Tag Archive | "Colleen McKown"

Sikhs Engage in Interfaith Dialogue

By Colleen McKown, Indian Beat Reporter–“Do you have any ceremony like the bar mitzvah for a boy when he starts wearing his turban?” asked an audience member named Marty.

“That’s a great question,” Savraj Singh replied.  “Officially, there is not a religious ceremony, but culturally there is one.”

During an interfaith presentation on a recent Wednesday, Singh, a young, maroon-turbaned computer scientist and Princeton graduate, explained the basic tenants of Sikhism and took questions from listeners. He was speaking to a group of about 30 Jewish seniors at a community center in Washington Township, N.J.

Harry Lerman said his group of seniors was welcomed with open arms while visiting a Sikh temple, or gurdwara, earlier in the year. “We were treated like gods,” said Lerman.

Lerman was eager to return the favor and host a presentation about Sikhism at the Jewish community center.

Singh moved energetically around the room as he pointed to his slides and answered group members’ questions during the hour and a half long presentation.

Since 9/11, Sikhs have experienced an increase in hate crimes because people mistakenly associate their turbans and long beards with terrorism. Sikh activists like Singh want to make it clear that their religion is one of peace and equality.  Singh and other volunteers give presentations on Sikhism at schools and at interfaith events across the country. Interest in hosting interfaith dialogues has increased after six people were shot and killed at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last August.

Harkishan Singh Jassal, former president of the Glen Rock, N.J. temple, said the temple held an interfaith community service that drew around 400 people after the Wisconsin shootings.

“After that, many people got interested, inviting us to events like this. People have started coming to temple that just want to know about Sikhism,” Jassal said.

Singh drew connections between his community and the Jewish community during the presentation.

“I think Sikhs in this country have a special connection with the Jewish community,” he said to the group.  “In many ways, we look to the Jewish community as another minority group in America that has done a lot of things right in this country.”

Singh gave statistics that seemed to surprise some listeners.  In listing the world’s major religions, Singh revealed that Sikhism comes out as the fifth largest. Sikhism, with its 23 million adherents, is just above Judaism, which has 15 million followers.

Singh addressed the surprise, saying, “Many people say, how have people not heard of Sikhs when it’s such a popular religion?” Well, it turns out 20 million are in India and only 3 million are outside of it.”

Sikhism is a young religion, Singh explained. He asked the crowd to guess how long Judaism has been around.

“5,000 years,” several responded.

“Well, we are an order of magnitude younger,” said Singh.

Sikhism is just over 500 years old.  The religion was founded in what is now northern India, and it was founded on the premise of equality in a society then entrenched in the caste system.  Sikhs believe in one God, and they wear turbans, uncut hair, and other articles of faith such as a small bracelet (kara) and sword (kirpan) to keep them ever-present of their commitment to the faith.

Sikhs do not proselytize, which Singh said posed a problem for the community after 9/11. Sikhs did not have any set methods for explaining their religion to outsiders, so many misunderstood their identity.  The Sikh Coalition was born out of this incentive. The nonprofit organization trains volunteers like Singh to give presentations about their faith to combat ignorance post-9/11.

Singh began giving presentations in part because he had personally experienced the power of educating people about Sikhism.  When in school, he used to get in fights with other students because he looked different.  His parents told him to present with another Sikh student and educate his peers about his identity.

Singh said, “Immediately after I went from being this weird kid on the sidelines with this weird religion to being like, oh, Savraj is cool. Sikhism is cool!”  Basic awareness, Singh said, goes a long way in making people comfortable with each other.

Singh told listeners that Sikhism is its own religion, completely separate from any other.

“Often we’re confused with Islam, and sometimes we also get conflated as a blend of Hinduism and Islam,” he said.  “We love and appreciate everyone and their faiths, but we are a distinct faith.”

“So I take it you have nothing to do with the Koran,” a woman named Miriam asked.

“Miriam is exactly right,” Singh responded.  “Sikhism has nothing to do with the Koran.  We actually have our own unique scripture.”

Some questions drew a laugh from the audience. In response to a question about whether young people date, Singh responded, “I would say they absolutely do. Their parents would say, no, they don’t.”

Singh said because Sikhs are a minority community, there is pressure to date within the community so the Sikh religion lives on.

Lerman said he enjoyed the presentation, adding that it disproved a rumor about Sikhs that he had been convinced was true.

“They’re always saying the Sikhs have the daggers in their turban, and I was almost expecting him to say that,” he said. “And I was pleased it wasn’t true.”

Lerman’s wife, Millie, said she thought the presentation was valuable.  “America is a nation of minorities, so it’s important to know your neighbors,” she said.

Lerman said that while he feels the majority of Americans are tolerant and respectful, the small number of hate mongers pose a serious problem.

“Recently there were intended destructions of synagogues, fire bombing of synagogues,” Lerman said.  “We know that the Sikh community suffered a terrible attack in Wisconsin, so we, America has a way to go.”



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[VIDEO] Sounds of Brazil in Midtown

[VIDEO] Sounds of Brazil in Midtown

Brazilian guitarist João Kouyoumdjian performed at the Brazilian Endowment for the Arts in New York City on East 52nd St. Nia Phillips reports on how the young musician is breathing new life into the classics.

Produced by Colleen McKown.

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[VIDEO] A Different Take on Sandy Relief

Medical relief workers can be found throughout New York City in Sandy’s aftermath.  In Coney Island, two volunteers provide an alternative approach to relief work.  Colleen McKown reports.

Produced by Yvonne Bang.

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[VIDEO] Hubble Bubble, Health Department Trouble

Hookah lounges in Paterson, New Jersey are going up in smoke. Health Department officials are busting the lounges for violating a 2007 ban on smoking indoors. They say the Middle Eastern water pipes, used for smoking flavored tobacco, are simply not allowed inside businesses.  Paradise Hookah Lounge on Main Street has faced crippling fines and a dramatic decrease in customers. Colleen McKown has the story.

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Ethnic America Goes to the Polls

Reporters from the New York Torch visited polling places in the New York City and Jersey City area to ask first-time voters from ethnic communities about their experiences, opinions and hopes for America.

Click on the pictures to know their stories.

Reporting by Mea Ashley, Yvonne Bang, Magdalene Castro, William Denselow, Shaukat Hamdani, Colleen McKown, Michael Orr, MaryAlice Parks, Nia Phillips, Griselda Ramirez, Rebecca Sanchez and Charlotte Stafford.
Edited by Jay Devineni, Lorelai Germain, Stephen Jiwanmall, Ntshepeng Motema and Christina Thorne.
Complied by Dhiya Kuriakose.

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Representing a Variety of Cultures, Jackson Heights Votes

Bangladeshis, Mexicans, Indians, and Pakistanis were among the new citizens who voted Tuesday at P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights, Queens. Early in the day the polls were quiet, but as things picked up later on there was evident confusion about the process. Many said they were first-time voters who had just attained U.S. citizenship. Photos by Charlotte Stafford and Colleen McKown

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[VIDEO] Subcontinental Discontent

Some organizations say the South Asian voice is underrepresented in the polls.  The groups have been working to mobilize this community through get out the vote efforts in Queens.  William Denselow reports. Edited and produced by Colleen McKown.

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Astoria Residents React to Hurricane Sandy

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Sikhs Educating New Yorkers About Their Religion

Photo credit: AP Images. Sikhs in New York are educating people about who they are and what they believe. Sikhs have been the target of violent crimes since 9/11, and they want people across America to know they are a peaceful group.

by Colleen McKown, Indian Beat Reporter —

Amid a recent spate of hate crimes, Sikh organizations in New York City are seeking to raise consciousness about their religion by giving awareness presentations at schools, workplaces and community centers.  Sikhs are sometimes mistakenly associated with terrorism because they wear turbans and long beards.  Organizations like United Sikhs and the Sikh Coalition say they want the public to understand that Sikhism is a peaceful religion.

Mankanwal Singh, national community empowerment director of United Sikhs, said that when the organization first wanted to go into schools and workplaces after 9/11 to educate people about Sikhs, the public wasn’t interested.  “It took awhile to get people to listen,” he said.

“People misunderstand our practices,” said Singh. “It is always hard in a culture where the predominant culture is not yours.”

Hate crimes against Sikhs spiked after 9/11, and still continue. Last August, six were shot and killed at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  Schools, businesses, police stations, and houses of worship eventually started opening their doors to presenters as they recognized the need for educating the public in the post-9/11 years. Now, Sikh organizations conduct presentations in the greater New York City area and throughout the country.

Inder Kohli, a volunteer with the advocacy group Sikh Coalition, presented Sunday, October 14 at First Presbyterian Church in Rutherford, N.J.  Kohli explained Sikh beliefs and practices and brought in children to sing stanzas from Sikh scriptures during the service. Afterwards, he answered questions from the audience.

First Presbyterian asked Kohli to come in after some members saw him at an interfaith “community solidarity” event that followed the August shootings.  At his gurdwara, or temple, in Glen Rock, New Jersey, Kohli gave back-to-back Sikh Awareness Presentations on the Sunday after the shootings.

“There are no overtones of religious conversion in these talks,” Kohli said.  “Nothing is about conversion. The belief itself does not have conversion.”

“We are just explaining the way we worship,” he added.

The Sikh religion began in the Punjab region of what is now India about 500 years ago.  At the time, Sikhism broke with Hinduism in part because Sikhs rejected the caste system.  Sikhism is a monotheistic religion, and Sikhs believe in equality, service, self-restraint and modesty.  The turban is one of the Sikh articles of faith–Sikhs wear it over their uncut hair. Sikhs avoid cutting their hair or beards to honor the creator’s intention.

Kohli was trained through the Sikh Presenter’s Course at Sikh Coalition. The group has been conducting presentations for the past seven years. His presentation at First Presbyterian was the first he gave to a church group.  In the past, he has spoken primarily to students at both the high school and university level.

The school presentations are designed to “fight ignorance and bullying,” Kohli said.  “The younger generation faces this the most.”

Manbeena Kaur, education director at the Sikh Coalition, said there is a huge disconnect between television and real life. Images of turbaned, bearded terrorists, such as Osama Bin Laden, were splashed all over American news broadcasts for years.  While Americans therefore associate the appearance with terrorism, Kaur said that “99% of the people you see with a turban and beard are actually Sikh.”  She added, “We couldn’t be further from terrorism.”

School presentations typically include a short video on why Sikhs wear turbans and a power-point presentation on the story of Sikhs in America. For younger students, presenters will sometimes bring Punjabi food for students and teach them how to write their names in Punjabi.  They also sometimes do a turban-tying demonstration.

The turban-tying “demystifies what is underneath the turban,” and allows the students to observe with what “care, respect, and love we tie the turban,” Kaur said.

Presenters are brought in at the request of parents, counselors at the schools, and students themselves to combat bullying.  “Eighty percent of the time, it is preventative,” Kaur said.

Robin Stolar, a guidance counselor at P.S. 161 in Queens, said Sikh students faced a lot of bullying in years past.  She credits the presentations with helping to cut down on the bullying.

“Students have a positive reaction to the presentation because it talks about prejudices in all cultures,” Stolar said.

Kaur said the Sikh Coalition went through a multiple-round vetting process before deciding on the content and format of the talks. The group was careful not to use the language “Sikhs aren’t Muslims” because the point of the presentations isn’t to place blame or associate Muslims with terrorists, but to increase understanding of Sikhs.

Tejpreet Kaur, director of community development at the Sikh Coalition, leads the Junior Sikh Coalition for Sikh youth. The group conducts Know Your Rights workshops that teach students how to respond to bullying. Young Sikhs learn to identify what bullying is, how to stand up for themselves, and who to turn to. While a school is required by law to report a bullying incident within 24 hours, Tejpreet said this doesn’t always happen.

Tejpreet said the Sikh Coalition is preparing to begin training students to give their own Sikh Awareness Presentations at schools. “They all know why they practice the way they do,” she said. The students’ challenge will be “translating and articulating that to a non-Sikh audience.”

Dr. Uma Mysorekar, the president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America and a prominent leader in New York’s Hindu community, is heavily involved in interfaith initiatives in the city.  She said that the issues Sikhs face come down to misunderstanding and lack of education.   She recounted an incident when a student group came to tour a Sikh temple in Flushing, Queens. They were uncomfortable with covering their heads in the temple, and refused to go in.

Mysorekar said the incident illustrates the importance of information and understanding.  “I don’t blame the students. It came as a shock,” she said.  “The teachers should have explained this rule to them before they even went so they wouldn’t be surprised.”

Manbeena Kaur said she has received an overwhelmingly positive response to the presentations, and that audiences react with curiosity and intelligent questions.  While presenting, she said, it’s important to “be alive, animated, and genuinely be there because you want to teach them the beauty of the religion.”


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Tibetans Protest for Religious Freedom

McKown Tibetansv4 by Colleen McKown

On November 8, China’s Communist Party will choose a new leader for the first time in a decade. Tibetans are challenging expected leader Xi Jinping to improve human rights in Chinese-ruled Tibet. Protesters gathered at the Chinese embassy in New York last week. Colleen McKown reports.



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