© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Son Reflects On The Many Facets Of Satwant Singh Kaleka, 6 Years After Sikh Temple Shooting

Aug. 5 marks the six-year anniversary of the Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek. The hate crime left six people dead and four others wounded, and the killer later committed suicide. Among those who died in the ambush was the temple’s leader, Satwant Singh Kaleka.

This weekend is a time of reflection for the entire Milwaukee community. But it holds significance for Satwant’s son, Pardeep Singh Kaleka. The younger Kaleka has tried to live up to his father’s philosophy, working with Serve 2 Unite, an organization that works with students to teach the importance of social peace. He also co-authored a book with former white supremacist Arno Michaelis.

READ: A Sikh & A Former White Supremacist Share Transformation, Healing In 'The Gift Of Our Wounds'

Today, Pardeep Singh Kaleka says he can reflect on the many facets and memories of his father's life.

"As much as we were trying to put a brave face on for the world [after the shooting] because we felt a responsibility to do so, it was very emotional," says Pardeep Singh Kaleka. "Emotional to the point that it was hard to reflect on some of these good and bad memories."

"The last time that I saw my father, he was giving piggy back rides to our children and he was just happy being a grandfather," he recalls. "Because of how he grew up, he didn't have a welcoming sort of culture for him to come in to. His vision was to create that and create a community that other Sikhs could come to and worship and assemble with and just be welcomed."

Satwant Singh Kaleka's life began in the rural village of Dogal in the Punjab region of India, where he was a farmer. Despite a true love and reverence for farming, difficult times and violence led him to reluctantly move to America to seek better opportunities with his wife and two young sons. Eventually, he came to lead the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, but Pardeep Singh Kaleka says it was a long and resilient road to get to that point.

Credit Courtesy of Pardeep Singh Kaleka
(Left to right) Amardeep, Pardeep, Satpal, and Satwant Singh Kaleka in 1990.

“[Moving to Milwaukee] was difficult. [My parents] worked for not much and quickly realized that there was no way to sustain living on one income,” he recalls. "It was just a struggle and a battle to make it."

The Kaleka's moved all over the city of Milwaukee. While the elder Kaleka's worked, the two Kaleka boys took care of each other while trying to navigate American culture outside of their home.

"Growing up, it was literally hell because you wore different masks," says Pardeep Singh Kaleka. At home, he was more traditional in his speech and mannerisms, while out in public he constantly changed to blend in.

"I don't think [my parents] thought of it as a strength at that time. You're caught between two different things," notes Pardeep Singh Kaleka. "Some of what happened on August 5 was really reminding me that I needed to take my own voice back, whatever that voice is. And whatever you're meant to be, you need to come back to that because there's value in your culture being part of this culture."

He says his father was rarely openly affectionate with him. Satwant was like "a wiry fence that you can't cut," a man that could outwork you, but would do so because he wanted to push you, says Pardeep Singh Kaleka.

Now a father himself, Pardeep Singh Kaleka understands how his father showed him love and respect in his own way. Once the grandkids came along, Satwant Singh Kaleka would do random acts such as picking weeds out of the flower beds or shoveling their driveway early in the morning.

Credit Courtesy of Pardeep Singh Kaleka
Pardeep Singh Kaleka, Satwant Singh Kaleka, and Pardeep's son Jai in 2010.

"For sons getting out of the shadows of their fathers, I think that there's always some fight. And he would just every once in a while do things to say the shadow might not be as bad as you think it is," he says.

Satwant Singh Kaleka died defending and protecting the people and temple he worked so diligently for. Pardeep Singh Kaleka says that he still feels his father's presence in the community and in his own family because people still remember him. Even his children who have never met their grandfather move, speak, or act similarly to him.

"In myself, there's this sense of contentment and gratitude towards life being that way that we can get to a point where we can really spiritually heal because we know that the person is not dead, but has transitioned," says Pardeep Singh Kaleka.

Credit Courtesy of Pardeep Singh Kaleka
Pardeep Singh Kaleka's daughter, Amaris at a prayer vigil putting a candle in front of her grandpa’s picture.

He notes that while the shooting created a great deal of suffering, there is also healing and positive things that have come from a terrible act of violence. Pardeep Singh Kaleka says the key to moving forward as a community and preventing incidents like the shooting in Oak Creek is to value every person's story.

"If you value that people share their story, then you can work through your own pain," he says. "If it's a burden for you to hear other people's stories and journeys and suffering, then somehow vicariously you pick it up — because we're not honoring pain. And overall I think this country needs to really accept and honor the pain of the past so that we can really heal going forward."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.