Hate crimes killed his brothers, not his compassion

Days after 9/11, Rana Sodhi's two brothers were murdered for looking Arab. Now he preaches love

Rana Sodhi
September 8, 2011 4:01AM (UTC)

Rana Sodhi, 54, and four of his brothers fled to the United States in the mid-1980s to escape the political and religious violence in Punjab, India. After years of working and saving money, the brothers opened their own convenience store in 1998 in Phoenix, and then a gas station in Mesa, Ariz. Rana's older brother Balbir managed the gas station and was a liked and respected member of the community.

On Sept. 15, 2001, Balbir was gunned down on the forecourt of his gas station. His death was the first reported hate murder in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The following August, Rana learned that his brother Sukhpal, a cab driver in San Francisco, had been shot and killed in his taxi. Although police suggested that Sukhpal had been caught in a gang fight, Rana believes his death was also a hate crime.


The morning of 9/11, I was getting ready for work when I got a call from my brother Harjit.

"Something's happened in New York," he told me. "Those planes hit the building and they're showing Osama bin Laden's picture on TV."

I turned on the TV and watched all those things with my wife, and she was scared for me. Half an hour later, Balbir called me. He said, "They're showing turbaned people on TV. We should be careful when going outside."


I went to work anyway and noticed that people who came into the store were treating me differently. They were upset about what had happened. They said things like, "Go back to your country."

A friend said to me, "You guys need to be very careful, because there are a lot of rumors going around the community about Sikhs getting attacked, and you may get hit very soon. They're showing Bin Laden's picture on TV, and he looks like a sardar."

The next day, a Wednesday, Balbir and I were driving in our car together and people yelled at us because we were wearing turbans. We thought that this was getting serious, and we had to do something.


I remember meeting a Japanese-American man who told me stories about what happened to Japanese-Americans in this country during the war when he was a little boy. He still remembers living in internment camps in Arizona. This is what happens in times of crisis. It happened here during World War II. It happened in India in 1984, when Sikhs were killed in retaliation for the prime minister's assassination. And it was happening around us now, in the United States.

So that afternoon, we called Guru Roop Kaur Khalsa, a Sikh-American community leader. We said, "We need to do something, otherwise Sikhs are going to get hurt."


Guru Roop proposed that we call the media and tell them about our religion, our turban, our community and that 99 percent of people who wear turbans in America are Sikh. We decided to invite the media to come to the gurdwara on Sunday, so that we could show the larger public our community.

On Thursday morning, Balbir called me and said, "You shouldn't go to work today because you're wearing a turban. Either you work in the back where no one can see you, or you don't go to work at all."

"Where are you?" I asked.


"I'm working."

"That's not fair. Why is it okay for you to work but not me?"

"I work in a safe neighborhood in Mesa," he said.

In the nine months since the gas station had opened, Balbir had built relationships with so many clients in the area, and everybody loved him. He would give candy to the children and let people fill their tanks for free if they were low on cash.


That night, Balbir cooked dinner for me at his house. He said, "I really want to go to New York to help those people." He wanted to join the rescue efforts in some way, to help recover people from the rubble, but our brother Harjit told him he couldn't go because he didn't have professional experience.

He never thought anything would happen to him.

We didn't know we would be the first target

On Saturday, September 15, 2001, Balbir went to Costco to buy flowers for the landscaping in front of the gas station. In the checkout line, he paid $75 to the New York Relief Fund. Honestly, I believe he donated whatever he had in his pocket.


He called me around 2 p.m. and said, "Bring me a couple of American flags. I want to put them in my store."

I checked my neighborhood stores and couldn't find any. They were all out of stock. So I told him that I would just see him at a friend's party that night.

At around 2:45 p.m., an employee from Balbir's store called me and said something had happened at the store. I immediately thought it was a robbery, something very common in convenience stores. He told me that there had been a shooting, that bullets had hit my brother, but still I never thought, This is a hate crime, or Balbir has been killed. I locked up my store and went straight there.

I arrived at the gas station at around 3:15 p.m. When I got there, I saw my Balbir laying facedown on the forecourt. Nearly a hundred people were gathered around him. The police would not let us go onto the property, they had taped it all off. I saw my brothers and cousins and everybody crying. I saw all these things at once, so I still couldn't imagine what had happened. Then I started crying very badly too. I turned to my brothers and cousins, and they tried to comfort me. I had so much attachment to Balbir. It was very emotional for me.


By the time I got there, everyone had figured out what had happened. It was a hate crime. At around 2:30 p.m., Balbir had been standing on the forecourt talking with Louis Ledesma, a landscape worker, when a black pickup pulled up and the driver shot him. He didn't try to shoot anyone else standing there -- only my brother, because he had a turban.

It wasn't an accident

On Sunday August 4, 2002, less than a year after Balbir died, I got a call that my brother Sukhpal had been in a very bad accident and might not survive. Sukhpal had been driving a cab in San Francisco, sending money home to his wife and children in India. Although Sukhpal had stayed in San Francisco, he was planning to move with us to Phoenix.

I went to San Francisco and found out that it wasn't an accident, it was a shooting. He was driving his cab in the city and was hit in the back of his head by a bullet, then his car crashed into a pole. It wasn't a robbery; nothing was taken from his pockets.


The police said that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that maybe he was passing through a gang fight and got hit by a stray bullet. But there had been lots of attacks on Sikh cab drivers in the city. Two weeks earlier, Sukhpal's friend, also a turbaned Sikh, had been pulled from his cab at a red light and beaten. I believe Sukhpal's death was a hate crime too.

On September 14, we had a large memorial in Mesa for Sukhpal. We had a celebration in the park, and 2,000 people showed up. The media covered the event well and conveyed our message of peace to the community. After that we had another memorial service in San Francisco. But I don't think as many people know about Sukhpal's death as they do Balbir's. Ten years have passed and people still know the story of Balbir Singh Sodhi. Sukhpal's death is still not resolved as a hate crime. Many people like Sukhpal have faced beatings, assaults, and other kinds of racism, but there's not enough evidence to show that it's a hate crime.

His death had to mean something

I had lost two brothers in 11 months. I wasn't feeling anger, but sadness.

I thought, This is happening all over again to our family. Then I found Balbir's diary and I read his very last entry. He wrote, "God, I'm blessed by you, and I'm happy with my life, and I'm ready to give my life for your work." Maybe God wanted to use Balbir as a messenger to bring the whole community together.

One night, both brothers appeared to me in a dream. Sukphal told me, "We are happy where we are. You should be happy." That dream changed my thinking a little. I felt that everybody has to die, but it's the way they die that's important. We respect their lives, and people will remember them their whole lives -- it's a big honor to die like that. It's a sad thing, but after 9/11, I look at their deaths that way.

Sikhs have lived in this country for more than 100 years, but our community is still not recognized. When people see the turban today, they still don't know who we are. However, organizations like the Sikh Coalition, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) and United Sikhs are doing work to spread the word and educate other communities. Even the prime minister of India called President Bush after Balbir's death and said that he was concerned for the Sikh population in America.

When I met with the Anti-Defamation League here in Phoenix, they encouraged me to tell my story and work against hate crimes. They helped me come out and speak and educate people. Now I travel the country to raise awareness about Sikhs and tell my brothers' stories.

This has been sad for our family because we lost so much. But on the other side, we are now doing so much to educate our fellow Americans in Congress and around the country about Sikh culture. All of this has happened after Balbir's death, so I think his death had to mean something to us.

I think that it's an important part of life to take care of our extended community and to work to understand one another better. And when I say "community," I don't mean the Sikh community but the whole American community.

If we had a better family, a better community and a better country, all these incidents wouldn't have happened.

Bad things happen when people don't know about each other. That's how I feel. I try to do whatever I can do to make our future better.

From "Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice," edited by Alia Malek and published by Voice of Witness. This oral history collection tells the stories of men and women who have been needlessly swept up in the War on Terror. Narrators recount personal experiences of the post-9/11 backlash that have deeply altered their lives and communities. For more information on the book and to learn more about Voice of Witness visit www.voiceofwitness.org.

Rana Sodhi

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