Five years later. That phrase has been used time and again this week to describe how the nation recovered from and now reflects on what was once unthinkable: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But it takes on added meaning for many in the Valley who have spent those years grieving, recovering and learning from another tragedy: the murder of Valley resident Balbir Singh Sodhi, a local businessman who became the nation’s first victim of a post-Sept.11 hate crime.
Hundreds from across the Valley gathered at the Carpenters Union building in southwest Phoenix on Thursday night, the eve of the anniversary of Sodhi’s death, to memorialize him and watch the world premiere of a documentary prompted by his murder.
Sodhi practiced Sikhism, a religion in which followers believe all paths lead to God. He was gunned down outside his Mesa convenience store four days after the attacks.
His death stunned the Valley.
Sodhi had worn a turban as part of his faith and had a beard. His killer, Frank Roque, believed Sodhi was like the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center.
The documentary, which was the centerpiece of Thursday’s memorial, tells the story of Sodhi and dozens of other Sikh Americans who fell victim to crimes.
It also tells the story of Valarie Kaur, the film’s creator and firsttime filmmaker, who, almost on a whim, raced among scenes of hate crimes nationwide after Sept. 11 with her cousin as a cameraman to document them.
The idea of the journey was to tell stories that had never been told in detail, says Kaur, a 25-year-old Sikh.
“Many people think that hate crimes and discrimination went away after the first few weeks after 9/11,” she says.
But as her documentary and interviews with local Sikhs and Muslims show, that’s just not the case.
Valley Sikhs tell stories of people telling them to “go back to Iraq” — although most are Indian or American — gesturing obscenely at them, or staring at them in airports. Muslims say they still face discrimination on the job.
A study released this week by the Discrimination and National Security Initiative, which Kaur directs from her graduate school at Harvard University, found 83 percent of Sikhs said they or someone they knew has experienced a hate crime.
FIVE YEARS OF GRIEF, EDUCATION
Over the past five years, the Valley’s Sikh community has had time to recover and had countless opportunities to tell others about their culture. But with the initial shock of Sodhi’s murder fading, some, including his brother, Rana Sodhi, wonder: What’s next?
For him, the answers aren’t simple. He still runs the store where his brother was killed. He has three children and a wife and is in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. There isn’t much time for more.
But his dreams are plenty. He eventually wants to expand his efforts to confront assumptions and misunderstandings about Sikhs, and possibly do it full time.
Rana Sodhi says he recently turned down a position with the Anti-Defamation League, but would reconsider in the future.
Rana Sodhi, who is from India but lives in Gilbert, says he will eventually consider running for political office. “Right now, I think that we must be (involved in politics) for our next generation,” he says.
For now, with what little time he has left over, Rana Sodhi has created his own informal educational campaign. He speaks at schools and talks to local and federal police about Sikhism and its traditions.
He speaks to journalists whenever they call, which they do more often in September, asking him to reflect on his brother’s death.
He does all this, he says, with the hope that the information will save others from the pain he and his family went through. “It’s worth it if you save any life, save anything,” he says.
Rana Sodhi’s dreams probably sound familiar to Kaur. Her film, “Divided We Fall,” has taken her “into the whirlwind,” she says.
“It’s taken up so much of my life and shaped so much of who I’ve become, what I study, what I talk about, what I do professionally, personally, my goals,” Kaur says.
On Sept. 10, 2001, Kaur was an undergraduate at Stanford University. Days later, she was a filmmaker.
Now, in the coming year, she and co-director Sharat Raju, who joined the project midway through production, plan to show the film around North America. Then, they hope for a distribution deal or an airing on television.
Kaur says she is at a new stage, a sentiment that seems to echo Rana Sodhi’s. She completed the film and, like Sodhi, appears to be heading for an expanded role in Sikh education or activism.
These types of efforts are vital, says Guru Roop Kaur Kahlsa, a minister in the local Sikh community, to visually and culturally distinguish Sikhs from the image of terrorist.
“What’s on the TV currently on the evening news, it’s really hard to tell those people from us,” Kahlsa says. “They’ve even started tying their head coverings like us.”
FINDING FACTS AMONG RHETORIC
So why do major world events spur hate crimes?
The easiest answer is a combination of fear and ignorance, says Kahlsa.
But H.L.T. Quan, assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Justice and Social Inquiry, will tell you that’s just part of it.
Quan says politically divisive talk after events like the terrorist attacks or this year’s huge immigration rallies create an “environment that is permissive” to hate crimes, even if politicians and community leaders don’t actually advocate the crimes.
Quan says discussions based on fact are important to combat this.
Otherwise, “if our government produces a kind of rhetoric . . . that is not based on a genuine dialogue, then hate crimes are going to continue,” she says.
Thursday night’s event closed with a standing ovation by the audience, which was mostly Sikhs, Muslims and members of the community that had rallied around the two groups after Sept. 11.
Before the film’s debut, directors Kaur and Raju hoped the documentary would have a lasting impact and create that genuine dialogue.
“This question of who is American is as old as America itself,” Kaur said. “And we’re just another chapter of it.”