Central San Joaquin Valley Sikhs call for end to bullying

The Fresno BeeMarch 29, 2014 

— The hurtful words can cut deep:

You are from an Arab country -- go back. Terrorist. You don't belong in this country.

And the hurtful actions: A shaving razor thrown at a Sikh boy who has a long beard, a rock thrown at a Sikh girl in her traditional dress.

These are all things that have been said and done to Sikh children in the central San Joaquin Valley, leaders of the Sikh Council of Central California said Saturday.

During one of their council meetings Saturday in Selma, about 20 Sikh leaders talked about the bullying of Sikh children at school.

The catalyst for the discussion was a report issued earlier this month titled "Go Home, Terrorist," written by the Sikh Coalition. The coalition, created after 9/11 when Sikhs experienced violence and discrimination,works toward civil and human rights for all.

The report outlines the findings of surveys given to Sikh children in Fresno County and three U.S. cities in 2012 and 2013.

Of the four areas surveyed, the report shows Fresno County has the highest percentage -- 51% -- of Sikh students who said schools didn't take any action after they reported bullying, and the second-highest percentage -- 54.5% -- of Sikh students who said they had been bullied.

"It's not a finger pointing match like, 'Got you! We did a survey and you are not doing your job.' That is not the case," said Ike Grewal, a Fresno-area Sikh community activist, directing his comments to area school officials. "All we are saying is, we want to work with you. Let's see how we can help you and you can help us ... We want to do some outreach. We want to do some cultural sensitivity training."

Some area schools have been receptive to this kind of training and outreach, but more needs to be done, Grewal said.

Many members of the Sikh Council of Central California, which includes representatives from 13 Valley Sikh temples, said general anti-bullying policies could be more specific to be more sensitive of Sikh students, like talking about the importance of not bullying children who wear turbans. And more importantly, leaders said, educating more children and adults alike about Sikh culture will help end intolerance and cruel words.

It's estimated that more than 30,000 Sikhs live in the Valley. In Fresno County, many Sikh students attend Central Unified and Fresno Unified schools, along with pockets of Sikhs in places like Kerman, Caruthers and Selma, Grewal said.

Because of the uniqueness of Sikh attire, including the traditional turban, Sikh students are bullied more than other children, Grewal said.

Hardev Gill, secretary of the Sikh Council of Central California, said many Sikh students are also afraid to report bullying, so it's especially important that teachers keep a watchful eye and help come to their rescue.

Sharnjit Purewal, associate secretary of the council, added, "it needs to be socially unacceptable to bully someone because of their religious beliefs. We need to educate other students also, that this isn't something we tolerate in society."

Another problem, the council members said, is that often little, if any, discipline action is taken to stop bullies once they are caught -- something retired Valley teacher Muhar Gurdev said he saw first-hand.

Pashaura Dhillon, council coordinator for Sikh education and awareness, said bullying of Sikhs in the U.S. got worse after the 9/11 terrorists' attacks, but it's been a problem for more than a century.

"This racial profiling, this hatred is not a new phenomenon at all," Dhillon said. "Not for us."

But many are also working to help stop the hate, he said. For example, in 2010 the California legislature dedicated the month of November as Sikh awareness and education month.

If you go

A public forum addressing the bullying of Sikh students will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. April 10 in the Alice Peters Auditorium at Fresno State. Parking will be free, with a parking code provided.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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