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Bay Area Sikhs Face Hate Crimes

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New report finds frequent discrimination and physical attacks against members of the religion

Bay Area Sikhs are the frequent targets of hate crimes, including physical attacks and vandalism, a recent report by the Sikh Coalition has found.

According to the report, young Sikh boys in particular are the victims of harassment and bullying. Seventy-four percent of turbaned boys in the Bay Area suffer bias-based harassment, it found.

The Sikh Coalition, a national civil rights advocacy organization for Sikhs, surveyed 1,370 Sikhs – 827 adults and 543 youth – in the nine counties of the Bay Area. The data was gathered in focus groups, as well as through interviews at local community centers, schools, universities and places of worship.

Neha Singh, the western regional director of the coalition, said the survey was conducted to assess what issues were affecting the local community. The group opened a branch in Fremont two years ago.

The coalition was surprised to find high rates of discrimination in areas with large concentrations of South Asians.

The highest rates of harassment and teasing were reported in Alameda and Santa Clara counties. At the Fremont Unified School District, 55 percent of Sikh youth said they had been harassed. And at the New Haven Unified School District, which serves students in Union City and parts of Hayward, 54 percent reported harassment. In Alameda County, 86 percent of Sikh boys surveyed said they had been targets of racial or religious harassment in school.

The report tells the story of Bay Area middle-school student who said he was ridiculed, physically threatened and that his “patka,” a Sikh head covering for young boys, was ripped off his head.

“They asked me, ‘were you born on 9/11 holding a rocket launcher,” said the boy, whose real name was not disclosed.

"As a mother, I will repent for the rest of my life that I cannot bring back my son's childhood and say, 'Go have fun with your friends. Enjoy the school picnic'," Upinder Kaur, the mother of child who had been bullied, told the researchers.

Sikh adults are also often the victims of name-calling and harassment. According to the report, 38 percent of Sikhs surveyed had been called names such as "terrorist" or "towel-head." Bhupinder Singh, a Bay Area taxi driver profiled in the report, said he’s called "Bin Laden" on a regular basis.

"[A]t night is when the problems start happening for taxi drivers,” Singh said in the report. “People are drunk and the thoughts and feelings that they have been hiding come out."

One out of 10 Sikhs surveyed in the report said they had been victims of hate crimes. Thirty-two percent of them said their property had been vandalized and 68 percent said they had been physically attacked.

According to an annual FBI report, in 2009, 1,015 hate crimes were reported in California, of which 789 were categorized as race, ethnicity or religion-related.

Many Sikhs say the terrorist attack of 9-11 was the catalyst for this kind of discrimination. And while direct violence is down in the 10 years since then, the bias and suspicion around Sikhs is becoming “more entrenched,” said Singh of the coalition.

Sikhs are a religious group originating from the Punjab region of South Asia. In accordance with the Sikh faith, many Sikhs wear turbans and do not cut their hair. The coalition says that many people are confusing them with the recurring media images of Taliban, who are often pictured wearing turbans and beards.

"It's a complete visual problem," said Singh.

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