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Tragedy shakes Oak Creek Sikh community's very foundation

Harbans Singh Fargwaha holds a candle during a prayer vigil in support of the victims and families of those impacted by the shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. He was inside the temple during the shooting.

Harbans Singh Fargwaha holds a candle during a prayer vigil in support of the victims and families of those impacted by the shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. He was inside the temple during the shooting. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Aug. 7, 2012

Oak Creek - Less than six years after bringing a Sikh temple to Oak Creek, Balhair Dulai is having to bury the men and women whose steadiness and love, he says, formed the foundation which made the faith community here so strong.

Dulai came to Milwaukee in 1977, when the Sikh community in Southeastern Wisconsin was confined to a few scattered places.

"There were only a few families and we got together to start prayer," Dulai recalled.

"We would just go to each house at the time, but then the community grew."

After opening a temple in Brookfield and then another on Lincoln Avenue, the Sikh community had grown and a new space was necessary. The temple on Howell Avenue opened in 2007 and now has well over 300 regular congregants, Dulai said, with as many as 500 for special occasions.

A dream becomes a nightmare

Sunday morning, the population shifted in the most heinous of ways as 40-year-old Wade Michael Page gunned down six people at the Oak Creek temple, including Satwant Singh Kaleka, the president of the temple who had worked close with Dulai to create this new faith community.

When Dulai heard about the shooting Sunday morning, he was met with incredulity before panic set in as he realized his wife was at the temple preparing food.

"I said 'Who would be shooting at the temple?' It was unbelievable," Dulai said.

"It wasn't even sinking in. I said 'You better make sure.' "

Frantic calls from Dulai to Kaleka's cell phone and the temple went unreturned. He didn't know his friend had already lost his life trying to defend the temple against Page's onslaught.

"He was a very good friend and an excellent person that we're really going to miss," Dulai said.

"He was like the glue, so it's going to be hard to fill his shoes with anyone."

Concern for his family

Balhair's wife, Jasbir, was still in the kitchen when Page arrived. Page fired on Jasbir and another woman six times, failing to connect with even a single shot, although ricocheting bullets buffeted the wall and ended up causing minor injuries to Jasbir's feet.

After missing the two women at close range, Page was apparently distracted by the arrival of Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy, the first officer to respond. Balhair is sure that had Murphy not arrived, more killing was inevitable.

"If the officer hadn't been there, it could have been worse," he said, grimly. "My wife could have been (killed) too."

Murphy was shot nine times by Page before another squad arrived. Murphy insisted the officers attend to the people inside rather than his own needs. Those responding officers killed Page before he could harm any more people inside the temple.

When Dulai arrived on the scene just after 10:30 a.m., he informed authorities that he had keys to the buildings and the blueprint. Even after letting law enforcement into the temple, Balhair still couldn't be reunited with his wife given the risk, at the time, of a potential second shooter.

Dulai said it was the most relief he's ever felt when he finally was reunited with his wife once the building had been cleared.

Too close to home

Henry Randow, who lives just east of the Sikh Temple and moved in around a year before it was built, called this horrifying day something he never thought could happen so close to home.

"Whether it's close or not, I guess the thing is, it can happen anywhere. It's sad something like that has to happen."

For Balhair and Jasbir Dulai, the temple was also a home, albeit a spiritual one. Jasbir escaped with her life, but for her and Balhair, their home has been rocked from its foundation, which the two helped build.

It is bedrock that will now have to be rebuilt, this time in memory of those who lost their lives fighting to protect it.

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