YUBA CITY: With Friday marking the second month of the Oak Creek Sikh Temple massacre on August 5, the Punjabi community of Yuba City (northern California) has a lesson for Sikhs elsewhere in the US: There is no alternative to reaching out to the common American to raise awareness about their religion and culture.
Having dinner and posing for photos with American leaders is fine, but the common American won’t know who the Sikhs are unless they reach out to them at the local level.
Indeed, the 15,000-strong Punjabi community in this northern California city of 65,000 people is so deeply integrated with the mainstream that for the first time the city elected a Sikh – Kash Gill – its mayor in 2009.
“It was a huge achievement not only for me but also for the whole Punjabi community. It made headlines worldwide. My achievement was the results of our efforts to become involved in the (decision-making) process. Once people know you, they trust you,’’ says Gill.
“This is the result of our efforts to reach out to the mainstream community and build bridges,’’ says Dr Jasbir Singh Kang who was one of the young Punjabi professionals to start initiatives about two decades ago to promote understanding with the mainstream.
Adds Tejinder Mann, who is a member of the Yuba City council, “Our efforts to educate the American people that Sikh values are compatible with American values have paid off. The Sikhs elsewhere in America should try to be good neighbours and educate their neighbours about their religion and culture. That’s the way to go.’’
Dr Kang says till the late 1980s the local Punjabi community was restricted to farming. Their social and religious activities were also centred around their gurdwaras and they had little interaction with the white community.
To change things, Dr Kang, Mann and like-minded people got together to form the Punjabi American Heritage Society in 1993.
“We wanted to create better understanding about the Punjabis among the mainstream, promote dialogue and raise awareness about who we are. We started off with a Teachers’ Appreciation Evening where we helped teachers understand our religion, culture and values so that they could better connect with Sikh students in classroom. They appreciated our initiative,’’ says Dr Kang who is an alumnus of the Patiala Medical College.
The Punjabi American Heritage Society also started a TV show on the local cable channel to discuss issues facing the Sikh community.
“These TV debates galvanized the community and gurdwaras about their problems. We also made presentations to the Yuba City Unified School District to start Punjabi as a subject in schools. Our demand was accepted and Punjabi was introduced in schools in 1994,’’ says Dr Kang.
Then the Punjabi American Heritage Society started the Punjabi-American Festival in 1995.
“Again, the idea was to showcase our culture and traditions – Bhangra, Gidha, music, cuisine and traditional dresses – to the mainstream and our next generation. Over the years, the festival has grown into a big annual event attracting thousands of people from far and wide.’’
At this year’s festival, the Punjabi community honoured families of the three US soldiers killed in Afghanistan – Marine Corporal Gurpreet Singh, Specialist Rueben Lopez and Specialist Chase Marta – as shown in the top picture.
“It was our tribute to these brave men who died in service of our country and recognize the sacrifices of the families they left behind,’‘says Dr Kang.
Because of the contribution of the Sikhs, the local Community Memorial Museum of Sutter County opened a multimedia permanent exhibit on the Sikhs called `Becoming American’ earlier this year.
“The exhibit is the story of Punjabis in America and their hardships since their arrival in California in the early twentieth century. It tells the story of our contribution to America. It tells that we are an American story,” says Kang.
Apart from these initiatives, the Punjabi American Heritage Society has also funded various projects, including documentaries `Sikhs in America’ and `Meet the Sikhs’ by the PBS network.
“We are proud that `Meet the Sikhs’ has been approved by the school district board as educational material for teaching purposes. This is a big thing,’’ says Dr Kang whom the PBS honoured with the Unsung Hero award.
Thanks to the efforts of Yuba City Sikh leaders to reach out to the mainstream, the influence of the Sikh community has increased by leaps and bounds over the years.
From farming, the Punjabis of Yuba City have diversified into businesses, real estate, export-import, hotels and other businesses. The city’s four gurdwaras, one mosque, one Punjabi church and a temple are a testimony to the vibrancy of the Punjabi community in this city.
And not to forget that Yuba City pioneered North America’s biggest Sikh parade to celebrate the installation of the Sikh holy book of the Guru Granth.
Indeed, Yuba City is a shining example of how the Sikhs have integrated with the mainstream.
This is what the Sikhs elsewhere in the US should do, says former mayor Kash Gill. “You cannot just sit on the sidelines and expect someone to change things for you. You have to reach out and get involved in the process.’’
Adds Council member Tejinder Mann, “The identity issue has been a problem with the American Sikhs since 1979 when the American hostage crisis in Iran led people to think that Sikhs were Muslims because they had long beards like the Ayatollah Khomeini. Teaching the Americans about your religion and culture is a long-drawn process, and the Sikhs have to reach out to others to educate their neighbours about their religion.’’
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