- More than 100 people gathered 20 years after his murder at the gas station which the Sikh American ran, as speakers remembered him, and urged Americans to not tolerate hate and embrace peace and tolerance.
Twenty years after he became the first victim of hate crime post the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, more than 100 people gathered last week in Mesa, Arizona, to honor Balbir Singh Sodhi. The gas station which the Sikh American ran, was transformed into a memorial on Sept. 15, as speakers remembered him and placed flowers by his photo.
It was at the same spot that he was shot to death by Frank Silva Roque, a white aircraft mechanic who mistook Sodhi to be Muslim and murdered him outside the gas station he ran on Sept. 15, 2001. At the time, Sodhi was planting flowers outside the Mesa Star Food Mart. That same day, a White supremacist killed Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani Muslim and father of four daughters, at his Dallas convenience store.
NBC said, “Balbir Singh Sodhi became the first documented hate crime casualty of an avalanche of bias incidents targeting South Asian and Muslim communities that followed.”
According to a 2013 report by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 70 percent of Americans could not identify a Sikh man in a picture as Sikh, and they tended to associate turbans with Osama bin Laden more so than with any other Muslim or Sikh names offered in the survey.
Balbir Singh Sodhi’s brother, Rana Singh Sodhi, has spent the past 20 years telling his brother’s story, which has taken him on a journey across the state and across the country. “Today helped me remember what I lost 20 years ago,” Sodhi told the gathering at the Sept. 15 memorial, per azcentral.com. “I have a hope and I have a dream that this world will be without hate one day. I feel like his life, his death, he has become a beacon.” He told NBC that he will continue the work his brother started 20 years ago to spread awareness about Sikhs and Sikhism. “I feel like he gave me the mission.”
Speakers at the Sept. 15 memorial remembered Sodhi and urged Americans to not tolerate hate and embrace peace and tolerance. Erika Moritsugu, a deputy assistant to Biden, read aloud a message from the president. “ Our nation is at its best when we treat each other with kindness and decency,” she said. “For our country and for our future, we cannot be complicit … we can make real the promise of a more just and equitable America.”
Valerie Kaur, a filmmaker and activist who made a documentary about hate crime after Sodhi’s murder, has spent two decades with his family. At the memorial, she spoke of how Sodhi “fled India because of the religious persecution that led to Sikhs being lynched and burned alive,” per azcentral.com. Sodhi came to the U.S. “to provide for his family and keep them safe,” Kaur said. A devout Sikh, Sodhi cared for the people of Mesa when they came to his convenience store, she told the gathering.
Before her address, she tweeted: “20 yrs ago today a Sikh father #BalbirSodhi was the 1st person killed in hate violence after 9/11. He was targeted for his turban—his commitment to love all humanity. What if we made the vision that he died for our North Star?”
Sodhi’s granddaughter and Mesa Mayor John Giles and a director from Gov. Doug Ducey’s office also spoke.
According to a CNN profile, Sodhi was born in India in 1949 and grew up in a small village in the Kapurthala district of Punjab, the third oldest of 11 children. He came from a family of farmers and businessmen and owned a fabric shop. “Like many other Sikh families, members of the Sodhi clan left India after 1984,” CNN said. He ended up in California, working at a 7-Eleven, a clothing shop and as a cab driver, before settling in the Phoenix area to open his gas station.
The Sept. 15 memorial was organized by the Sikh Coalition. “Among attendees at the memorial was Sikh Coalition executive director Satjeet Kaur. “It was our honor and privilege to join the Sodhi family, the Arizona Sangat, and so many friends and allies from different faith backgrounds for this important event,” Kaur said in a coalition press release. “In gathering to further Balbirji’s legacy of kindness, generosity, and understanding among all, we were also able to recognize all those we’ve lost to hate in the past 20 years–while celebrating the solidarity and advocacy that has helped our communities stay resilient in the face of these challenges.”
Several lawmakers and Sikh Americans took to Twitter to remember and honor Balbir Singh Sodhi.
“Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered in Mesa 20 years ago in a horrific hate crime just days after 9/11,” read a tweet from Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.). “As we honor his memory, it’s important that we stand united against bigotry. Hate has no place in Arizona.”
“Twenty years ago, Sikh American Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered in the first post 9/11 hate crime,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) tweeted. He was shot to death while planting flowers outside his gas station in Mesa, Arizona, by a man who said he wanted to ‘go out and shoot some towel-heads.’”
Joining Durbin, his colleague Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) tweeted: “20 years ago today, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American, was murdered for his appearance. His death marked the first deadly post-9/11 hate crime. Today and every day, let’s stand united with our Sikh community in Ohio and reject hate and discrimination.”
Reps Val Demings of Florida and Grace Meng of New York also tweeted messages of support.
“Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American, was killed 20 years ago today,” tweeted Demings. “He was the first victim of a post-9/11 hate crime. I’m thinking of him today as we work to reject hate and create a future with liberty, justice, and safety for all.”
A tweet from Meng read: “20 years ago, father & small business owner Balbir Singh Sodhi became the first person killed in a hate crime after 9/11. Today, we honor his memory & the memory of all those we lost to hate by continuing to stand against racism & discrimination.”
Attorney Harmeet K. Dhillon, former vice chairwoman of the California Republican Party, also took to Twitter. “Let’s remember Balbir Singh Sodhi today, and his family and legacy. An immigrant family like my own, targeted by haters after 9/11. May this hatred for our fellow man and woman one day be eradicated from this earth.”
“20 years ago, Balbir Singh Sodhi became the person killed in a hate crime in post-9/11 America,” tweeted Sikh scholar and activist Simran Jeet Singh. “Sodhi’s killer saw his Sikh identity and presumed him an enemy. Honor his life by learning about different cultures and becoming anti-racist. Here are three things you can do now.
Attorney and author Shelly Anand tweeted: “The death of Balbir Singh Sodhi had a chilling effect for South Asian communities across the United States. We quickly learned that we were targets – I remember my parents immediately calling Sikh Uncles in our Punjabi community, telling them to stay safe, to stay home.”
(Photos, courtesy The Sikh Coalition)