Remember Oak Creek – They Still Stood Strong

– Sus Ri Kaal – Salaam Alaaaikum – Namaste –

When I was 8 years old, my Papa died before my eyes. I was so confused why he left me. I used to ask every Sardarji (turban wearing religious elder) I walked past if they knew my Papa, if he told them any jokes, or if he mentioned me. The image of a Sardarji is one of love, service, and compassion.

Every day that has passed since 9/11, I feel as though I am barely holding onto the many parts of my identity, my community.. and with every story on social media of an uncle being beaten up or killed — of a store being vandalized or mosques being burnt — I feel like those same parts are slipping from my shaking grasp. The constant vicarious trauma from the media and its ongoing forms of PTSD shake me.

One more part of me, one more piece of safety slips from me with every news update, praying it is not targeting a Sikh or Muslim. With every 9/11 remembrance over the past 16 years reminds me of Balbir Singh being shot to death after he was looking to buy flags for his store. He was an immigrant who wanted a better life for his family, working hard within the American Dream only to be shot cold in a business he started from nothing just days after 9/11. I remember the fear that day, for us to quickly buy any flag sticker, stand, cloth and adorn it on our residence and vehicles. It was terrifying how quickly this fear swept across the nation. Was his flag not up fast enough? We had to PROVE we are American, we had to LABEL ourselves as American, why were we ever put in that situation?

This past weekend I flew out to Oak Creek on a red eye. I was not expecting to go, but I felt I had to, as a Sardarji ka beta (daughter of a turban wearing religious elder). I had to. At 8am I checked into the hotel, loaded my backpack up with a second change of clothes and a hoodie not knowing what to expect with Midwest weather. I got into the Uber with a punjabi uncle who shared how close he was to the people who died. We talked about my father, about how hard it is to be brown in America – but he reminded me that the love of the community is what will get us through all the hard times. I went into the temple, performed muthna taaknaa (respectful prayer) and ate the parshaad (holy sweets) looking at this small prayer hall with eccentric pink and gold, full of love. I found myself in tears, this was where people had died, where Papas were last seen, where lives had transformed forever. There was blood on this carpet once. I saw the bullet hole in the door they had left as a reminder to people of their perseverance.

I walked into the lungar hall (communal food hall) and saw all the amazing aunties prepping the free food for the 5K guests tomorrow and the weekend of 48 hour prayer. They were laughing, smiling and making sure I had one of everything they made. They did not know me, but they had so much care for me. I sat down next to a younger girl who was personally affected by the death of her father and we talked about how losing your father can transform your life. I shared the milestones I had that I found different ways to memorialize my Papa – my high school graduation, my college graduation, and soon how I will honor him when I marry Naseer. I told her how strong she was to have gone through something so hard and still be able to even step foot into the Gurdwara and do hours of charity work here, but told her she never needed to be put in a situation to need to persevere. So many miles apart and we were connected through loss. I began talking to all of the people in the Gurdwara, all the aunties, the uncles – labored for hours in the kitchen helping them do seva, wiped the floors, threw the trash – and drank bottomless chai.

Throughout the weekend I could feel outsiders asking details about where the aunties and children were when their husband, wife, mother and father died, did they die in front of them, how was the funeral, was their blood on the carpet? My heart sank, I felt the need to protect these people who I just met hours ago. The memorial must have been so hard on them, and then with the questions it must have been so much harder. People want to know the exotic investigative side of Oak Creek.

However, we should ask them about their community, ask them how non-Sikhs supported them, how it was going back inside the temple, how did they get the courage to step back in — what were their favorite memories of their father and mothers? What is their favorite photo? If they could say something to them now, what would they say?

I took a step back and I realized I am a trauma, grief and loss therapist – and not everyone responds that way. I don’t want Oak Creek to be seen as a tragedy, it is a story of not just resilience but perseverance, that when they lost their entire sense of safety, they still stood strong and found the courage to continue leading the lives they hoped for.

When I was leaving for my flight, all of the aunties came and hugged me and prayed I had a safe journey. They loaded me up with six bags of Samosas, a container of snacks, two bags of burfee, and chips. There is so much love in Oak Creek, they need to be remembered for how compassionately the community came together.. of how America should act – not remember it as a scene of a crime.

It was hard to capture the love and connection I felt amidst the mourning of their loved ones, so felt it was only appropriate to create a video to help you enter the weekend with me.

Since 9/11 — every Sikh uncle I pass, I take a moment and make a duaa for them:

“May Rab protect them from the injustices of the world”
May they get home safely without being killed.
May Rab give them courage when the micro aggressions and verbal assault is too hard.
May someone not use their ruby turban as a trigger for protecting America.
May their children never have to have a day without their Papa.”

Ameen.

Rabhi is a trauma therapist, activist, ethnographic researcher, and former YLI fellow. As a fellow, Rabhi led the largest art as activism event in UCLA’s history for domestic violence and bullying awareness. With publications in three different outlets, as a trauma therapist, she has worked with grief and trauma for 8 years now. As an ethnographic researcher at UCLA and Pepperdine, she led the way for research on the power of storytelling for Sept 11th Vicarious Trauma – PTSD Islamophobia survivors – further deconstructing the Media’s War on Islam. Her research findings indicate the power of shared storytelling supports normalization and thus allows for a huge shift in the compassion and healing of communities. Rabhi currently works at CAIR-LA further advocating the basic human rights for her AMEMSA sisters and brothers.