By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
April 12 will be remembered for the violence that occurred in two communities just a few miles apart. A subway attack occurred on a crowded N train in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, injuring more than 20, some critically. That same morning, two Sikh men were brutally attacked in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens, which has a large Sikh population. The two men were attacked minutes apart and another Sikh man had also been assaulted nine days earlier.
Sajan Singh, 58, was one of these men who was beaten, robbed and had his turban ripped off.
Singh first came to the United States from Punjab, India, in 1997. He worked in construction in Punjab but left to escape the violence that often plagued his town. When he came to the U.S. he settled in Richmond Hill because he heard it was home to a large Sikh and Punjabi community. Singh said he was happy; he could make an honest living in construction and put his kids in good schools.
After more than 23 peaceful years in New York City, his life changed on April 12 when he became one of the three Sikh men who brutally attacked on the same block. Singh was on his way to Lefferts Boulevard to catch a ride with his boss to work when someone attacked him from behind with a punch.
“There was another guy that came, and he started punching me too,” Singh says. “He said ‘I’m going to shoot him. I’m going to shoot him.’ I got scared and just fell to the ground while they were punching.”
Japneet Singh, 27, community advocate and activist at the Sikh Coalition, says his community is in shock.
“This is a traumatic time for our community, especially because all three situations happened, two blocks away from our Gurdwara, our temple,” he says. “For these attacks to happen in the area that’s called the capital of the Punjabi community [in New York City] is just very disheartening and the entire community just very saddened.”
As for Singh, it is an incident he will never forget.
“I thought I might die at that moment. I was questioning ‘Why me?’ I thought I was going to die” he says.
Why him? Japneet says the answer was clear: because of his identity.
“They were not stopped to get robbed,” he says. “They were attacked from the back and once they were on the ground defenseless they were attacked more and were assaulted. All three turbans came out in all these situations. Singh’s beard was pulled. If you look at these attacks they were brutal, brutal attacks.”
Singh suffered internal injuries, as well as injuries on his head, eye and ears. He recieved medical attention from an ambulance that was called for Gulzar Singh, 45, who had been attacked just minutes before.
“I just hope that I can gain freedom again. Right now I feel trapped. The reason I left India is to escape lawlessness and now I am a victim here of that,” Singh says.
Singh and the rest of the victims are still living in fear as the suspected perpetrators were detained but then released. Suspects Vernon Douglas, 19, and Hezekiah Coleman, 20 were arraigned, released and are expected to appear in court on May 25. This infuriated the Sikh community as it is rumored that one of the men lives in Richmond Hill.
“We cannot allow people that commit these kinds of hateful acts out and then literally the next day, [release them.,]” Japneet says. “It’s very concerning because if these people live in the community and our elders are walking up and down these blocks every single day, that’s something that we need to be mindful of.”
Japneet explained that the Sikh youth of Richmond Hill are doing what they can to protect their elders. They started neighborhood patrols and programs to accompany elders as they go about their daily routines.
“Our elders suppressed these kinds of issues because they were very head down, work hard, pay your taxes, put your kids to good schools kind of community. I think that’s how a lot of immigrant communities are in general, but we’re the second generation. Enough is enough. We’re not going to take this kind of nonsense when we feel like we need to speak up, we’re going to speak up,” he says.
To help the Sikh community in Richmond Hill, donate to The Sikh Coaltion.