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December 16, 2011 > Who are the Sikhs?

Who are the Sikhs?

By Catherine Kirch

In October, UNITED SIKHS celebrated the opening of their Western Region office in Fremont. The office aims to facilitate Sikh advocacy, humanitarian aid, education and community building. Director Kashmir Singh emphasizes the importance of bridging the gap between the Sikh community and communities at large.

"We are different, there's no doubt about that; we look different," says Kashmir Singh. "When society sees a Sikh person working with other people, they are going to see that we are normal people just like the others."

A Fremont office location was chosen due to the significant population of Sikhs in the area. Fremont's Gurdwara Sahib, a place of worship, is one of the largest Sikh gathering places in the Bay Area, possibly in North America, explains Singh. "It's open 365 days of the year, the main gate is never locked, the kitchen is open all the time, and anybody can go. It's just open... open to all."

This "open to all" philosophy stems from Sikhism's origins in Punjab, an area now divided between India and Pakistan. In the late 1460s, the land was divided by religions, ruled by invaders from Persia, and social hierarchy was deeply rooted in a caste system. "Rich were exploiting the poor," explains Singh. "The person who belonged to a lower caste could not even look into the eyes of a person of an upper caste. Women had no role." Citizens were distracted by their fear of breaking society's rules.

When Sikhism was founded in 1469 by Guru Nanak, the religion upheld a philosophy of the "human race as one." As an organization, United Sikhs seeks to pursue this ideal through advocacy aimed at empowering disadvantaged and minority communities, and through participation in cross-cultural dialogues and volunteer work. United Sikhs' new office hopes to create a pool of volunteers where people of all ethnicities can work together, as well as educate the community on what the Sikhs are all about.

"It's not to show off who we are; it's just to do the things we do."

Sikhism, as a religion, emphasizes equality, philanthropy, and hard work. Sikhs follow three golden rules. The first is Kirt Karo, which means to make an honest living. "This is not religious," says Singh. "It is a way of life. It actually empowers us, telling us first you need to get up and do something, and then we will talk about religion later on."

If you have followed the first rule, explains Singh, then the next step is to share your earnings with others, or Vand Kae Cchako. "Share your time, your knowledge, whatever you can, whatever you have to share. Do something for the community."

The third rule, Naam Japo, means to "remember God's name all the time," Singh explains. "While you're working, while you're sharing, while you're living your life, remember Him so you stay on the right path."

Sikhs also have lifestyle rules to follow, including unshorn hair and the turban. Because these attributes are so recognizable, Singh explains, it becomes important for Sikhs to accept accompanying responsibilities.

"By wearing the turban, you become a flag in the society," says Kashmir Singh. "People look at you. You've got to set a moral example. You should be a motivational person to children and someone that everyone can look up to."

These physical characteristics can make Sikhs appear quite different from the rest of the community. In the past, Sikhs, including Sikh youth, have been the subjects of ridicule and prejudice. Kashmir Singh tells of a time his son was harassed by school mates. He quotes his son as saying, "I only read and look at American history, heroes and films and government. People tell me to go to my country. Which is my country?"

Harassment was especially difficult following events of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Singh emphasizes the importance of tolerance. Those who respond negatively, he explains, do so out of ignorance. It is important to educate people, but it is also important to recognize that it will take a little time. "You can't fix everybody," he says. "People are different. If it is not one thing, it will be another," Singh says. "If it is not a turban, it will be your earring, or your glasses."

That being said, Kashmir Singh's outlook is positive. He tells of how his work with United Sikhs has helped educate people of the area. "Not only am I doing the service I have set out to do, but I am also easing that tightness, the questioning about us in the community. I feel very good living here and claiming that this is my country-this is my children's place to live.

"In a nutshell, if we put our heads together with all the values we have, we can be a great community. I am sure we will be a great community."

UNITED SIKHS
39126 State St., Fremont
(510) 999-7726

Gurdwara Sahib Fremont
300 Gurdwara Rd., Fremont
(510) 790-0177

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