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Sikhs launch campaign to educate NE Queens

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The members of the Sikh temple in Bellerose are on a mission. They want to educate their neighbors, community and city about themselves as well as their religion and let everyone know that they are Americans.

The borough’s Sikh population has been hit hard since the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11. Some Queens residents as well as people across the country have associated them and the turbans they wear with the Taliban, the Islamic regime in Afghanistan that is harboring Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the assault.

“Whatever you see we are doing is for our kids,” said Pritpal Singh Walia of New Hyde Park and a member of the temple. “We have to get out and tell people that our children were born here, live here and this is their country. Our children keep asking why do people discriminate against us? We are Americans.”

He is also an American citizen, but unlike his children he was born in India and suffered through the slaughter of Sikhs in 1984 after Indira Gandhi, the president of India, was killed by her Sikh bodyguard. He does not want his children to have to face any type of racism.

After Gandhi was assassinated because she had ordered an attack on the religion’s holiest site, the Golden Temple of Amritsar, 20,000 Indian Sikhs were subsequently killed. For Sikhs around the world, the Golden Temple is viewed with the same reverence as the Vatican is for Catholics.

“We are here now,” said Satnam Singh Parhar, another member of the temple. “It is our motherland. The kids don’t know anything else.”

The temple’s members have hit the streets with fliers, which explain who they are and describe their religion. They tell people that Sikhs come from northern India in the Punjab region and their religion is the fifth largest in the world after Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

The flier also spells out that Sikhs — who can be found all over the world — are followers of Guru Nanak, the founder of the religion. Sikhism and Islam are completely independent religions with almost nothing in common.

In the little more than three weeks since the attack, there have been at least nine bias attacks on Sikhs living in the borough, according to the Sikh anti-defamation league. The majority of incidents have taken place in Richmond Hill, which is home to the majority of Queens’ Sikhs.

Throughout the country there have been hundreds of reported bias incidents, including the killing of a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz.

Walia, who does not wear a turban and looks like any middle- class American, said most of the time when he walks down the street everything is fine. But there have been times since the attack that people have cast distrusting looks at him.

“People have known us for years and years and now when we see them we know, they are suspicious of us,” Parhar said. “And sometimes when we say hello, they don’t even answer us back.”

The Bellerose temple — the Gurdwara Sant Sagar at 242-25 Braddock Ave. — was built in 1997 in a building that housed a motorcycle repair shop. The gurdwara, or temple, one of 11 in Queens, draws its congregation from Floral Park, Bellerose, Queens Village, New Hyde Park, Glen Oaks and Long Island.

The Gurdwara Sant Sagar holds prayer sessions twice a day, but its big services are Friday evening and Sunday mornings when more than 300 Sikhs come to pray. In addition to the services, the temple offers language classes for children and serves a free lunch everyday for anyone who is hungry and stops in.

In order to help teach the community about Sikhs and their religion, the members of the temple have been going to neighborhood Catholic churches and inviting to the Gurdwara to talk and learn about each other’s religion.

Sikhism is based on caring, Parhar said. If a person is in trouble or having a hard time, a Sikh will come to their aid.

“For us our goal is to protect the unprotected,” Walia said. “We will always be there to care and to help others.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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