Saturday, September 3, 2011

With Our Heads Held High

Over the summer, I had an opportunity to visit several gurmat camps across the east coast.  There’s a workshop I facilitate for the younger kids called “Who am I?”, where we use role playing as a way to come up with clear and concise answers to commonly asked questions from non-Sikhs. The theory being - with quick answers ready, one is likely to be more confident and empowered when dealing with people and not shy away from opportunities to educate others. However, as the workshop would trail off in to questions and discussion, the focus tends to be on the more adverse interactions with non-Sikhs – bullying. In the last camp I attended, I asked a group of 35 kids (ages 11-14), “How many of you have been teased, harassed, or bullied at your school because of your Sikh identity?” Surprisingly, every hand went up. That’s right...every one.

I was I so naive?

Although I had my experiences being bullied and teased in elementary and middle school, that was decades ago! Since then, more minorities and immigrants live in America, more Sikhs live around bigger cities, and “multiculturalism” and “diversity” seem to be the buzz words everywhere in building successful institutions. I mean, we have an African American president…but has our country progressed at all with it's acceptance of different religions and cultures? And with a simple Google search on “bullying”, you’ll find so many anti-bullying resources that weren’t available when I was a kid...yet still, the problems persist. Painfully, I sat through story after story listening to how kids were called names, teased; one girl even had the bottom of her braid cut off. Another boy told a story where his friend's patka was foricbly removed and flushed down a toilet. And the worst part was...this was at a camp in the suburbs where parents spend hundreds of dollars to send their children. What about the kids who weren’t at camp? What about Sikh children who live in underserved communities? Or children of recent immigrants, what do they go through?

But all is not lost...toward the end of one of the camps, I sat through the most powerful workshop I had attended all year. A group of teenage campers from the Richmond Hill area in Queens, NY representing their youth group Sikh Youth of New York (a Sikh Coalition initiative) led a workshop on bullying for the younger kids. It was amazing to see these group of teens (some of who have experienced bullying themselves) empathize with these children, encourage them to seek assistance, and congratulating them for their courage. It was beautiful. Check out this short video on bullying by the Sikh Youth of New York, featuring some of the campers.

All of this made me reflect on my own experience.  As I mentioned, I had my share of teasing and bullying, as many of my Sikh friends did. At that time, being the only Sikh at your school was common, being the only Sikh in your city or county was more likely. I vividly recall at one point in middle school, when the teasing was particularly bad, sitting on a bench one day all alone after school feeling lost and confused. I remember I really cut out to be a Sikh? Maybe this is not for me.

Years have passed, and now I find myself leading workshops for children who are experiencing the same things I did. Funny thing is...I don’t remember what happened after I left the bench that lonely day in middle school. Somehow, I just picked myself up...and moved on. Or perhaps I wasn’t really alone on that bench after all.

agan saagar booddath sansaaraa, naanak baah pakar sathigur nisathaaraa
The world is drowning in the ocean of fire. O Nanak, holding me by the arm, the True Guru has saved me

So if you’re being bullied, know that you are not alone. Guru Sahib is always helping his students struggle their way through the rough spots.

I’m sure many are aware of the common steps to take if you are being bullied i.e. (1) tell the bully to stop (2) tell a teacher (3) tell a parent – but if the bullying persists, contact the Sikh Coalition. Turns out, times are a little different now. Schools are required to act when a bullying incident is reported and failure to act could get the school in trouble. Organizations like the Sikh Coalition and other civil rights groups are trained to hold schools accountable.

And if you’re not being bullied, be proactive! Create an anti-bullying club in your school. Who knows how many people you could be helping? By banding together...your collective voice is sure to be heard.

Remember, the Sikh identity is not something we should be ashamed of – nor do we need to apologize for it. Our uniform, gifted by Guru Sahib himself, represents the principles in which we believe – equality, justice, courage, we should stand tall and wear it proudly!

At camp, I concluded my workshop with a story of a general of the Sikh Army in the 80’s who in the midst of a war was asked “What is it that you want? You’ve lost so many men, you are outnumbered by your enemy...what is it that you are fighting for? He responded, "dho inch dee gal hai" - "a matter of two inches" meaning, our enemies wants Sikhs to walk with their heads down, looking at the ground, while the Khalsa will only walk with their heads held high, looking forward.

Stay strong brothers and sisters...Chardi Kalaa!