An American Dream in Doubt

DreamInDoubtA new documentary explores anti-Sikh violence in the U.S. after 9/11. We speak to families impacted by the tragic hate crimes. (International Examiner, April 2008)

By Shiwani Srivastava

In the years following September 11, 2001, America has struggled to make sense of a tragedy, turning a scrutinizing eye at the country’s role in world affairs and its immigration policies.  In one form, this scrutiny has morphed into an attempt to seek out and retaliate against a tangible “enemy.”  Unfortunately for America’s Sikh community – a religious group rooted in India’s Punjab region – their turbans and beards, mistakenly associated with Osama bin Laden, have made them the brunt of thousands of hate crimes.

Tami Yeager’s documentary “A Dream in Doubt,” which was screened at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum on April 19, takes us into the lives of the Sodhis, a Sikh family who lost one of its members to the first hate-based murder after 9/11.   The film, currently being previewed around the country, is scheduled to air nationally on the PBS series “Independent Lens” on May 20, 2008.

Yeager, the film’s Director and Producer, was spurred into action by “heart-wrenching” accounts of hate crimes told to her by friends.  “While I felt strongly that we shouldn’t sit by and watch as the hate crimes continued unabated and underreported, I assumed that somebody else would tell the story and that a national dialogue would take place,” she said. “But two years after Balbir [Sodhi]’s murder, most Americans still knew little about this post-9/11 tidal wave of hate.”

According to the Harvard University Discrimination & National Security Initiative’s post-9/11 survey on South Asian communities, 83% of Sikh respondents reported that they are someone they knew had been a victim of a hate crime or incident. The survey, performed in 2006, shows that this type of discrimination has continued for years after the attacks.

The documentary’s strength lies in humanizing these facts and figures of crimes that are meant to de-humanize their victims.  In the film, we get to know the Sodhis, a hard-working and close-knit extended family headed by five brothers who emigrated from India in pursuit of the American Dream.  This makes it all the more agonizing as the death of the eldest Sodhi brother, Balbir, unfolds and we hear the 911 call made by his sister-in-law after he is shot while working at the family’s gas station in Mesa, Arizona.

Rana Sodhi, Balbir’s brother, was present at the screening. Rather than withdraw in anger, he has chosen to devote his free time to educating Americans about the Sikh community. “I’ve lived here almost 20 years, but before 9/11, I never thought I needed to share or educate people about my community,” he said.  “Now, I personally feel it is very important … We need to work together to educate each other.”

This commitment to building a better America comes across in the film as well.  We witness as Rana and his wife, concerned by taunts and insensitive questions directed at their children, visit a local elementary school and give a talk on Sikhism.

And certainly, the documentary itself is meant to be an educational tool.  Preetmohan Singh, the film’s Co-Producer and the Deputy Director of Public Policy at the Interfaith Alliance in Washington, D.C., has been actively involved in developing a 15-minute DVD featuring the voices of young Sikhs and 60-page curriculum for teachers to accompany the film.

Singh hopes that audiences have a similar revelation to the one he experienced while making this film.  By getting to know the Sodhis, “I have gotten to know a family who taught me more fully about what it means to be American,” he said.

Part of being American means the right to work, and the film highlights how Sikhs have been targeted in their workplaces in ways that threaten their ability to safely earn a livelihood.  Balbir Sodhi was murdered at the family’s gas station, another Sodhi brother was shot while driving his cab (although the motives are unknown), and the film also introduces the story of a Sikh man attacked while driving his truck.

Also present at the screening was Sukhvir Singh, a cab driver and a Sikh victim of hate crime in Seattle.  Singh was attacked by passenger Luis Vazquez, who called him an “Iraqi terrorist” and violently assaulted him as he was driving on I-5.  Vazquez was sentenced the day before the screening, and Singh’s forgiveness was largely instrumental in the judge’s leniency.  “The justice system is good [in America], that’s why we came here … but I don’t want to ruin this man’s life,” said Singh.

However, life is not the same for Singh.  “I was hurt physically and mentally – the attack totally changed my life.  I no longer enjoy driving my cab, but it is necessary to pay the bills.”  Despite this, he still has high hopes for his adopted country.  “In America, everybody is equal.  It is our job to make this place a heaven for everyone.”

As the film points out, part of this continued optimism for America lies in the fact that many Sikhs emigrated to the U.S. seeking religious freedom – and found it.  In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered an attack on a Sikh temple.  In retaliation, she was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, inciting anti-Sikh riots in India.

While the film is less an exploration of immigration history and hate crime laws, it is still very raw.  There are disturbing scenes of the interrogation and trial of Frank Roque, the man who murdered Balbir Sodhi. There are equally disturbing interviews, some advocating hate and suggesting Roque simply should’ve gone after “the right group” or “Arabs” instead.  But more importantly, the film illustrates the power of communities uniting and refusing to tolerate this kind of hate.

Ultimately, as the film shows, there needs to be a change in how immigration is viewed to prevent hate crime.  Jacque Larrainzar,  Acting Director of Policy & Outreach for the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, was at the screening and addressed this issue. “I cannot imagine what it takes for Rana Sodhi, after all he’s been through, to extend a hand and educate Americans about his culture,” she said.  The challenge to America?  “This is your home, we [as immigrants] are your guests – show us your hospitality.”

Preventing hate crime also requires communities being less insular and reaching out to one another – a task Yeager has taken on formidably.  She talks about her making this film: “Rana [Sodhi] is a naturally trusting and positive person and I never sensed any concern on his part about me not being a Sikh … My co-producer Preet and I had already collaborated to produce an educational curriculum about Sikhs (The Sikh Next Door), and that experience allowed me to better relate to Phoenix’s Sikh community.”

Reaching communities beyond Sikhs and South Asians is central to the film’s message and goals.  As Preetmohan Singh noted, he would occasionally hear some criticism or disappointment about the audiences not being more Sikh.  But Sikhs “know this story intimately – they live it everyday,” he said.  And certainly, having a turnout of over 300 (primarily non-Sikhs) in Phoenix, Arizona near the spot of Balbir Sodhi’s murder shows the film’s reach as well as the growing support from a wider community.

Rana Sodhi hopes that this film, in illustrating how much pain hate crimes cause entire communities, prevents something like Balbir’s murder from ever happening again.  And Yeager hopes to find an outpouring of support for the Sikh community now that “Balbir’s murder and its aftermath immortalized through film in the same vain as the stories of hate crime victims James Byrd, Vincent Chin and Matthew Shepard.”

Certainly, the Sodhi’s community has responded with tremendous support, confirming the vision of America that Rana Sodhi and Sukhvir Sing continue to strive for.

For more information, on “A Dream in Doubt,” visit http://www.adreamindoubt.org.

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