I was a student at Arizona State University in the Phoenix metro area when 9/11 happened. The days after were quite tense. On Saturday, the 15th, there were rumors among Indian students that a gang in a car was firing at people who looked Middle-Eastern, and that they were on their way to Tempe, the suburb the university was in.
The rumor wasn’t true but it wasn’t entirely false either. That afternoon, Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian immigrant who owned a gas station store had been shot dead. Balbir was the first victim of a dozen or so hate crimes involving South Asians and Middle-Easterners that happened in the aftermath of 9/11 all over the country. Balbir was Sikh and his turban had given the shooter the impression he was Muslim. The shooter, Frank Roque - who had apparently declared at a local restaurant that he was going to target some “towel-heads” - was arrested and is now serving a life sentence.
Balbir’s death was a terrible tragedy, but, as I learned recently, it wasn’t the complete story. The complete story had to do the Sodhi family’s immigration to the United States. In a strange kind of twist, that immigration had been spurred in the first place by the sectarian conflict in India involving Sikhs, just less than two decades before 9/11.
Harjit Singh Sodhi, Balbir’s brother and the first member of the family to have left India, talked of his experiences recently on Dick Gordon’s radio show The Story, on National Public Radio. I’ve pieced together most of this story from that interview (look in the archives for the show on Thursday, March 6th, 2008).
As clashes between Sikhs and the Indian government escalated in the early 1980s, Harjit, who had seen death from the conflict first hand, felt he and his family would never be safe in India, and decided to leave for the United States. Why the United States? Because he had read in schoolbooks that it was a wonderful place, a “heaven” of sorts. He left alone without his wife and children. But since he only had a forged passport, no contacts and little money, the process wasn’t easy: he was knocked back and forth across the world; in his quest to reach the US, he had to travel to Mexico, Cuba, Thailand, Jordan, Moscow, and back to Mexico. Finally, Harjit walked from Mexico, crossed the US border and illegally entered the United States. He first went to Los Angeles, and then did odd jobs - pruning grape vines in Fresno, working at a 7-11 store - before moving to Phoenix and starting an Indian restaurant.
The Reagan administration granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who had worked in agriculture, and Harjit, who had done that, got his green card. He was able to bring his wife and children. He was successful; he was living the American Dream. Harjit found that the United States was indeed the heaven he had envisioned it to be: safe and friendly, a place he could begin a new life. He embraced his adopted country whole-heartedly and was proud of it.
Harjit also succeeded in encouraging his other brothers to move to the United States, with the promise that they too would have the same life, comforts and safety that he had. Balbir was one of these brothers, and in April 2001, they decided to open a gas station store together in Phoenix.
It was outside this store, five months later, while discussing plans with landscape architects, that Balbir was shot.
But that was not all. In August next year, while driving from Delhi to his village in India, Harjit got an urgent message, one he could scarcely believe, that another of his brothers, Sukhpal, a cab driver, had been shot in his cab in San Francisco. Although, it has not been established, this too might have been a hate crime. Nearly three thousand people were waiting in his village, having got the news earlier, with questions about why Sikhs - and especially the Sodhi brothers - were getting targeted in America.
Overcome with grief, Harjit broke down and momentarily contemplated returning to India. But his wife insisted that they stay in the US since they could expect justice there. Balbir’s killer, she pointed out, had been apprehended and sentenced, something she felt they could not expect back in India. Besides there were practical matters: the restaurant could not just be left behind; they had stayed in the US for over twenty years. In India they would have to start from scratch.
Almost six years hence, Harjit continues to live in the United States; two of his other brothers have stayed on as well. On occasions, he gets taunted because of his turban - he is called Bin Laden - yet brushes such insults aside. His children, born in the US, wear the turban too. Instead of assimilating, he appears to have retained Sikh and Indian aspects, and sees no contradiction in being staunchly American. Just how much he believes in the United States is clear in his response to a question by a Japanese reporter during a press conference that followed Balbir’s shooting in Phoenix. The reporter had asked:
“Mr. Sodhi, your brother was killed by an American. What do you think of the American?”
The question was pointless. But Harjit was deeply offended for a different reason. He responded emotionally:
“What are you asking me? You should be apologizing. You think I am not American, my children are not Americans? Americans have a different color or culture?”
Something in the way Harjit talked about this in the interview (and from his other comments as well) suggested he still feels strongly about the issue. But I wonder: How, in his most private, contemplative moments, does he reconcile his belief in the United States with the two tragedies that must have shaken it to the core? A distrust of India brought him to the US, but there are good reasons for him not to trust the United States as well. Yet he does not seem to feel any rancor for his adopted country - at least he betrays none in the interview. Perhaps it has something to do with the magnitude of effort it took him to reach a position of relative security: the long journey alone with the forged passport; entering illegally and taking up odd jobs; the slow climb to prosperity. Perhaps he does not want to disclaim all that he has painstakingly earned and the country that allowed him to do so.
Harjit’s respect for an immigrant’s willingness to persevere despite adversities is reflected in his position about others like him, of whom there are plenty. He feels a strong empathy for the tens of thousands of Hispanic immigrants, who - as he had done more than two decades ago - trek daily from Mexico, risking death by dehydration and harassment by armed gangs, across the arid landscape south of the United States, and eventually to the cities and towns of California and the southwestern states (and even beyond) where they find low-paying jobs in farms, construction sites, car washes, restaurants.
Harjit’s restaurant, like all other Indian restaurants, hired illegal immigrants. But now, as a business owner and a legal resident of the United States, he is being pressured by lawmakers to crackdown on them. He himself benefited from the porous borders and lax laws that allowed him to settle in the country. Not unsurprisingly, he disagrees with recently passed new laws that are tough on undocumented workers:
“You think this is a just law? I’ve heard 12 million people live illegally in the United States. They want to send all these people back? Even those who live peacefully and work hard, try to feed their families and lead a better life? I too was an illegal once.”
Immigration, of course, isn’t a simple issue: it isn’t about freely allowing entry, neither is it about erecting supposedly impenetrable fences (an actual fence is currently being constructed along the US border). Just about every region in the world faces this problem; even within countries, the movement of people poses problems and creates tensions. The answers aren’t simple, but stories like Harjit’s - what events his adult life has straddled and what searching questions he’s been asked! - give us much needed glimpses into the travails and successes that accompany such journeys.