Sikh Teens Spread Awareness + Love in Manhattan

“…I’d see non-Sikhs…be scared because there were so many turbans around them. I want to end that,” Amrinder Singh explained.

By Sonny Singh
May 1, 2015 | , , , , , , , ,

Last Saturday afternoon, New York Sikhs, along with bus loads of community members from across the northeast, gathered on the east side of midtown for the 28th annual Sikh Day Parade. By late morning, devotees were putting the finishing touches on parade floats along Madison Avenue.

“Wahe-guru, Wahe-guru, Wahe-guru,” (a term Sikhs use for “God”) chanted a small group of men meditatively in the background, as others rushed around gathering signs and banners. Their voices grew louder magnified by a bull horn, as the sidewalks filled with a sea of brightly colored turbans and chunnis covering the heads of toddlers and grandmothers alike.

By the afternoon, tens of thousands were packed onto the street and sidewalk, just in time for a community prayer called ardaas and the start of the parade and nagar kirtan commemorating Vaisakhi, the biggest Sikh celebration.

Thousands join the opening prayer before the start of the 28th annual Sikh Day Parade in Manhattan.

Thousands join the opening prayer before the start of the 28th annual Sikh Day Parade in Manhattan.

Amrinder Singh*, a 16-year-old sophomore at Townsend Harris High School in Queens, was with a dozen teenagers wearing bright orange t-shirts that read, “Without Hate.” He was there to celebrate Vaisakhi, and also to fulfill a mission—to raise awareness about Sikh identity.

“I’d want a non-Sikh [witnessing the parade] to feel good when they see a Sikh. I don’t want them to be afraid when they see us. At past parades, I’d see non-Sikhs…be scared because there were so many turbans around them. I want to end that,” he explained.

Amrinder Singh, a 16-year-old sophomore at Townsend Harris High School in Queens, was with a dozen teenagers wearing bright orange t-shirts that read, “Without Hate.”

Amrinder and his crew are all members of the Junior Sikh Coalition, the youth arm of the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based, national Sikh civil rights organization. High fiving, hugging, and giggling as they greet each other, the teenagers—ranging from sophomores in high school to sophomores in college—all held stacks of glossy postcards that read, “Who are the Sikhs?” which they planned to hand out to non-Sikhs walking by or watching the parade.

“If people look confused about what’s going on, we’ll ask them if they’d like to know what is happening, and we’ll explain [what] the parade is about,” says Amar Kalicharan, a freshman at City Tech College.

Amar Kalicharan (left) and his Junior Sikh Coalition friends pose for a photo during a long day of outreach activities.

Amar Kalicharan (left) and his Junior Sikh Coalition friends pose for a photo during a long day of outreach activities.

It was the Junior Sikh Coalition’s second time doing outreach at the parade. Reflecting on 2014, Amar says, “Last time it was a little tough for some of us. Some people were rude. We didn’t know exactly how to approach people at first. This time we should do a lot better.”

It was still early in the day when Amar realized he forgot to bring a rumal to an event where almost everyone else had their head covered. The small crisis was averted when a friend noticed an abandoned small orange flag on a bench. In a team effort, the flag was quickly retrieved and turned into a makeshift head covering for Amar.

“Last time it was a little tough for some of us. Some people were rude. We didn’t know exactly how to approach people at first. This time we should do a lot better.”

The group of teens, split into teams of six, were ready to work, postcards and leaflets in hand. Most of the women crossed over to work the west side of Madison while most of the men stayed on the east side. Anytime someone who did not look Sikh came walking down the street, one of the young people quickly approached them—some more assertively than others.

Amar joked to another member, Pawan: “Dude, you’re getting up in people’s faces too much. You’re gonna scare them away.”

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Amrinder Singh explains the basics of Sikhism to a few curious onlookers.

Amrinder, who was wearing a black turban on his head and a DSLR camera around his neck, addressed strangers with confidence and ease: “Hey, do you want to know what’s going on here today?” Amrinder appeared in his element as he multitasked between talking to people about Sikhism and taking photographs of children in the parade doing gatka, a Sikh form of martial arts.

This year is his sixteenth Sikh Day Parade: “That’s one thing about my family, we never miss the parade,” he laughed. For Amrinder, the parade has always been an opportunity to come together with his community in Manhattan, though this is his first year coming with the Junior Sikh Coalition.

“They’d call me diaper head. It went to a point where I just didn’t want to go to school…in 2nd grade I was absent 15 to 20 times.”

Like many Junior Sikh Coalition members, Amrinder and Amar both grew up and still live in Richmond Hill, the epicenter of New York’s Sikh community. Amrinder, who wears a turban, recently got involved in the Junior Sikh Coalition because he wanted to bring an end to bullying and discrimination against Sikhs, an issue very personal for him.

“I was bullied because of my joora [hair tied into a top-knot] and patka [small turban] in elementary school,” he explained. “They’d call me diaper head. It went to a point where I just didn’t want to go to school. I remember in 2nd grade I was absent 15 to 20 times.”

Amrinder’s work with the Junior Sikh Coalition, including outreach at the parade, is a way for him to support younger Sikhs going through some of the struggles he faced and combat the ignorance that often leads to bullying. At a recent workshop the group was doing with Sikh children in elementary school, a second grader who was being bullied came up to Amrinder and asked him for advice. “I told him to stand up for himself, stand up for his faith. Just try to tell people who you are and what your identity is. Try to explain why you have a joora, why you keep [your] hair.”

For Amar, the Sikh community is one he adopted. While his brown skins blends in with the group, he is not Sikh himself—he’s Guyanese, and an atheist.

Richmond Hill residents Amar (Left) and Amrinder (Right) feeling positive about their work at the parade.

Richmond Hill residents Amar (Left) and Amrinder (Right) feeling positive about their work at the parade.

He first got involved in 2010 during his freshman year in high school through his cousin. “She is half Punjabi and Guyanese, so she would usually go to the gurdwara,” he remembered. “She brought me along once [to a Junior Sikh Coalition meeting], and I really liked it. I’ve been on since. I didn’t have much to do on Sundays, and I made a lot of good friends. And I got langar [the Sikh community meal].”

Even though Amar hasn’t experienced the struggles Sikh youth go through because of their unshorn hair and turbans, he is committed to the work they do. “I just think it’s amazing to help kids out with bullying in general, no matter what their faith is,” he explained. “I think it’s good to connect with the youth and help them, even if you don’t exactly fit into their faith. Just to have that person that’s there for you no matter what religion they are—it’s an amazing resource.”

For Amar, the Sikh community is one he adopted. While his brown skins blends in with the group, he is not Sikh himself—he’s Guyanese, and an atheist.

Being the only Guyanese, and non-Sikh, member of the group, “is not that special, to be honest,” Amar admitted. “It’s not as awkward as it would seem. [The others] don’t exactly point me out as a non-Sikh. I usually just fit in cuz I’m brown, you know.”

After a couple of hours of walking around and talking to strangers, Amar, Amrinder, and their crew are in good spirits overall, as they start discussing where they’re going to eat lunch before making the trek back to Richmond Hill.

“I think it went pretty well,” Amar said. “Most people were friendly and interested, but some people don’t really care.” Others agreed, as they quickly try to pass out the rest of their postcards before calling it a day.

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While many large Sikh events and nagar kirtans happen in Richmond Hill throughout the year, the Sikh Day Parade is the only one in Manhattan, which both Amar and Amrinder see as the ideal location. Amar explained, “[In Manhattan], a lot of different people learn a lot more from the event, rather than in Richmond Hill because that’s where all the brown people are. We’re trying to reach out to…people from other ethnic groups and religions—to show them what the Punjabi community and Sikh religion is all about.”

“They call Manhattan the capital of the world,” added Amrinder. “It’s very nice to say that Sikhs are representing themselves in the biggest city in the world. What we wanna do is stop racism. We wanna spread that love for humanity—to Sikhs and non-Sikhs. This parade is a good way to do it.”

[*No relationship to the author.]

Sonny Singh is a Open City Fellow covering Richmond Hill.

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