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Sikhs foster continuing dialog in wake of tragedy

Film screening to further discussion about Oak Creek shooting, Sikh culture

Dec. 11, 2012

The Oak Creek Sikh community and the national Sikh community are turning the Aug. 5 tragedy that took six of their own into a lesson for us all: Know your neighbor and love even those who hate.

Wednesday they will reach out once more to the larger community, along with the nonprofit Peace Learning Circles, by showing two films at the Marcus South Shore cinema, 7261 S. 13th St., at 6 p.m.

The film screening is the first event in PLC's educational series "One community, One world." At the event, Sikh filmmakers Valarie Kaur and Sharat Raju will present two Sikh-centered films shot before the tragedy.

"American Made" by Raju, a short fictional work focused on issues of racism, faith and Sikh culture, will be shown alongside narrated clips from Kaur and Raju's documentary "Divided We Fall."

A new film, "Oak Creek: In Memoriam," which documented the Oak Creek Sikh community's response to the tragedy, will be shown for the first time.

"We captured the grief and sadness but also the courage and resilience in the week after the tragedy," Kaur said. "We turned that footage into a short, seven-minute piece for the community, so that is what we'll be screening. It's supposed to be a short film that allows for introspection and reflection, but also hope."

The night's purpose is twofold: to address the events in Oak Creek, but also to educate the community about Sikhism and the backlash Sikhs received after the 9/11 attacks.

Traditional Sikh food and music will be played before the event and there will be a question-and-answer session for audience members after the screenings.

The backlash against the Sikh community resulting from 9/11 gave Kaur and Raju the impetus to begin their work as filmmakers. The first act of hate resulting in a death was to a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona. He was a friend of Kaur's family and was mistaken for a Muslim by his killer.

Victims of the tragedy, including Pardeep Kaleka, whose father was slain in the Aug. 5 attack by white supremacist Wade Michael Page, will also give testimonials.

Hate into love

While Wednesday's event will be hosted by PLC, a group outside of the temple, temple members have been advocating for peace and understanding.

Kaleka has teamed up with Arno Michaelis, an ex-white supremacist, to lead a series of talks on issues of hatred, acceptance and redemption.

The two spoke at Cudahy High School Dec. 3 and plan on spreading a message of understanding in future talks.

"I think it's very important that people do not see this as a Sikh tragedy," Kaleka said. "It's an American tragedy and, far worse, it's a human tragedy. This is a complete injustice anywhere."

Kaleka emailed Michaelis after finding out about his post-supremacist work with the group Life After Hate. The two immediately hit it off and became good friends. Michaelis now calls Kaleka "Par" and the two aren't afraid to call each other brothers.

Since the two joined forces, their message has been simple: Reach out to others and break down barriers.

"You see the world as it hates you," Kaleka said. "One thing that sticks out with me with Wade Page, if someone had come along at some time and showed him that compassion and kindness, we wouldn't be talking right now. He would have changed his way."

Michaelis got out of the white power movement after becoming a single parent and losing a friend to a street fight in 1994. With most of his supremacist friends dead or in prison, he knew that he was all his daughter had. He also experienced acts of kindness from those he hated while he was involved in the white power movement.

If Michaelis could say one thing to his 1993 self, it would be: "The world is as beautiful or horrible as you care to see it."

Opening communications

Both Kaur and Kaleka agree that the Aug. 5 tragedy has brought Sikhism to a never-before known national spotlight. The two aim to keep the discussion alive via Kaur's film, Kaleka's talks and any other way possible.

"It was an enormous challenge to explain our faith and community at the same time as calling for a response to tragedy," said Kaur, whose family has lived in America since 1913. "I am profoundly proud of my peers and those who work alongside of me. There's a new generation of Sikh Americans in their 20s and 30s who really rose to the challenge after that tragedy."

Although the event brought the relatively-new religion into the national spotlight, Kaleka believes that more could have been done.

Speaking on the Aurora Colorado tragedy, Kaleka said, "I hate to say it, but I think that the Colorado shooting was more newsworthy because it has a certain aspect of relate-ability. Maybe to a certain extent, people couldn't relate to being in a Sikh temple."

That's what he's hoping to change, not necessarily through his talks and work with Michaelis, but through his actions as a community member.

"After this, I hope that people start to realize that Sikhism is best defined as a culture by the things that we do, rather than how we look," Kaleka said. "If we want to be part of the broader community, we have to help the broader community."

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