We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future

by Deepa Iyer

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It was early on a Sunday morning and Paramjit Kaur Saini was going about her morning routine. Her sons, twenty-year-old Kamal Singh Saini and eighteen-year-old Harpreet Singh Saini, wanted to sleep in a little longer, so Paramjit set out on her own to the local gurdwara, the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Paramjit was a familiar presence at the gurdwara, which had become a second home to her family and to many other Sikhs in Oak Creek, a small city located in the outskirts of Milwaukee. The gurdwara, built in 2007 on thirteen acres of land by Sikh immigrant families, sits on South Howell Street just a few miles from the Milwaukee airport and a short distance from a typical strip mall. On weekends, Sikh families gathered at the gurdwara to pray and connect with one another. The dining hall was filled with the sounds of people socializing and children laughing during langar, a free meal offered to anyone who came to the gurdwara. Kamal and Harpreet usually hung out with their friends and played football on Sundays at the gurdwara, while their mother helped in the kitchen and prayer hall.

But August 5, 2012, would not turn out to be a normal Sunday for Paramjit’s family or for the Oak Creek community.

Soon after his mother had left the house, news reached Kamal that people inside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin were in danger. Details were scarce, and, panic-stricken, Kamal rushed to the gurdwara to find that law enforcement vehicles had blocked off the driveway. Authorities asked Kamal to wait across the street in the parking lot of the classic lanes bowling alley, where he joined others also anxiously searching for information.

In the parking lot that day, Kamal met Mandeep Kaur, who had been on her way to the Oak Creek gurdwara to teach Punjabi language classes when she heard sirens and saw emergency vehicles heading in the same direction.

While waiting for information, Mandeep, Kamal, and others speculated about what might be happening inside the gurdwara. They wondered whether a dispute between community members had gone awry. Then Mandeep’s close friend Kirandeep received a call from her father, who was inside the gurdwara. He whispered to her that he was hiding in the pantry of the kitchen because he had heard gunshots. He was one of around twenty-five people huddled, terrified, among bags of rice and fresh vegetables. Kirandeep’s father told her not to come to the gurdwara under any circumstances.

As the day wore on, many of the people who had been inside were allowed to leave, and a fuller picture began to emerge about the rampage that had occurred inside the gurdwara that Sunday morning. Not seeing his mother and becoming increasingly anxious about her safety, Kamal left the parking lot. He called his friends, and together they went from hospital to hospital, hoping that Paramjit had been brought to one.

It would be a full eleven hours before authorities finally notified Kamal that his mother had been fatally shot inside the gurdwara. “When I first found out, I passed out,” Kamal told me. “I woke up in an ambulance and immediately thought of my little brother. Telling him was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

This wasn’t the future that Paramjit had envisioned for her family when she and her two sons moved to America from India in 2004 to join her husband, who owned a number of gas stations in Wisconsin. It wasn’t the life that Paramjit had planned to build when she mustered up the courage a few years later to begin working at BD Medical, a factory in a nearby town. “She used to be a housewife for a few years after we moved here because she had a problem with English,” Kamal remembered, “but it’s funny how she got the job because she had to do a phone interview. She was afraid they would call while we were in school and she wouldn’t understand what they were saying. So it happened to be that the day she got the call, I was home. She put it on speaker and they kept asking her questions and I kept translating for her.” With Kamal’s assistance, Paramjit passed the interview and started her job as an inspector at the medical factory, testing syringes to make sure that they did not have any cracks in them.

Paramjit’s determination to care for her family is a point of deep pride for Kamal and Harpreet. Forty-five days after his mother was killed, Harpreet spoke about her in testimony before the U.S. Senate. He said, “My mother was a brilliant woman, a reasonable woman. everyone knew she was smart, but she never had the chance to get a formal education. She couldn’t. As a hard-working immigrant, she had to work long hours to feed her family, to get her sons educated, and help us achieve our American dreams. This was more important to her than anything else. But now she is gone. Because of a man who hated her because she wasn’t his color? His religion? She was an American. And this was not our American dream.

During the first twenty-four hours, news about what had transpired inside the gurdwara trickled out slowly. Around 10:20 a.m. on August 5, forty-year-old Wade Michael page, armed with a nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol, had begun his murderous rampage at the Oak Creek gurdwara. In the gurdwara parking lot, Page shot and killed forty-one-year-old Sita Singh, a father of four, and his brother, forty-nine-year-old Ranjit Singh. After entering the building, Page took aim first at Suveg Singh, an eighty-four-year-old grandfather who usually sat in the lobby to greet people as they arrived at the gurdwara. He then shot and killed forty-one-year-old Paramjit kaur Saini inside the prayer hall before proceeding down a narrow hallway, where he shot thirty-nine-year-old Prakash Singh, an assistant priest at the gurdwara whose wife and two children had arrived from India just a month before to join him in Oak Creek. Page then shot and killed sixty-five-year-old Satwant Singh Kaleka, the president of the gurdwara and one of its founders. He also severely wounded sixty-five-year-old Punjab Singh, a visiting religious scholar who had joined the gurdwara community just four days before. In the midst of this shooting spree, several people were injured.

Page then entered the room where the kitchen and pantry were located. He pursued people rushing toward an exit and found himself in the parking lot, where he faced Lieutenant Brian Murphy, an officer with the Oak Creek police department. In the exchange of gunshots that followed, twelve bullets entered Murphy’s body. Sam Lenda, a trained SWAT officer and marksman, arrived to provide backup. The entire scene in the parking lot took place in just six minutes before Page fatally shot himself in the head. Murphy, who endured surgery on his neck, voice box, and hands, survived.

Later in the day, city officials revealed the names of the six victims and the name of the perpetrator. For many, it was unclear in those early hours whether what had happened inside the gurdwara was another tragic incident of gun violence (the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting had occurred less than a month earlier), a hate crime, or both. Those of us working with South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh immigrant communities had little doubt about the nature of the tragedy. It was a hate crime, another violent incident in the continuum of backlash targeting South Asians, Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs since 9/11.

I arrived in Oak Creek five days after the massacre occurred to pay my respects at the memorial for the six victims of the tragedy. As I approached Oak Creek High School, the site of the memorial service, I could see hundreds of people waiting in line outside. People of all races and faiths had gathered in the quintessential American space—a high school gymnasium—to mourn the six Sikh immigrants who had lost their lives to hate violence in America’s heartland. The gym echoed with the spontaneous call-and-response of “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akaal” (a traditional shout of triumph and victory) from the Sikhs in the audience.

As the memorial program began, we were asked to pay our respects to the victims by lining up to view the caskets. I tried to prepare myself for looking into the faces of the six innocent people who had lost their lives, but I was even more shaken as I realized that next to each casket stood their children and loved ones. What do you say to comfort a child who has lost a parent in an act of hate? Next to Satwant Singh Kaleka’s casket stood his two adult sons, Amardeep and Pardeep, who would become leading national voices in efforts to end gun and hate violence. Flanking Ranjit Singh’s casket was his fourteen-year-old son, Gurvinder Singh. Next to Paramjit Kaur’s casket stood Kamal and Harpreet. I murmured the only words of comfort and reassurance that I could muster: Our community will stand by you. I believed them fully in my heart, but I also knew that they could provide little solace at this time.

As I returned to my seat, I saw Jasjit Singh and Amardeep Singh, two Sikh American leaders who had become a visible presence in Oak Creek since the tragedy. Our embraces spoke volumes. How could this have happened again? How can our community bear it? What more could have been done to prevent this massacre from occurring?

We would ask ourselves these questions for months afterward.

Copyright © 2015, 2017 by Deepa Iyer. This excerpt originally appeared in We Too Sing America, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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