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Community members remember the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ten years ago today, a white supremacist walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and opened fire. Seven people were killed. As the community remembers the massacre, the number of hate crimes against Asian Americans, including South Asians and Sikhs, continues to climb. NPR's Sandhya Dirks reports.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Pardeep Singh Kaleka and his family were supposed to be at the gurdwara that morning.

PARDEEP SINGH KALEKA: We were 10 minutes away from losing our life or maybe losing our life.

DIRKS: They were running late. Kaleka's daughter forgot her notebook at home.

KALEKA: Both my mom and dad were inside the gurdwara at the time. My dad lost his life. And my mom was able to survive by kind of hiding in a closet.

DIRKS: At the time, it was the deadliest hate crime in a place of worship in the U.S.

Back then, Deepa Iyer was head of SAALT, South Asian Americans Leading Together. She remembers seeing the news on TV.

DEEPA IYER: When I watched those images from the parking lot of the gurdwara, you know, I was devastated. I was shocked. And there was a part of me that was not surprised.

DIRKS: There's a long history of racism against Sikhs and South Asians in America. But after 9/11, things got exponentially worse. The first victim of a 9/11-fueled hate crime was a Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi.

IYER: The idea that South Asians are seen as a national security threat - you know, it's not fully gone away, right? It's still in the ether.

DIRKS: Iyer says the government was interested in South Asians as perpetrators of terrorism. They didn't so much care about them as victims of it. Here's then-18-year-old Harpreet Singh Saini, whose mother was murdered at Oak Creek, testifying before the U.S. Senate in the days after.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARPREET SINGH SAINI: I came here today to ask the government to give my mother the dignity of being a statistic. The FBI does not track hate crimes against Sikhs.

DIRKS: It took until 2015 for the FBI to start, says Nikki Singh with the Sikh Coalition.

NIKKI SINGH: If we look at the data, since 2015, Sikhs have been among the top five, if not among the top three, most targeted faith groups for hate crimes across the United States.

DIRKS: The group Stop AAPI Hate has been tracking hate crimes against Asian Americans since the pandemic. They found this past year South Asians, alongside Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians, reported higher rates of bias incidents and hate crimes than East Asians. Oak Creek was in many ways the harbinger of the rising wave of white supremacist terrorism. It's something that Pardeep Singh Kaleka has thought about since his dad was killed in the gurdwara that morning.

KALEKA: How understanding racism and white supremacy is such an academic exercise for lots of Americans, and for other people, it's a lived experience.

DIRKS: Kaleka is now a deradicalization counselor working with white supremacists. He says you have to get at the root causes of hate. But he says it can be hard.

KALEKA: And I fear that it will continue to escalate.

DIRKS: He points out that even tonight, as his community gathers for a vigil in Oak Creek, Donald Trump is holding a rally 20 minutes away in Waukesha, the site of a mass killing last November that the Anti-Defamation League says has been exploited by white supremacists. Kaleka says, before the massacre, he didn't consider himself to be super religious. But that changed. There's this saying in his religion.

KALEKA: Nanak Naam Chardi Kala, teraa bhane sarbat da bhala is repeated over and over again.

DIRKS: It means, in part, to...

KALEKA: Bend the moral arc of this universe towards a good for all people.

DIRKS: It tells followers something essential to Sikhism - be relentlessly optimistic.

Sandhya Dirks, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA AND SILKROAD ENSEMBLE'S "DISTANT GREEN VALLEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.