Rana Singh Sodhi knows Osama bin Laden didn’t kill his brother in front of a Mesa gas station a decade ago, yet he holds the notorious terrorist responsible for the slaying.
Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot four days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, making him the first fatality in a nationwide wave of hate crimes that targeted minorities.
Now that U.S. forces have killed bin Laden, Rana Singh Sodhi is overjoyed and believes justice has been served.
“If there was no 9/11 and no backlash and no hate crime, my brother would be alive today,” Rana Singh Sodhi said.
The killing became an international story and Rana Singh Sodhi has spent nearly a decade traveling the country to speak about the impact on the Sikh faith.
Shortly after news broke of bin Laden’s death, Rana Singh Sodhi was flooded with calls from well-wishers who knew how personal the terrorist’s demise would be for him. The development capped a roller coaster of emotions for Rana Singh Sodhi, who had been in the spotlight just days before as he fought against a change to Arizona’s controversial 9/11 memorial.
Balbir Singh Sodhi’s name was one of 11 items set to be taken off the memorial under a bill that had landed on Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk late last month. Bill sponsors said Balbir Singh Sodhi’s name wasn’t appropriate because he wasn’t a direct victim. That argument reopened wounds for Rana Singh Sodhi and caused him to appeal to bill sponsor Rep. John Kavanaugh, R-Fountain Hills.
“I asked him a simple question: Why do you think my brother died?” Rana Singh Sodhi said.
Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed by Frank Roque in a Sept. 15, 2001 shooting spree that targeted Arabs in revenge for the attacks. Roque fired several shots at a Lebanese man and then at the house he had sold to a family from Afghanistan, not harming anybody. But he first drove by Balbir Singh Sodhi’s gas station at University Drive and 80th Street, shooting him as he planted flowers.
Balbir Singh Sodhi wore a turban, which Roque apparently linked to being Arab. Balbir Singh Sodhi was an immigrant from India and practiced the Sikh faith, which requires men not to cut their hair and to wear a turban.
While being arrested, Roque shouted “I am a patriot!” A jury sentenced him to death but an appeal resulted in a lifetime sentence. Other Sikhs across the nation were harassed or killed by those who thought they were getting revenge on Arabs or Muslims.
Kavanaugh wasn’t familiar with the events and apologized, Rana Singh Sodhi said.
Brewer invited Rana Singh Sodhi to her office Friday so he could witness her veto the bill. The bin Laden news came two days later.
“This is a very blessed weekend for me,” he said. “It brings relief to my family and other 9/11 victims’ families.”
Since Balbir Singh Sodhi’s death, Rana Singh Sodhi has spoken at countless events to educate the public about Sikhs and tolerance of others. The events include attending a state dinner at the White House for India’s prime minister, where Rana Singh Sodhi and his wife met Barack and Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and other celebrity attendees.
Rana Singh Sodhi is also featured in A Dream in Doubt, a documentary of his actions to protect his family and the Sikh community. He lives in Gilbert with his wife and three children, and owns the Guru Palace Indian restaurant in Mesa.
Rana Singh Sodhi and other Sikhs were threatened with death, spit on or told to “go back to Iraq” after 9/11. Time and education have reduced that, he said. Yet his joy over bin Laden’s death is tempered by fear if terrorists strike again.
“If anything happens with terrorism, we will be the first people targeted because of the turban,” he said.
Rana Singh Sodhi estimates 1,000 Sikh families live in the Valley. He said turbans are worn almost exclusively by Sikhs here and only rarely by those who follow other faiths. Friends urged him to not wear the turban after his brother’s murder, but Rana Singh Sodhi refused because he didn’t want to live in fear. He knows Sikhs who haven’t reported threats and urges any minority in danger to call police.
“If you don’t report it, you’re never going to stop it,” he said.
The concerns are valid. Another Singh Sodhi brother, Sukhpal, was shot and killed nearly a year after Balbir’s death. Sukhpal was driving a cab in San Francisco when killed, but police said the bullet was likely intended for somebody else and they haven’t made an arrest in the case.
The tragedies haven’t made Rana Singh Sodhi consider retuning to India because of the religious freedom he enjoys in the U.S. More than 50 family members left their homeland after thousands of Sikhs were killed and many more were displaced in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two Sikh bodyguards. The government didn’t prosecute those who targeted Sikhs. In contrast, Rana Singh Sodhi notes Balbir Singh Sodhi’s killer was quickly put on trial and even bin Laden was tracked down after a decade.
“I lost my two brothers but I’m still so proud of my community,” Rana Sign Sodhi said. “You can find bad apples anywhere but we are still a wonderful, wonderful country.”
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