Two and a Half Meters of Trust and Peace

The Sikh community attempts to demystify its distinct physical appearance

A sea of turbans

As many New Yorkers celebrated Easter and Passover, followers of  Sikhism, celebrated Baisakhi, the day Sikhs received their unique identity nearly 300 years ago, with an unusual event: They showed visitors to Times Square on Saturday how to tie turbans, the distinct symbol of their religion and since 9/11, the cause of racism against many of them in the United States.

“We want New Yorkers to know that the Sikh turban is a mark of safety not fear,” said Bobby Sidana, an organizer of the Turban Day event. “ We are not terrorists.”

“Anywhere in the world you can walk up to a Sikh gentleman and say ‘Mr. Singh, I need help.’” said Sidana. “That’s what we do. ”

A young Spaniard tries the turban

But since 9/11, Sikhs in the United States, roughly 500,000 of them, have been the target of more than 300 hate crimes because people sometimes have mistaken them for Arab terrorists. Just when the community thought it was getting better for them, President Trump’s campaign and his hate rhetoric against immigrants has made it difficult for Sikhs in the United States again. With the increase in racial slurs against them, the non-profit group, Sikhs of New York, decided to use the turban to educate Americans about who Sikhs really are. Volunteers from the community came in large numbers from the tri-state area to support the effort. They came with water, food, smiles and stories.

Pamma Singh Gulati from Connecticut, one of the volunteers, said the most common question he was asked was why Sikhs wore turbans. “Unlike other cultures where only the royalty or clergy were permitted to sport the turbans, our Gurus made the turban available to all Sikhs.” said Gulati. “ The uniqueness of the Sikh turban is its promise of equality and justice.”

Gulati explains the Sikh turban

Visitors could choose from yellow, blue, red, green, red and grey colors and as Sikh volunteers wrapped the turban on their heads, they told Americans, Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans including the Swiss, Italians, Turkish tourists and others, about the significance of the Sikh turban, and why it is not a symbol of religious radicalism, terrorism or fear.

Most Sikh men sport a turban and an unshorn beard, an identity given to them by the last Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh. It was meant to identify them as warriors who fought against persecution and protected the weak. Sikhs are proud of the legacy.

The Lungani Family

The Lungani Family

The very same values that find resonance in the American spirit, said Ujagar Lungani, a Long Island resident and the father of three children. He said it was difficult to be a Sikh in the United States, however. “Although we are told we live in the land of the free,” said Singh, “ Sikhs are constantly heckled with racial slurs and compared to terrorists.”

When Lungani wanted to leave to go back home to Long Island, his 14-year- old son Gurveer, decided to stay back to help the volunteers. “My children are American citizens, and they are strongly rooted in both the American and Sikh cultures.” said Lungani. “ They will be instrumental in removing hate and promoting understanding. They make me proud.”

New Yorkers and tourists alike were intrigued by the sight of the tables laden with the colorful cloth. Many, men and women alike, came to inquire what was happening, heard out a volunteer and then sat down to get a free turban wrapped around their heads. New Yorker Yiannis Psaroudis selected an orange turban. He had heard of the event and was there because he wanted to support the Sikh community.

“Sikh turbans are a symbol that you can go to the gentleman if you need help,” said Psaroudis. “ I find that beautiful. Besides I look the part with my unshorn beard.” His friend, Erin Falter, got a grey turban and learned a little about the unshorn beards of the Sikhs. “They let their beards grow out and tuck it under their chin,” said Falter. “ because it is a naturally given gift. And a matter of faith.”

Ciullo and her family

Allessandre Ciullo and her family were visiting from Switzerland and they sported pink, orange and blue turbans. Ciullo has visited India many times to work for charity groups. “ I was always curious about how the turban is tied,” said Ciullo. “ It is a little hot, but doesn’t feel heavy.”

Police officer Amarjeet Sarai, dressed in his blue NYPD clothes and sporting a turban, was on duty and watched the crowd with a hawk’s eye. There are more than 150 Sikh officers in the NYPD force, and last year they won the religious accommodation to wear turbans while on duty. “ I am a proud Sikh and a proud American,” said Sarai. “ Like my uniform, my turban is also a symbol of trust.”

A proud Sikh NYPD officer

The Turban Day event began at noon. By 3:30 p.m., only 1,000 of the 8,500 turbans remained to be tied and there were still long lines of hopefuls waiting to get their piece of the colorful cloth. Achint Chhachhi from New Jersey was at the event with her teenage son and friends. Her son and husband both wear turbans and she had come to lend her support to the Sikh volunteers. “It was heartening to see genuine interest from people,” said Chhachhi. “That becomes the first point for changes in the society.”

Volunteer Gulati from Connecticut felt the same way. As he tied a pink turban on the head of Meredith Fleming from North Carolina, he said, “Next time she sees a turbaned American Sikh, she will remember this day.”

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