Brother of Sikh murdered after 9/11 educates community - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

Brother of Sikh murdered after 9/11 educates community

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Posted: Tuesday, September 6, 2011 4:47 pm | Updated: 3:26 pm, Tue Jan 10, 2012.

Four days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered in front of his Mesa gas station simply because he wore a turban.

Singh Sodhi wasn't Arab.

And he wasn't Muslim.

But members of his Sikh faith feared their turbans made them targets, so some men removed the head wear for their own safety.

Not Singh Sodhi's bother, Rana.

He proudly wore his turban and made a point of being seen. He continued even after a second brother, Sukhpal, was killed 10 months later while driving a cab in San Francisco. For a decade now, he's constantly speaking to students, community groups and news organizations to inform the public about a religion they probably haven't heard of.

Rana owns the Guru Palace Indian restaurant in Mesa and had never been in the spotlight, but he felt compelled to fight the ignorance surrounding hate crimes against Sikhs.

"It's very, very painful when you lose somebody in that kind of incident," Rana Singh Sodhi said. "I feel like if I save one person through my work and education, it's worth it."

Balbir Singh Sodhi was the first hate crime victim to die in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, in a killing that got international attention.

As the 10th anniversary of Balbir Singh Sodhi's death approaches, his brother is busier than normal. He's planning memorial events and his countless interviews include one with the English version of Al Jazeera. The Arab news network dispatched a correspondent from Brazil to tell his story.

Rana Singh Sodhi believes most Arizonans know little about Sikhs today - and they knew even less a decade ago. Members of the faith never had any problems in Arizona until 9/11, Rana Singh Sodhi said. That also meant they had no reason to organize and educate the public.

About 1,000 Sikh families live in the Valley, he estimates. The faith prohibits men from cutting their hair and requires them to wear turbans. About half of Valley Sikhs wear a turban, Rana Singh Sodhi said. If a man in the Valley is seen in a turban, Rana Singh Sodhi said the person is almost certainly a Sikh. He's never seen people of other faiths wear turbans in Arizona.

Local Sikhs fled their native India because they're a persecuted minority. Thousands of Sikhs were displaced and killed 25 years ago, he said, and there's been no justice served on the killers. Rana Singh Sodhi at least finds comfort in justice being served in the U.S.

Shooter Frank Roque was sentenced to death by a jury, but is now serving a lifetime sentence after an appeal. In revenge for the terrorist attacks, Roque went on a shooting spree targeting Arabs. He shot at a Lebanese man and at a house he had sold to a family from Afghanistan, missing both targets. He then drove by Balbir Singh Sodhi's gas station at University Drive and 80th Street, shooting him as he planted flowers.

As Roque was taken into custody, he shouted, "I am a patriot!"

"He thought turbans only belonged to Muslims," Rana Singh Sodhi said. "He thought turbans only belonged to terrorists."

Rana Singh Sodhi, 45, lives in Gilbert with his wife, two sons and a daughter. He lived in the U.S. 22 years and never heard any disparaging remarks until 9/11. Since then, the sight of a turban has changed reactions. Just a month ago, a college-age man rolled down a car window as he passed Rana Singh Sodhi and shouted: "Go (expletive) back to your country."

That happens three or four times a year.

He tries to diffuse misunderstandings by speaking to the classmates of his two high school sons every year. Everybody is curious about the turban and why it is worn, he said.

"If somebody asks questions, I love to answer them," Rana Singh Sodhi said.

But Rana Singh Sodhi said he's never regretted moving to the U.S. He has five siblings here, including a sister who got a green card a few months ago. Sikhs are part of the larger community here but not in India, he said.

After Balbir Singh Sodhi's death, his brother has attended a state dinner at the White House for India's prime minister. He and his wife met Barack and Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and other public figures. He was also featured in A Dream in Doubt, a documentary of his actions to protect his family and Sikh community.

Rana Singh Sodhi is being honored for his work Oct. 8, at the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund's annual gala in Washington, D.C.

Rana Singh Sodhi said he's optimistic about life for Sikhs in the U.S. He was encouraged when 3,000 people attended the first anniversary of his brother's death at the Mesa gas station. The annual gatherings are smaller now, but he invites anybody to remember and share Indian food. The event will take place at 7 p.m. Sept. 15.

Rana Singh Sodhi estimates he's spoken to 1,000 students and figures they've all shared something they learned about Sikhs. He believes misunderstanding and fear is vanishing as more people grow up with Sikhs.

Even as more recent hate crimes have been reported against Sikhs in the U.S., Rana Singh Sodhi has declined suggestions to take off his turban.

"I want to live my life and be proud," he said. "I don't want to live my life cowardly."

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6548 or ggroff@evtrib.com

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