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Boro Sikhs launch effort to educate neighbors, city

In response to a wave of attacks against Sikhs across the city and country, a group of young Richmond Hill Sikhs, armed with thousands of brochures, has organized a massive information campaign to educate the public about their religion.

“Since Sept. 11, I realized people don’t know who we are,” said Pritpal Singh, a computer consultant who came up with the idea for the campaign.

Just blocks from his Richmond Hill home, a 66-year-old Sikh man was beaten with a baseball bat, a 24-year-old Sikh man was assaulted with a metal chair and a 58-year-old Sikh man was brutally stabbed.

“I assumed everybody knows who I am,” said Singh. “But now I know it’s time to inform our neighbors about who we are.”

Every morning and evening for the past month and a half, volunteers have fanned out at subway stations across the city to distribute a brochure that explains where Sikhs come from and what they believe in. The entire campaign has been funded out of the pockets of the volunteers, most of whom are 18 to 35 years old, and through donations from local Sikh temples called gurdwaras.

Thus far, more than 200,000 pamphlets have been handed out, including 50,000 that were translated into Spanish.

“Since Sept. 11, Sikhs, like other Americans have been grappling with grief and fear,” the brochure reads. “But their fear is not only about another assault from outside. Many Sikhs have become victims of hate crimes because of their appearance.”

Harpreet Singh Toor, a trustee of the Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hill, said Sikhs are being targeted solely because their long beards and turbans remind people of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi national suspected of masterminding the Sept. 11 assaults.

“We are being linked to Osama bin Laden because he looks a little bit like us,” said Singh Toor.

Nationally, more than 200 Sikhs have been attacked since Sept. 11 according to U.S. Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who sponsored a resolution condemning violence and bigotry against Sikhs that was approved by the House of Representatives Oct. 24.

Despite accounting for only one-sixth of 1 percent of the entire U.S. population, Sikhs have been the target of violence and other hate crimes more than any other single group in the country.

“We’ve been attacked from outside and have to make sure we don’t attack from within,” said Pritpal Singh.

The handout he designed expresses gratitude to the rescue workers who risked or sacrificed their lives to save others and explains the history and core beliefs of the Sikh religion.

Founded by Guru Nanak in the Punjab region of India in the late 15th century, Sikhism claims about 500,000 followers in the United States and has grown to be the world’s fifth-largest religion after Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Sikhs believe strongly in the equality of men and women, reject the caste system and run “free kitchens” that feed the hungry.

The public information campaign has expanded from subway stations to the city’s yellow taxi cabs. “Every Sikh cab driver has one,” said Rajpal Singh, a volunteer for the group. In the next month, the volunteers will bring their message to the city’s public schools, where they plan to conduct workshops on diversity.

Rajpal Singh said the effort has been a resounding success. He said people who receive the leaflet at subway stations often return asking for extra brochures to hand out to co-workers. Calls have come from as far as Canada, Germany and England requesting copies, he said.

Kuljit Singh, who was handing out brochures at the Junction Boulevard subway stop in Jackson Heights Monday morning, said the material has had an impact.

“People who give me looks come back and apologize and start talking to me after they read what we have to say,” he said. “They even hug me. You can tell it’s making some sort of difference.”

Rajpal Singh said he hands out about 400 leaflets the first day he is at a particular location, but by the second day the number increases to 2,000.

“We went to Parsons Boulevard one morning and people were staring,” he said. “I was scared. I thought they would beat me. One woman said ‘you terrorist.’”

The next day, he said, the same woman came back and apologized. “She came over to me and said ‘we are sorry. We really misunderstood you. We are really proud of you. We welcome you in this country.’”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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