Humanizing Victims of Hate

2014-09-17-balbir singh sodhi
Balbir Singh Sodhi

I can’t stop thinking about hate.

I have written a couple of pieces recently about Islamophobia, Sikhophobia, media profiling and hate-crimes, and both of them focus on the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first hate crime casualty of post-9/11 America. While these essays have considered how his murder fits within the broader context of hate and violence, I realized that they do not account for the fact that hate-crime victims are real people with real families.

It is important that we take time to humanize these individuals. In overlooking their humanity, we lose a part of our own. We can maintain our own humanity by registering and remembering the effects that hate-crimes have on more personal levels.

With this in mind, I reached out to members of the Sodhi family to learn more about their heart-wrenching experiences.

I learned that the story of Balbir Singh Sodhi mirrors that of countless other Sikh-Americans. Balbir was raised as the eldest of eight siblings in the village of Passiawal in Punjab, India, where his family successfully engaged in farming and business. As religious discrimination and anti-Sikh persecution escalated in India during the 1980s, the Sodhi family decided to escape Punjab and seek its freedoms in the United States. Balbir initially settled with his brother and worked at a 7-Eleven in Los Angeles, Calif., and he later moved to California’s Bay Area where he drove a taxi.

After being robbed in his own taxi, however, Balbir began to feel unsafe and uncomfortable. In 2000, he and his brother decided to settle in what they considered to be an especially safe area — Mesa, Ariz. The two of them bought a home and a Chevron gas station, the same station where Balbir would be shot and killed a year later.

All accounts describe Balbir Singh Sodhi as a devoted father and husband who would work 12-14 hours a day, carefully save his earnings and send whatever he could to his family living back in India. In addition to his parents and siblings, Sodhi’s wife and three children stayed back in Punjab when he moved to America, and they planned to join him once the family could afford it. Balbir was only able to visit India twice, most recently in 1992 to attend his daughter’s wedding. Five years later, his son Sukhwinder joined him in California, where he settled with his new bride. Just 20 days before his death, Balbir met with his son and daughter-in-law and expressed his desire to spend more time with his children.

Despite their physical distance, Balbir remained close with his wife in Punjab by calling her on a daily basis. Six hours before he was killed, Sodhi spoke with his wife over the phone and assured her that he had not been affected by the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Four hours later, Balbir called his son and asked him to take over the gas station — Balbir was planning to visit Punjab and celebrate his silver wedding anniversary with his wife.

One hour later, Balbir Singh Sodhi visited the local Costco to buy American flags and flowers for display at his Chevron. At the checkout line he noticed that the Red Cross was raising funds, and he emptied the cash from his wallet to make a $75 donation for emergency relief workers at Ground Zero. After returning from Costco, Balbir was working with his landscaper when a truck approached them from behind. According to court documents, five or six shots rang out.

Within minutes, Balbir was dead.

Immediately after his murder, his family and local community members gathered at the Chevron Station and held an overnight vigil. People would continue to visit the site for the next several months to pay their respects and place fresh flowers at the Chevron station where he was killed. The local community planned a special memorial service to mark the one-year anniversary of his murder and honor the memories of all hate-crime targets and victims in post-9/11 America.

Unfortunately, the program was marred by another murder that rocked the Sodhi family.

About six weeks before the memorial service, Balbir Singh Sodhi’s younger brother Sukhpal was shot and killed while driving his taxi in the Mission District of San Francisco, Calif. Although the police have yet to determine whether or not his murder is to be classified as a hate-crime, the Sodhi family remains convinced that Sukhpal was killed because of the way he looked.

The stories of Sukhpal and Balbir bear a number of striking similarities. Sukhpal also supported his wife and two daughters who lived in the village of Passiwal in Punjab, India. Sukhpal came to the United States in 1991 with the support of his brother Harjit, and immediately upon arrival, he began preparing paperwork to help connect with his family. Although his application for a Green Card was approved in 1995, immigration officials refused to grant him the proper documentation and Sodhi was forced to take them to court. While Sukhpal’s immigration paperwork proceeded through the courts, his wife Parwinder made multiple attempts to secure a visa to visit him in the United States. She tried three times between April of 2000 and October of 2001, and each time her application was rejected.

In June of 2002, seven agonizing years after initially receiving approval for his Green Card, the family finally received good news. Sukhpal had won a judgment that instructed the INS to issue his Green Card. Sukhpal Singh Sodhi was overjoyed by the judgment and began weeping at the prospect of reuniting with his family. Allotting a few months to complete the paperwork, Sukhpal planned a trip to see his family in Punjab during October of 2002.

He would never end up going. On Aug. 4, 2002 — about 11 months after the murder of his brother and three months before reuniting with his wife — Sukhpal was shot and killed in San Francisco.

The Sodhi family was devastated. After escaping religious persecution in Punjab during the 1980s, they lost two of their own in apparent hate-crimes. With the simple pull of a trigger, the Sodhi family’s American dream had quickly turned into a nightmare.

Yet, instead of empathizing with the plight of the Sodhi family, we have come to remember Balbir and Sukhpal as mere statistics and symbols to be appropriated by particular communities. We have forgotten that they were real people — devoted sons, fathers and husbands — who had dreams and families just like the rest of us.

We have dehumanized them, and in doing so, we have compromised our own humanity.

Let us step back and preserve their memories on a more human level. As a society, we will be better for it.


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