No bitterness 10 years after Sikh killing over 9/11

Rana Singh Sodhi’s brother was murdered four days after 9/11, for nothing more than how he looked. But Rana says he is not bitter.

Ten years after 9/11, Rana Singh Sodhi is not bitter at America.

It would be hard to blame him if he was.

Rana’s brother, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was murdered four days after 9/11 for nothing more than how he looked.

Balbir, like his brothers, emigrated to America from the Punjab region of India over 20 year. They are Sikh, and wear beards and turbans, customary in the Sikh faith.

They left India because of religious persecution, Rana says, and they came to the United States because of freedom of religion.

They first went to California and drove taxis and worked in convenience stores to save money before moving to Arizona because of better schools for their children.

They became naturalised citizens. The brothers loved America.

“Before 9/11 I never believed there were ignorant or racist people in our society in America,” Rana recently told me from his home in Mesa, Arizona. “I always thought we had a very educated and well mannered society.”

And then September 11, 2001 came.

“I went to work and some of my regular customers at the gas station were looking at me differently,” Rana said.

“A couple hours later my friend called me and said, ‘Rana, we need to be very careful because I had a customer come to my store and he said, you turban people need to be very careful, maybe you will be attacked.’”

A couple of days later, in the early afternoon on September 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was at the gas station he owned on a wide intersection in Mesa, Arizona.

He walked out front to plant flowers.

Frank Roque, a mechanic from Mesa, drove past, rolled down his window, pulled out a gun, and shot Balbir several times, killing him.

Roque mistakenly thought Balbir was Muslim, and killed him as “revenge for 9/11.” He reportedly bragged later about killing a “towel head.”

Balbir left behind five kids and a wife.

Picture of Balbir Singh Sodhi that sits in the Mesa, Arizona home of his brother, Rana. [Photo Maira Elena Romero/Al Jazeera]

Roque was arrested, convicted, and is serving life in prison. His death penalty conviction was overturned.

Ironically, on the very day Balbir was killed, he donated all the money he had in his wallet, about $75, to a person at a local supermarket collecting money for a 9/11 victims fund.

He even confided in his brother he was thinking of going to New York to volunteer to help in the recovery.

Then he was killed. 

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Roque, pictured above, is serving a life sentence for killing Balbir Singh Sodhi [Photo Mesa, AZ Police Dept]

Balbir was the first Sikh in the United States to be killed after 9/11 in so called revenge killings.

It’s impossible to document the exact number of such killings of Sikh, because the FBI does not distinguish between Sikhs and Muslims when classifying hate crimes.

Generally, the Sikh community of America, I am told, honours 16 people of the Sikh faith killed in the United States in the year after 9/11 because of religious hate crimes.

The FBI says since 9/11 they have investigated more than 800 violent acts against Muslims, Arab Americans, or people perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin.

Rana Singh Sodhi, the brother of Balbir, now dedicates his life to religious understanding [Photo Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera]

Balbir’s brother, Rana, has not become bitter in the past 10 years, just the opposite. He says the outpouring of support from people of all faiths in his community has re-affirmed his love for America.

“The day my brother was killed, people I didn’t even know stayed at the gas station late into the night, they put flowers and candles at the place where my brother was killed,” Rana said.

“This was such beautiful sign of love from the community, and that is what has helped me and make me realize what great support the community is to me here.”

After 9/11, some friends suggested he take off his turban for his own safety, but he refused.

“I said no,” Rana says. “My family came here and we believe in this country because of freedom of religion, and my religion teaches me you don’t live your life as a coward, you live your life with pride and without fear.”

Rana has spent much of the past 10 years being an outspoken advocate for religious understanding. He speaks at events, and to schools about his faith and his appreciation of America.

He helped make a documentary, called A Dream in Doubt, as a way to tell his story to a broader audience and hopefully forge better understanding of cultures.

But it’s sometimes been a hard fight, even 10 years later.

He says he still occasionally gets vulgar comments from people calling him nasty names.

“I try to never let that go, I will go up to the person and say, ‘Listen, talk to me, what is your idea of America? I am an American too, you know?’” Rana said.

He doesn’t do it to be confrontational, but rather to try to open lines of communication to educate people for better understanding.

And an Arizona state legislator, Rep. John Kavanagh, sponsored a bill that passed the state legislature that could have, among other things, removed Balbir’s name off the Phoenix state 9/11 memorial, arguing Balbir was not really a victim of 9/11.

It was controversial, but earlier this year Arizona Republican Governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed the bill.

Kavanaugh later apologised to Balbir’s family.

(Click here to watch my video report from Phoenix exploring this issue in more depth with Jim Walsh, a reporter at the Arizona Republic who has done extensive reporting on the Singh Sodhi case)

The plaque that sits at the family gas station where Balbir was killed on September, 2001. [Photo Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera] 

Rana tells me the past 10 years have reaffirmed his esteem in what he calls American ideals.

On my last day in Phoenix working on this story, something totally unexpected happened.

After filming outside of the Mesa Star Convenience Store where Balbir was killed, we put our equipment in the back of the car and went inside to get a cold soda.

While at the soda dispenser machine I saw a framed picture of Balbir on the wall, and I stood and stared at it for several seconds.

A chubby teenage blonde kid – maybe 18 or 19 years old – was near me holding a skateboard. He saw me gazing at the picture of Balbir. He didn’t know I was a journalist.

“He was a good guy,” the kid said to me without me asking. He then motions to the picture of Balbir.

“You knew him?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah, he used to give candy to the kids. We all liked him a lot. A really good guy.”

Then the kid said “see ya later,” takes his Big Gulp, and skates off down the street.

Taking with him the memory of the good guy with the beard and turban.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel