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Oak Creek, Sikh Communities Find Support In Each Other

Sikhs and Oak Creek residents have found solace in one another in the weeks following the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin shootings.

I was finishing up a conversation with Tejpreet Kaur, a community organizer with the New York-based Sikh Coalition, when I asked her if there was anything else she wanted to say.

"We're thoroughly inspired by the community in Oak Creek," she told me last week. "The courage, the strength, the optimism they have shown has been inspiring."

That's funny, I said. Oak Creek residents feel the exact same way about the Sikh community.

The tragic events of Aug. 5, when a lone gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and killed six members and injured four others, deeply impacted both groups.

And in the days that followed, they have turned to each other for support, mutually inspired by how each has responded.

For the Sikh community, they are dealing with the loss of six valued members of the Oak Creek temple and recuperating from an unthinkable act of violence in their house of worship, one that shattered an otherwise peaceful, beautiful Sunday morning.

The temple will never be the same.

For Oak Creek, they are also coping with the unspeakable actions of Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist who brought the anger and hate that had filled his life into their peaceful community, one that rarely has a murder, let alone six in one setting.

Oak Creek will never be the same.

From strangers to friends

But they started to learn more about the people at the Sikh temple. It was built at 7512 S. Howell Ave. five years ago, yet most residents knew very little about it or its members.

They would find out quickly that Sikhs are a people of love, of compassion and of peace. They watched with awe as temple members spoke nary a bad word about Page, the man who, for reasons known only to him, took the lives of six innocent people.

They found out that Aug. 5 wasn't the first time Sikhs have been the target of violence. Starting with the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi four days after 9/11 and continuing into the next decade with frequent acts of robberies and vandalism, the Sikh community has been subject to numerous other incidents of violence that flew under the radar of public consciousness.

They heard inspiring words at a candlelight vigil Aug. 7, a night that anyone who attended won't soon forget.

It was a glimpse at a community that many in Oak Creek were seeing for the first time, and a people that inspired the city in a time of mourning.

"In 28 years of law enforcement, I have seen a lot of hate. I've seen a lot of revenge. And I've seen a lot of anger," Police Chief John Edwards said at the vigil. "What I saw, particularly from the Sikh community this week, was compassion, concern, support for not only their own family and victims, but for officers of the Oak Creek Police Department.

"What I didn't see was hate. I did not see revenge. I did not see any of that. And in law enforcement, that's unusual to not see that reaction ... I want you all to understand that and how unique that is. And you need to understand who we have in our community and turn around and make friends with them."

Lifted up by a city

It was for those reasons that Oak Creek residents have stopped Sikh members on the street to express their condolences, or streamed into the Sikh temple to bring flowers and ask how they could help.

That outreach helped temple members deal with the grief over the loss of loved ones.

"It's really remarkable," said Kanwardeep Singh Kaleka, who lost his uncle, temple president Satwant Singh Kaleka, in the shootings.

"People coming up to you, hugging you — people you don't even know. Showing how much they care and seeing the humanity in us, whether people have turbans and beards. Before it used to be that people would associate (us) with terrorism. But now they see us as human."

Temple members spoke repeatedly of how grateful they were to the Oak Creek Police Department for its response, in particular Lt. Brian Murphy, who was the first officer to arrive at the temple and survived eight to nine gunshots.

They praised elected officials, such as Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi and Gov. Scott Walker, for looking after their needs in a time of crisis.

"We feel we are not alone," temple leader Inderjeet Singh Dhillon said.

About a week following the shootings, temple members showed their appreciation with a huge sign along Howell Avenue that read "Oak Creek thank you for everything you've done for us."

The feeling was mutual. Oak Creek resident Sara Marie Kubiak spoke for many when she wrote on Patch's Facebook page, "I think all of us in Oak Creek thank YOU, our friends at the Sikh Temple, for being such a kind, compassionate, and important part of our community. Society could and should learn so much from you!"

A cynic might say that this feeling will eventually leave, and that the unity felt between the Sikh and Oak Creek communities is only temporary. That, like after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, people eventually resume their normal lives and the polarization returns.

But that's not what it feels like. From this vantage point, it seems both communities have reached a true turning point, and things won't go back to the way they were. The events of Aug. 5 were too tragic and too life-changing for the after-effects to dissipate, at least in Oak Creek.

In truth, the Sikh and Oak Creek communities will be forever linked to each other.

And that's a good thing.

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