Below is a narrative written by Gurwinder Singh for the White House's Summit on Anti-Bullying. He narrates his experience struggling as a young Sikh who was consistently bullied by his peers and overcoming those obstacles.
I haven’t told anyone some of these stories until now. I feel relieved. I think it’s good to share what I’ve kept in the dark. People should know how Sikh kids are bullied. I went through a lot, and now I want my life to be peaceful.
THEY CALLED ME TERRORIST
I was born on October 21, 1992. My parents moved from Hoshiarpur in Punjab, India to New York when I was two. I grew up in Richmond Hill in Queens. I have lived in New York my whole life.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve gone through so much. It started when I was really young. It wasn’t exactly bullying – that started in elementary school. But the other kids didn’t like me very much. I couldn’t get along with them, because my joora made me look different. They used to walk away from me, or if I said something to them, they wouldn’t reply.
When I got to elementary school, other students would call me “egg head.” Or they would ask me stupid questions like, “What’s inside there? Is it a potato?” I was really slow in the way I spoke, and I’m still kind of slow, so they would make fun of me when I tried to say something back. This would happen in class, but the teachers wouldn’t do much.
Sometimes my mom would come to school to defend me, but she had trouble helping me because she couldn’t speak English properly. I felt really lonely. It just became part of my life.
When 9/11 happened, I was nine years old. I was in the cafeteria, and I saw the mother of a student run in, looking really frightened. She said “Come with me! We have to get out of this place!” I said, “What is going on?”
I was confused. I just stood there. A few minutes later, the teachers and school security guards escorted all the kids out of the cafeteria and told us to go home.
When I got home, I saw a plane going through buildings on TV, and then I saw them collapsing. I thought, “What’s going to happen?” I was scared that they would bomb again, or attack my area. They were showing pictures of bin Laden, which made me even more scared. I thought he was a monster.
After 9/11, things got worse. Kids called me names, and they would ask me questions like, “Are you related to Osama bin Laden?” “Is Osama bin Laden your uncle?”
They called me a terrorist, or a terrorist’s son. The kids on the bus looked at me with fear, so I tried to avoid looking at them as much as I could. I would just hide myself.
One time on the bus ride home, an African-American kid pulled my patka# off my hair. I couldn’t do anything; I was helpless. No one was there to stand up for me. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself either. I had to walk home with my patka off, and my joora open, and it was very embarrassing. I was crying, wondering what I could do. My mom used to be the one who did my joora, so I didn’t know how to do it myself.
Every time on I got on the bus after that, I wondered, “Will it happen again?’ Anytime I saw someone who might pick a fight, I got anxious. I wouldn’t look at them at all. I just tried to disappear.
EVERY DAY WOULD BE THE SAME DAY FOR ME
My school was very diverse – there were Latino, African-American, Asian American and South Asian American kids. It was also pretty dangerous. There were gangs in our neighborhood, and I saw cops in our neighborhood a lot.
Sometimes I saw other Sikh kids getting picked on at school. I felt really bad, because I wanted to help them, but usually I didn’t do anything. I had to look after myself. Whenever I could help, the kids I helped would avoid me. They would tell me, “Just stay away.” I think it’s probably because they were going through problems too. All of us were going through it.
Another time, a kid in class came up from behind me and started hitting me. I fell down and I was surrounded. There were six other kids with him, and they got me on the floor and started stomping on my arms and my back. They hit me in the head too. It really hurt. I wasn’t able to defend myself, because there were so many of them. The whole time they were cursing at me, using vulgar language.
I never told my parents any of this. My dad drives a taxi, and my mom is a housewife. They weren’t educated much. My dad went up to fourth grade, and my mom went up to tenth grade in India, and that’s all.
I don’t know why I didn’t tell them anything. I wanted to keep it to myself. I just thought, Tomorrow will be a new day. But every day would be the same day for me.
Half the time, they picked on me for the way I looked. The rest of the time, they picked on me because of my religion. It really hurt. When I was attacked, I would feel angry. But when they called me names, I would feel lonely. They would just get away with things, and I felt so helpless. They were very clever. I wasn’t.
A TREE WITHOUT LEAVES
In 2003, in the summer before middle school, I came home one day and told my dad, “I want to cut my hair.” I was eleven years old.
“Are you sure?” my dad kept asking. “Your mom worked so hard to grow your hair, and it’s very bad because of our religion.”
I told him again, “I want to cut my hair.” I had made my decision. I didn’t want to look different from everyone else.
Finally, my dad took me to the barber shop, and they cut my hair. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I just saw hair falling off. I thought of leaves falling from a tree, and a tree doesn’t look good without leaves. The leaves make it look more beautiful.
My mom was the one who used to comb my hair every morning, wash my hair, put oil on my hair, and braid my hair. She was shocked and sad to see how different I looked. She said, “I worked so hard to grow your hair, and you just cut it off.”
When I had my hair cut, I didn’t feel as bad about it as I did later, when I was exposed to Sikhism more and I learned that cutting your hair is disrespecting your religion. When you’re baptized, the Five Beloved Ones #tell you that you are not supposed to cut your hair. That’s part of your five Kakkars, your five sacred symbols#. Now I know it was the wrong decision, but at the time I was forced by the way people treated me.
After I cut my hair, I started acting differently. All the bullying had changed me, and I guess I started acting like the kids who bullied me. I turned into one of them. I was rude and mean to other people. I was becoming a bad person.
I started hanging around with bad kids. They would ask me, “Do you want to smoke?” I would tell them no, but sometimes I wondered, Should I be in a gang? Should I join them?
I came close, but thank God, I didn’t join a gang or ever take drugs. I think I didn’t do it because I asked myself, How will this impact my parents? I knew it was bad. Still, all of this started affecting my school work. I no longer had any interest at all in reading, writing or studying.
The fights didn’t stop after I cut my hair. One time in seventh grade, I had to squeeze in the cafeteria lunch line, because the whole line was smushed. Someone pushed me from behind. It was a Punjabi Sikh kid who used to hang around with the bad kids. The kid had a joora. He got really mad at me for having cut my hair, and he started striking and punching my face. I thought, He’s a Punjabi kid and now he’s treating me like this. I started bleeding from my nose, and then everything went blurry and I fainted.
The next thing I knew, the deans came and took both of us inside their office. The deans didn’t listen to me at all when I told them I hadn’t done anything. They said, “It takes two people to fight,” and they suspended both of us.
THIS TIME I HAD STRENGTH
My life was so boring in middle school. I didn’t do anything except go to school, get yelled at by someone, get bullied, go home, and go to sleep. I was really lonely.
Then in eighth grade, when I was thirteen, I met a friend called Nishaan at school; he was my classmate. He told me about music classes taught by Bhai Surjit Singh, a great musician at the gurdwara.# I went to the gurdwara and saw the whole group singing and playing on different instruments. I thought, I should get involved too!
So I started going to the gurdwara after school to learn to play the tabla.# At first, I still behaved the same way as before. The bad things that had happened in my past were still part of my life. I tried to forget them, but I couldn’t; they were still part of me. But slowly, as more time passed, I started changing. I felt really energetic when I played the tabla , and I liked the beats. So I started going to the gurdwara a lot more. I became very interested in everything there, and began to talk with people, and it made me feel better.
I went to the gurdwara in the morning to do paat# and help with prakash.# I also got my parents involved in the gurdwara. My mom became a vegetarian and started doing paat too.
I also learned more about our religion, Sikhi, and how much our gurus had to sacrifice for our religion to live on. Sikh martyrs were killed brutally for their beliefs,# and they would not let anyone touch their hair. They would say, “You can cut my skin off. You can cut my head off. But not my hair.”
I became really calm, and started respecting myself as a Sikh. Eventually I decided to take amrit.# I thought, If I take amrit, God will help me. Maybe there will be a change in my life. Maybe I will be free.”
So I started growing my hair again. This time, I had strength, so I could put up with the bullying.
In my last year of middle school, my hair was growing back, and I started to look different again. I used to be friends with this one Hispanic kid. We used to meet each other in the cafeteria. But after I started growing my hair back, he started looking at me differently, and he would avoid me. I would ask him, “What’s up” and he would say, “I don’t know you.”
One day, he got into a fight with me in class. The teacher went out for a moment, and he threw something at me, maybe a pencil. I got up and turned around and asked him, “Why did you throw this at me?” He just got up and started cursing at me and said, “Do you want to fight?”
I said no, but he came up to me, all the students gathered around both of us, and he started hitting me. He tried to punch me, so I put him in a head lock for twenty seconds to stop himWhen I let him go, he started really punching me, so I started punching him too. Then the security guard came and took us into the Dean’s office.
When no one was looking, the kid said, “I’m going to get you outside school. Watch your back.” My heart was beating fast. I knew something was going to happen, so after school, I took off running. When I was about three or four minutes away, I slowed down, turned, and started walking to the subway station. Behind me, I saw the Hispanic kid with a group. They were all behind me.I got scared and I couldn’t do anything. I told him, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
I tried to ask people for help, but nobody came to help me. The kids behind him were big and seemed by the way they were dressed to be gang-affiliated. Some of them had flags that looked like they represented gangs. They wore these flags around their head like bandanas, or stuffed them in their back pockets.
I don’t know what happened, but the kid took my head and banged it into a metallic pole. I just collapsed, and then all those kids ran away. When I got up, my head was throbbing and bleeding.
By the time I got to the subway station, everyone was staring at me. I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible and get home. I was so scared. I was crying and running and I didn’t know what to do.
I wanted to go back to the Dean’s office, but I didn’t go because I was intimidated by those kids. If I told the Dean, the kid would be suspended, and then when he came back, he would have picked another fight. I just wanted to leave everything alone. So I never told my parents. I’ve never told anyone until now.
I just kept going to gurdwara and it made me stronger. I started being strategic and thinking of different ways to avoid bullying. One of my strategies was to ignore them. Just forget what they say. They can call me whatever they want. I know who I am.
THERE WILL BE A SIKH PRESIDENT TOO ONE DAY
In high school, I learned how to make friends. I was never good at communicating; I didn’t know how to start off a conversation, and I’m still a bad talker today. But when I was sixteen, I just started talking to people, asking them questions. And it worked.
People still stared at me in high school. There were times when kids still called me ‘terrorist’ and harassed me. One time in Biology class, I accidentally bumped a girl’s desk and her Arizona juice bottle spilled all over her. I said, “Oh my god, I’m really sorry.” When I was getting tissues to clean it up, she came behind me and dumped the rest of the bottle all over my turban. “My turban was wet the rest of the day, and I felt so embarrassed. I thought, I don’t want to go through this again.
But there were good moments too. I remember the day Barack Obama was elected President. The majority of the kids at my school are African-American kids. I had a U.S. History teacher who’s also African-American, and on that day, she was so happy she was crying. I saw that it was really different having an African-American president. I thought, Maybe one day, there will be a Sikh president too. Kids like me can’t be president because I was born in India. But one day, there will be a Sikh president.
I WANT BULLYING TO END
Now I’m eighteen, in college and I have good friends. I haven’t been involved in much in my life, so I don’t know what to do after college. But I still play tabla and now I’m an advanced player.
These days, I travel to Long Island to get to college every day. People at the train station stare at me, and sometimes they say things about 9/11, like, “That guy has a bomb.” I always think, What? Still? You still don’t know what it’s like to be us!? But now I have tricks. I breathe deeply. I walk away. I keep myself away from the situation. I wait for the train.
If 9/11 hadn’t happened, people wouldn’t call me these names. They wouldn’t think of me as a dangerous person. People would see a Sikh standing in front of them as just an ordinary person, They wouldn’t be afraid, and have bad thoughts pop up in their mind. They would respect our religion, and respect the way we look. They would respect us.
Now that I’m older, I want to help Sikh kids. I don’t want them to go through what I went through. I want to tell other kids that they shouldn’t be afraid. If they are afraid, they should tell people. Now we have all of these organizations, like the Sikh Coalition, that are here to help them. I want to tell them: Don’t give up. Look back in our Sikh history, how much we’ve been through, and gain strength from that.
I want to use my life to help end discrimination. Everyone should live in peace, whether they are Sikh or Muslim or Hindu. I want bullying to end.
I AM NOT ALONE
I just came back from the White House, where I attended the Conference on Bullying Prevention. First, I went to the Department of Education and met with I met a lot of new people who had experienced bullying or doing something to prevent bullying issues. As soon as I reached Washington D.C., I attended my first meeting with Akil Vohra and his colleagues, Eddie and Eun. I was assigned for my PSA (Public Service Announcement) which was specifically attentive towards bullying. This was to
inform the people that bullying needs to be stopped and many students have become vulnerable towards this negative behavior. Eddie recorded us live on his movie camera. Without their cooperation I wouldn’t have had a chance to express my feelings and share my experiences to the nation. They interviewed me and asked me some questions in English and Punjabi.
The next day, we met Brian Jung the director of special projects for the offices of public engagement and intergovernmental affairs, who escorted us into the White House. Before the conference, we toured the White House. I went into the conference hall, and everything looked luxurious. The First Lady Michelle Obama spoke, and then President Barack Obama spoke. They were very supportive in their speech. With the help of the President and others, they launched a website “StopBullying.Gov” created to support families and individuals currently experiencing these situations, including bullying and cyber-bullying. I always used to watch President Obama on television, and I never thought I would see him in the White House.
I spoke after the conference. We were divided into groups, and I was in the in-school policy group. We exchanged experiences, talked about obstacles we faced, and also solutions.
After that, we went to the other hall for the closing. A few people came on stage and shared their experiences on bullying. There was one girl who talked about her brother, who was bullied in school because of the way he acted. He was totally different from others. He committed suicide, and it was very devastating to everyone. Many people committed suicide from cyber-bullying and other forms of bullying.
There were times when I was also helpless and couldn’t do anything but being at the White House with these people made me feel hopeful.
It made me feel like I wasn’t alone.