When I was in the first grade, the biggest things I worried about in life were if my socks matched my hair tie and if my mom was going to give me my favorite cereal in the morning. On September 11, 2001, my elementary school hosted a flag ceremony with the most somber mood and all I knew was that I was confused about what was happening around me.

9/11 wasn’t something that registered in my brain as a first grader, but the frantic emotions of my family in response did. I will always remember the looks on my distraught family members’ faces as they watched the TV in horror, while also trying to make phone calls to my older brother in the area.

Little did we know that he would later be running for his life in a NYC subway as a result of someone feeling like my brother had to pay for 9/11. The new enemy of the nation had all of a sudden became someone that looked like my father and my brother, and while I was excluded from the equation, the fear still existed.

Singh travels to India to visit the the Golden Temple—the Sikh religion’s most historic and sacred place.

Sikhism wasn’t included in any school curriculum, so my classmates didn’t seem to understand the unique issues my family was facing. Life had now become one of trying to fit in with my classmates with the best of my ability, distancing myself from the reality of the world outside the four walls of my classroom.

While packing for the start of my undergraduate career in 2012 and binge watching “Criminal Minds” episodes in my living room, it felt like a routine Sunday. Amidst the chaos that covered the floor, my eyes glanced at the TV only to see chaotic images of flashing lights and people sprinting with tears down their cheeks. In a matter of seconds, my world was turned upside down. I saw as a shooter had walked into a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire. Six innocent worshipers were killed, making it the largest religiously-motivated hate crime to take place in a house of worship.

“The new enemy of the nation had all of a sudden became someone that looked like my father and my brother, and while I was excluded from the equation, the fear still existed.”

The next day, at my local Sikh Temple, much akin to the one 1,000 miles away, I sat dumbfounded. My life had now been book-ended by 9/11 and the Oak Creek shooting—two events in which tragedies had abominable ramifications for our country, as well as to Sikh-Americans.

My father, a turbaned retired Sikh United States Army Colonel, sat me down as he said, “You are American, but from this point forward you must prove it every single day.”

Oak Creek didn’t just have a profound impact on me, but the Colorado Sikh community at-large. The organization Colorado Sikhs was informally created a month after the Oak Creek shooting by members of the community after realizing the need for greater awareness about the Sikh faith and Sikh community. I joined Colorado Sikhs in the fall of 2016 as the policy director and since then, I have been working to bring the Sikh-American perspective to spaces in which there was a void before.

It should not take a tragedy for us to get to know people that look differently, pray differently, or speak differently. Even if others don’t fully understand my faith or my community, it is important that our existence is recognized.

Singh speaks at Denver Sikh Gurudwara at a gathering for an Interfaith Camp.

According to Dilpreet Jammu, executive director of Colorado Sikhs, “In this divisive time, Colorado Sikhs strives to be a voice of reason and of compassion for our fellow human beings.”

“Our teachings are about the oneness of the human race and about equality for human beings, regardless of caste, creed, color, race, religion, gender or gender orientation. In the future, we expect the organization to grow as more Coloradans become familiar with who we are as a community.”

Singh with Dilpreet Jammu, Executive Director of Colorado Sikhs, receives the Asian American Hero
of Colorado award in May 2018.

To learn more, visit www.coloradosikhs.com.

Singh, 24, is a community organizer at Asian Pacific Development Center working to track hate crimes that have occured to communities post-911.