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Wisconsin Sikh Community Honors Victims on Temple Shooting Anniversary

Every Sunday, hundreds of worshippers descend on the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, the site of a mass shooting last summer.

Members come here to pray and to eat a weekly meal together, called a langar. On August 5 last year, as women were preparing the meal, a gunman opened fire here, killing six people, including the temple president, a priest, fathers and a mother, before turning the gun on himself. Photos of the victims now hang in the lobby of the temple, called a gurdwara.

“So traditionally when you come into the gurdwara, you wash your hands, and first you have snacks and then you come and sit down and listen to the service here.”

Credit Erin Toner
Photos of the six Sikh temple shooting victims hang in the lobby of the temple, called a gurdwara.

Dr. Kulwant Dhaliwal is the temple president. He’s urging members of this congregation to keep their spirits up as the shooting anniversary approaches.

“The community has been gradually sort of healing and settling down. Of course the families who lost their loved ones will never be the same. Their lives changed forever,” Dhaliwal says.

Sikhism began in the 15th century in the Punjab region in South Asia and its basic tenets are equality, living by honest means and helping the needy. Since 9/11, some Sikhs in the U.S. have been harassed or attacked by people wrongly assuming they’re Muslim extremists.

A security guard now sits just inside the temple’s front entrance – a constant reminder of the violence that erupted here last summer.

Forty-year-old Nirmal Singh says she still gets nervous when she walks in from the parking lot, and her kids still have questions.

“Especially my youngest daughter, she’s 6 years old. She’ll be like, ‘Why this has to happen?’ And I say you know what, we live in a world where anything can happen, not only shootings, but anything. So that’s what I tell them, I say, just be safe,” Singh says.

While some worshippers here remain fearful of violence, others seem even more determined to confront prejudice against their faith.

Credit Erin Toner
Kanwardeep Singh Kaleka started wearing a turban and long beard after the temple shooting last summer, in part to confront prejudice against the Sikh faith.

Kanwardeep Singh Kaleka looks down at a string of orange prayer beads around his wrist, as he sings a traditional Sikh prayer.

“It’s a very simple mantra, and really the basis is that if you can even just say God’s name, or keep God in your mind, that will help you become one with God,” Kaleka says.

The prayer is one Kaleka’s uncle used to sing at the end of Sunday services. His uncle was Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple president who was killed while trying to fend off the gunman. The 30-year-old Kanwardeep is a student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, where he just earned his PhD doing Alzheimer's research. He started wearing the prayer beads after the temple shooting last year. He also let his beard and hair grow long, and now wears a turban in his daily life, as do most observant Sikh men.

“The people who died in that shooting looked different and I found this as a valuable opportunity to show the world that no matter how different anybody looks, that we’re just as much of a human being and in America, we’re just as American as anyone else,” Kaleka says.

Kaleka says while much of the reaction to his long beard and turban has been positive, some still look on with fear, especially at airports.

“I got to the gate and there was this young kid and he just looks at me in absolute terror. He says ‘Don’t kill me, don’t kill me!’” Kaleka says.

Kaleka says that was actually a great moment, because he was able to explain who he was and assure the family they had nothing to worry about.

“By the time our plane landed, like, me and that kid were high fiving and hugging and that’s sort of the notion that for me, is what it’s all about,” Kaleka says.

This weekend, the temple holds a series of events to honor victims, including a continuous recitation of the Sikh holy scripture, cover to cover. It’s a ritual that happens at both happy and sad events, and is intended to bring peace and solace.

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