, which has roots in the Punjab region of northern India and eastern Pakistan, is the world’s fifth-largest religion and its followers are

 

regarded as protectors of their country.

 

In the United States, their promise to help others isn’t widely known by the majority of the population. Following the teachings of their gurus, practicing Sikhs do not cut their hair or shave their body hair. 

They cover their heads with a dastaar, or turban. These practices were originally designed to make practitioners stand out in their Indian landscape. Practicing in the United States, where 60 percent of the population does not know about Sikhism, can lead people to mischaracterize them for Muslims or Hindus. 

"Most people don't really know that I'm Sikh, but they ask me why my hair is so long,” says 8th Grade Student Gurmeher Kaur. “Last year I tried to educate people and made a presentation to show to my grade which was pretty cool.”

Gurmeher is the only Sikh student in her school.

She says she welcomes questions about her religion, however, most of her peers don’t see her as any different from the rest. Being the only Sikh in the classroom has allowed her the space to teach her classmates about the religion.

Gurmeher attends classes at the Gurudwara every Sunday where she expands her understanding of her faith.

“Sikhism is a religion where everyone is treated equally. We are all treated the same under one God. And we preserve what we have from him and or her, the God isn't really defined,” she explains. “We're supposed to be humble and we're just supposed to practice his teachings and always be with him and our ultimate goal in Sikhism is like to become one with him.”

GurmeherGurmeher
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The Sikh Gurudwara of North Carolina in Durham, North Carolina. 

A community misinterpreted

300 Sikhs to their place of worship every Sunday.  

“It depends on how you look at your nation as a whole,” he says while discussing the stigmas from misinterpretations about his religion. “If you are concentrating on this specific time period that we are going through right now, then it seems pretty dark and seems very unnerving.”

 

There are an estimated 500,000 Sikhs living in the U.S., many in New York and California. Often immigrants or children of immigrants with brown skin and visible religious garb, Sikhs are frequent targets of xenophobes and other forms of hate.

According to an FBI report, there was a 200 percent increase of hate crimes from 2017 to 2018. In addition, Sikhs are now documented by the FBI as the third most frequently-targeted religious group, behind the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Kulpret Singh Kaur is a father of three and has been in Durham, North Carolina since he was 14. Back then, he said, there were maybe ten Sikh families in the whole state. He works in IT and has been able to make a name for himself due to his work in diversity and his leadership within the Gurudwara. He welcomes about 

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Women listen to worship music during a Sunday service. 

For Kulpret, the current climate surrounding Sikhs may seem dark and unnerving. When he considers his own experience in the United States where he interacts with individuals every day, he believes his situation is privileged. 

 

“One thing I have to acknowledge as an immigrant and as someone who looks very different is that this country is more accepting than probably any other country in the world,” said Kulpret.   

 

For him, living in the U.S. has been more conducive to practicing his religion than his time in India, where Sikhism was also a minority religion. Despite his comfort and distinguished support in the U.S., events such as the Oak Creek attacks, the death of Balbir Singh Soghi and a multitude of other anti-sikh crimes are not far from his mind, particularly as his son prepares to enter the police force. 

Jaachak, HarAmrit and Darsev Kaur as children

To serve, protect and honor

HarAmrit Singh is currently in training to be a police officer in North Carolina. He will be the first Sikh officer in the state. He recognizes the dangers of going into this career but is not worried to begin his career as an officer in July. 

 

“When you put on the uniform, there’s a target on you,” says HarAmrit. “But, in my opinion, people aren’t out to get you, especially if  

 you handle yourself in a decent manner.”

 

“He scares me,” says his mother Denvider Kaur in a shaky voice. “I prayed and prayed that he would change his mind. But he has not.” 

 

His father, Kulpret, agreed that the career can be daunting. He said his son is his hero for the path he has chosen. 

"It's pretty amazing to me as a dad and it's a a very proud moment. And I don't mean that just because he’s my son,” says Kulpret.

“I think any officer, any young man or woman that feels called into this field, they're putting their life on the line for the sake of other people and to make other people’s lives better.”

Despite his parent’s fears, HarAmrit knows that he will uphold the Chapel Hill Police Department's motto:  “serve, protect and partner.”

 

He believes these values are derived from his religion and upbringing. 

“In India, the Sikhs looked after everyone,” said HarAmrit. “I want to carry that over in whatever capacity I can here [in the U.S.].” 

A little girl rests on her father's leg during a worship service. 

Building bridges

Bhavneet Kaur Birdi is another member of Durham’s Sikh community. As an architect at Modern Architecture in downtown Raleigh, she seeks to create a bridge between her work and her community.

 

“It's very modern and a lot of things from India are very ornate,” she says while acknowledging the difficulties of combining her faith and her profession. “I'm probably the only person in my office that uses color because everyone else is afraid of color. And I grew up with a lot of color.” 

 

Having lived in the U.S. the majority of her life, Bhavneet believes that stereotypes and lack of religious education in schools are what cause people to live in fear of those who look different from them. 

“[Sikhs] are the protectors of India,” says Birdi. “We give everybody the ability to practice what they want and we also welcome everybody in and there's no discrimination on that.”

Despite the tradition’s origins, the religion has been distorted by outsiders due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Birdi explains how her brothers and cousins did not wear their turbans in New York for years because they would be chased down the street. 

“I feel like that’s still very relevant, especially since Trump's been president and the attacks on 

"People assume I don't speak English a lot of the times," said Darsev Kaur.

the Gurudwaras and on Sikhs have increased,” says Birdi. “It really really scared me and it’s not going away.”

 

Birdi hopes that by the time her 15-month-old son is an adult, it won't matter if he wears a turban or not. ​

Students at the Gurudwara attend Sunday school services to read Sikh texts. 

Langar in practice

For her, this daily ritual is what helps keep her connected to her religion while at college.

 

She is the only practicing Sikh on her college campus, which she says can be lonely at times. 

“It can be tough being away from community,” says Darsev. “But, I have found awesome people to connect with who really understand the values of Sikhism and of their own religion.”

Elon University First-Year Darsev Kaur wakes with the 4:30 a.m. train to start her morning with mediation and prayer.

The Sikh Gurudwara of North Carolina (SGNC) is a large part of her “family” and it continues to grow each year. Langar is one practice Darsev highlights as a way she connects with her family weekly. 

“Whether they be doctors or homeless or whatever, we sit together and eat and talk about things or just have fun and eat," said Darsev.

Her father, Kulpret, explained how this space is not only for practicing Sikhs, but any person wanting to “smell familiar smells, hear familiar languages and dress in their typical, country of origin clothing.” 

 

For most, this is a space where they do not feel like the outsider or the “foreigner” as they may feel in their jobs and school in the U.S. 

A volunteer serves a Langar meal to community members. 

Staying safe in society

When Elon University Professor Barjindar Singh first arrived in the U.S. as a college student, he had a glass bottle thrown at him, was called derogatory names and told to “go back to his own country.” All of these, he says, came with being the only student with a turban and a beard. 

Because of these memories and his own experiences raising a Sikh child in the U.S., he strives to advocate for the psychological safety of students in his own classroom. 

 

“It's very important to be your true self, irrespective of where you are,” says Singh. “If you can be your true to yourself, if I can be who I am, my son can be who he is, my students can be who they are, in the workplace. How you look visually, how you dress up, those things won’t matter.”

Students attend Sunday school at the Gurudwara. 

His middle-school-aged son, who also wears a turban, went to three different schools because of the bullying before finding a place where he felt comfortable being the only Sikh. 

 

“It was affecting his study habits. He was afraid to raise his hand in the class,” says Singh. “His psychological safety was at stake and that is when we realized we had to intervene.”

Because of these memories and his own experiences raising a Sikh child in the U.S., he strives to advocate for the psychological safety of students in his own classroom. 

 

“It's very important to be your true self, irrespective of where you are,” said Singh. “If you can be your true to yourself, if I can be who I am, my son can be who he is, my students can be who they are, in the workplace. How you look visually, how you dress up, those things won’t matter.”

A child and her grandfather wait for langar after their prayer service. 

Learn more

To learn more about Sikhism in North Carolina, connect with a center near you. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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