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.