Representative Mike Coffman speaks with Samiha Singh, a Sikh student who was in attendance for the committee hearing Aug. 7 at the State Capitol in Denver. Members of the Sikh community in the 6th congressional district expressed their concern regarding the difficulties of being a Sikh child in public schools and the pertinence of education of their religion in the school system, Aug. 7 a the Colorado State Capitol. Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
Paul Juneja, center right, addresses a committee of school board members from the 6th Congressional District and Representative Coffman, about the difficulties of being a Sikh child in public schools and the pertinence of education of their religion in the school system, Aug. 7 a the Colorado State Capitol. Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
A committee of school board members from the 6th Congressional District and Representative Coffman, listen to concerns from members of the community regarding the difficulties of being a Sikh child in public schools and the pertinence of education of their religion in the school system, Aug. 7 a the Colorado State Capitol. Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel
DENVER| Turbans don’t mean terrorism and Colorado residents who wear them for religious reasons want help protecting those who wear them.
Colorado’s Sikh community is imploring educators and political leaders to help spread knowledge and awareness about their culture in an attempt to curb the discrimination and bullying that targets their children on a regular basis.
A national problem, Sikhs say they regularly suffer overt and subtle discrimination because of the way they dress. They’re shunned by an American public that doesn’t understand who they are and who they’re not. They’re not Muslims, they point out, another group of Americans regularly discriminated against because of terrorist attacks my Islamic extremists.
Sikhism, originating in India, is the fifth largest religion in the world. But despite its size, the religion and its followers are often misunderstood in the United States and elsewhere. And that misunderstanding leads to the Sikh community facing a constant barrage of discrimination.
That is why members of Colorado Sikhs, a nonprofit formed by the community, want to see their religion included in the faiths taught in the world religion section of social studies courses in Colorado. While the Colorado Academic Standards includes teaching enlightenment and modern changes in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, school districts can go beyond the standards and include other religions as well.
The group has reached out to the Colorado Board of Education for inclusion in curriculum and met on Aug, 7 at the Colorado Capitol with U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and representatives from school districts in the Aurora area to ask for the change.
Gurpreet Juneja, one of the speakers at the Aug. 7 event, said the effort to include Sikhism in school curriculum would benefit both the Sikh community and the greater community at large. Many young Sikhs cut their hair now in fear of not fitting in and the ones who don’t are afraid to participate in things like extracurricular activities for fear of bullying.
Juneja’s own 7-year-old son was acting out at home and school. After trying to find out the reason for the change in his behavior, they realized it was because he was being subjected to bullying because of the patka he wore, the headdress young boys use until they learn how to tie a turban.
“He was becoming a bully because he was being bullied. That will have an affect on everyone in society. That is the impact this has on everyone,” Juneja said. “My heart bleeds for my children and all the other children.”
After her family discovered the source of their son’s behavior, Juneja said she went to the school to help teach the children about what it means to be a Sikh, how to tie a turban and why they wear them. Knowledge helps demystify Sikhism and in turn promotes acceptance.
“But not everyone has the time and resources to go into their children’s school and help teach people about our faith,” Juneja said. “That’s why we want our religion to be taught along side the other world religions in school.”
Sikhs have been subjected to a large number of hate crimes and other acts of violence since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, often targets of such attacks because of their religion’s call to wear turbans and not shave their beards. A Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012 was attacked by a white supremacist who killed six worshipers.
“There is always concern about protecting religious liberty in this country and I think one of the most targeted groups in America, relative to their numbers, are members of the Sikh community,” Coffman said during the event at the state Legislature. “We’re here today to discuss what can be done to make their path for their children a little easier in school.”
Members of Colorado Sikhs asked for the school districts in the eastern metro area to move ahead with teaching their religion in social studies classes. The group said it is willing and able to provide any materials to help teach the class or find money to help fund its inclusion in the curriculum.
Aurora Public Schools board member Dan Jorgensen attended the meeting on Aug. 7 and said he appreciated the opportunity to learn from the Sikh community how APS and other school districts could better serve them.
“In a time when tolerance often appears to be lacking, the need for the exploration of different beliefs and perspectives within our education system is critical,” Jorgensen said. “I’m personally supportive of the request being made to include the Sikh religion…within our world religion curriculum should it be absent.”
Jorgensen said he would share with his fellow board members details from the meeting and see how the curriculum could best represent the entire community.
Manpreet Singh, a graduate from Aurora Public Schools and a business owner in Thornton, said he sees it as his duty, as a Sikh, to reach out to people who may not understand or be afraid of him and other Sikhs because of their turbans and beard. The goal isn’t to just be accepted but for others to recognize that their Sikh neighbors are their fellow citizens who love this country and want to see it thrive.
“It’s my duty as a Sikh to show patience and compassion to everyone. … When I’m on a plane I can just sit there and check my phone or I can have a conversation with a person who is nervous because of my appearance,” Singh said. “I’m an American. My values are American values and we want this country to succeed like everyone else.”
The five-century-old religion was begun in the Punjab region of India. It is described as a panentheistic religion based on sacred scriptures of premier Guru Nanak and subsequent other gurus, focusing on the worship of the one creator. The religion strives for unity of all mankind, service to community and humanity, social justice and living an honest and ethical life at all times and in all things. There are an estimated 25 million Sikhs worldwide, most living in Punjab.