By Jericha Russell
On the afternoon of September 15, 2001, Mesa, Arizona resident Balbir Singh Sodhi donated $74 to a memorial fund for the victims of the terrorist attacks in New York four days prior. One hour later, he was shot and killed in front of the Chevron station that he owned. Sodhi was the first Sikh to be killed following the World Trade Center attacks, but he was not the first Sikh to be targeted in other ways. A Sikh businessman in New York City was verbally harassed and chased into a subway station mere moments after the first plane hit the towers. An elderly Sikh man was beaten with baseball bats in his own neighborhood within a few hours of the attacks. The next day, a train running between Boston and New York was stopped on the tracks and a Sikh passenger was arrested at gunpoint by police and SWAT officers simply because he looked “suspicious.” It only took a day for a database to be set up online where people could report hate crimes against Sikhs in the aftermath of September 11th.
These are just a few stories that filmmaker Valarie Kaur tells in her documentary, Divided We Fall, which the UNF Interfaith Center screened in the Student Union auditorium on the evening of Thursday, February 27th. A Sikh woman who grew up in California, Valarie was only twenty years old at the time. In the film, she explains that while the rest of the country was uniting in grief and pride, her own family and community were coming under severe persecution as the news continually portrayed this new enemy, these terrorists, as darker-skinned, bearded, and turbaned. Sikhism, a religion which originated in the Punjab region of India, calls for observers to not cut their hair as a sign of accepting God’s will for their bodies. Sikh men often have thick beards and tie their long hair into turbans. Valarie responded to the fear of the situation by taking her video camera and her cousin Sonny on the road, traveling across the United States to collect the stories of Sikh men and women who had become sudden targets of alleged retaliation violence. Divided We Fall not only profiles Sikh victims of hate crimes, but also those who faced prejudice and violence for simply “looking Muslim,” including Arabs and South Asians of all religions as well as Latino individuals who were mistaken for being Arab due to the shade of their skin. The film also features news footage of some of the perpetrators of hate crimes and prejudiced attacks and a brief interview of sorts with two men who verbally harassed Valarie’s cousin Sonny, himself a turban-wearing Sikh, in a train station.
By weaving her own stories – those of her personal journey throughout making the film, her upbringing as a Sikh in a California suburb and the meaning of her religion, her grandfather’s brave emigration from India to the United States in 1913 as a source of inspiration to her throughout her life – with those of the families and individuals she profiled, Valarie portrayed the importance of storytelling in activism and reconciliation. Four days after the Interfaith Center hosted a viewing of her film, Valarie brought this idea with her to UNF for her Interfaith Week Keynote Address. She met privately with several executive members of Better Together @ UNF before her scheduled address began, sincere and eager to get to know us and the issues that have been concerning us in our own lives recently. It felt like a wonderful treat to get to share with her and one another in such an intimate way. As if this experience wasn’t enough, Valarie decided to modify her planned address based on what we discussed with her beforehand. She spoke of her experiences since making Divided We Fall, advocating for justice through both civil disobedience and – having earned a law degree from Yale in 2011 – direct legal action, and the worthwhile struggles involved in that kind of activism. She told us stories shared with her throughout various public speaking events in which she has participated, stories from audience members whose lives and hearts had been touched by the stories shown in Divided We Fall, stories of doubt and change and fear and courage and inspiration. She emphasized a truth that I had never heard articulated before: “The way we make change is just as important as the change we make.”
To close the night, Valarie asked us to reflect on someone who encourages us to make change in the best way we could and to share our answers with a person sitting beside us, and then, she challenged us to share our answers with a microphone in hand, to everyone in the ballroom. I felt blessed to hear personal stories from fellow students, stories of inspiration to live for a best friend who had passed away, of finding enlightenment in the darkness, of uncovering bravery from the struggles and persecution faced by a grandfather. My own answer was less about a person and more about a feeling, unfortunately initiated by a tragedy. In August 2012, Jacksonville’s Sikh community opened their gurudwara doors to the public for a memorial service in honor of the Sikh lives lost in a gurudwara shooting that has just taken place in Wisconsin. I attended that service and sat among not only Sikhs, but also Protestant Christian pastors, a Catholic nun, a rabbi, a board member from the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida, and a Hindu priest, all expressing reverence for the service and solidarity with the Sikh community, offering support and comfort across vast religious and cultural differences.
I grew up in a conservative Christian family, attending churches and schools which taught me that befriending someone of another religion was dangerous unless one was specifically aiming to convert them to Christianity – I had never heard the word “interfaith” or even known that it was possible for so many people of different faiths to come together as we did in the gurudwara that morning. I had never felt such love as I did radiating in that room. If I can live my life doing my best to recreate that feeling in everyone around me, then I’ll know that I’m doing the right thing. Valarie’s example and the courage and compassion emanating from the people she has encountered and shared with us make me truly believe that I can accomplish that.