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A New Anti-Bullying Campaign Brings Hope for Sikhs in the US

An anti-bullying campaign with the White House involved is expected to bring about substantial change.

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On Tuesday, October 21, the Sikh Coalition successfully launched a national anti–bullying campaign in partnership with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

This campaign seeks to raise awareness about bullying faced by children in America; especially Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Sikhs, Muslims, LGBTs and immigrants.

The campaign introduces the #ActToChange website which features blogs, resources and video testimonials, about bullying, from celebrities, athletes and community members, in multiple languages.

The Sikh Coalition, an organisation that was formed after the September 2001 attacks were all too familiar with the bullying of Sikh kids.

The website has incidents, documented over years, which fit into the ugly pattern of attacks on Sikhs because people confuse their beards and turbans with that of Muslim terrorists.

There were reports of several shocking attacks on Sikh kids who had their hair cut off or their turbans pushed off their heads. In one case, a Sikh student had his head shoved into a toilet.

An anti-bullying campaign with the White House involved is expected to bring about substantial change.
Sikh kids protesting against bullying. (Courtesy: The Sikh Coalition)
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Harjot Kaur, 24, a development manager at the organisation has spent years on studying and filing cases of bullying.

We have come a long way in raising awareness on bullying, which was, for a very long time, seen as a rite of passage. But today we are showing it as it is. It’s unwanted, hurtful, aggressive behaviour towards another. We are teaching our kids to take the power back into their hands and say no more.

Harjot Kaur, Development Manager, The Sikh Coalition

Kaur said they watched helplessly after the 9/11 attacks as Sikh kids were “physically beaten, mentally tortured and turned into targets of hate because of the articles of their faith.”

A lot of these kids did not want to be approached either by the organisation or the media. There was a very famous incident of a Sikh kid being harassed on a bus. While the kid videotaped the incident, which went viral, his parents refused to speak publicly.

But there were some that the organisation was able to save.

Here is one such story:

For Japjee Singh, now 17 and in the eleventh grade, the bullying started when he was in the second grade.

An anti-bullying campaign with the White House involved is expected to bring about substantial change.
Japjee Singh narrates his story to the Congress. (Courtesy: The Sikh Coalition)

As a Sikh kid, he wore a patka and the American kids would crowd around him, taunting him with the same question over and over again.

“What’s that on your head?” with variations of “Is that a tomato? A cheeseball? A potato? A bomb.”

Or the more hurtful ones like “Are you a girl or a boy?” “Why don’t you go back to your country?” “Do you know you smell of curry?”

The cruelty escalated into physical incidents. One day when the kids were playing kickball, they made Singh a target.

A kid with a small build, Singh was hit multiple times with the ball before the teacher intervened. Then in the eighth grade came the incident which his sister Aasees Kaur, 20, describes as the “worst of the worst”.

On October 4, 2012, Japjee Singh was brutally assaulted on the school grounds in Atlanta, Georgia by another eighth grader, who was egged on by those watching.

Singh had his nose broken, his jaw dislocated and his cheek bones were unattached.

As he lay on the floor, with a bloodied face, Kaur recalled, “It broke our parents’ hearts to see how the kids displayed a total lack of compassion as they screamed at him, “Go back to your country, look at the trouble you are causing here.”

Singh’s parents Pejinder Singh, 57, and Harpreet Kaur, 51, declined to press criminal charges.

The school suspended the offender for a few days. Aasees said the student showed no remorse and never apologised. The explanation he gave on why he attacked Singh was, “Because I felt like it”.

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After that Aasees said “something in her brother shifted. He began to switch away from his faith and from his identify.”

When Singh slid into depression, worrying the family. His sister then approached the Sikh Coalition.

The organisation worked on Singh’s case and secured a landmark settlement with the Georgia school to address bullying based on religion and national origin.

The organisation had also been instrumental in securing justice in another very disturbing case, that of Jagmohan Singh Premi whom they had represented legally.

The Coalition heard Aasees’ plea and with their strong support Singh began to change. He grew more confident and emerged as an advocate against bullying. He testified before Congress and he spoke at gurudwaras and public meetings to kids and urged them to stand up to bullies.

Singh has decided to discontinue speaking with the media because every time he does he gets negative attention. But he continues to be active and Aasees has emerged as the narrator of their story.

We are hopeful that the telling people our story will bring about change. Our society will be more aware that bullying causes damage and pain to kids and their families. This kind of behaviour must not be tolerated. We want all kids to stand up and say no to bullying today.

Aasees Kaur, Japjee Singh’s Sister

(Sonia Chopra is a freelance journalist based in the US.)

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