Attacked at home, Afghan Sikhs find a community on Long Island

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Kulwinder Singh Soni’s voice shook as he recounted the day in March 2020 when an Islamic State gunman stormed into the prayer hall of a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul, throwing grenades and firing guns. ‘assault. Among the 25 people killed were Soni’s father, sister-in-law and 4-year-old niece.

Police later warned the family not to attend their funeral as terrorists had planted landmines outside the temple. They were eventually able to attend, but only after officers did a sweep and allowed them into the sanctuary.

“That’s when we decided we had to leave Afghanistan,” Soni said. “There was absolutely no future for our family in this country.”

After a two-year struggle to make an exit, including nearly a year under the reestablished rule of the fundamentalist Taliban group, Soni and 12 members of his family, including his mother, siblings, nieces and nephews, are arrived in the United States last month.

They settled in Hicksville, on New York’s Long Island, a community that has become a growing haven not only for Afghan Sikhs but also for Hindus, both religious minorities who have increasingly suffered discrimination and stigma. persecution in their country of origin.

Sikhs and Hindus make up only a tiny fraction of Afghanistan’s population, which is almost entirely Muslim. Under the Taliban in the late 1990s, they were asked to identify themselves by wearing yellow armbands or badges, reminiscent of Nazi Germany, and in recent years they have repeatedly been targeted by extremists.

In July 2018, an Islamic State suicide bomber ambushed a convoy of Sikhs and Hindus on their way to meet President Ashraf Ghani in the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing 19 people. On June 16 this year, an ISIS gunman attacked a gurdwara, or place of worship, in Kabul, killing one worshiper and injuring seven others. Sikhs have also faced difficulties in cremating their dead, which they consider a sacred belief, but which Islam regards as sacrilege.

As the first anniversary of the August 30 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan approaches, a recent report by the U.S. bipartisan Commission on International Religious Freedom warns of “a rapid decline and near extinction of already small communities Afghan Hindus and Sikhs” in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, in addition to the persecution of other religious minorities.

In October 2021, according to the report, the Sikh community shared videos of suspected Taliban members vandalizing and ransacking their gurdwara in the Karte Parwan neighborhood, home to the 100 or fewer remaining Sikhs and Hindus in Kabul.

Soni, now 27, still has fresh memories of the 2020 gurdwara attack that ultimately drove the family out of the country. When the assailants stormed the prayer hall early that morning, he was in the next room of the Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib, where his father was the principal granthi, or ceremonial reader of the Sikh scripture.

He saw men running around the temple in shoes, which is prohibited. As he rushed to stop them, Soni spotted the bodies of a security guard and a teenager in a pool of blood where worshipers usually washed their feet before entering. He retreated with two siblings to a room, where they locked the door and squatted for several hours.

By the end of the siege, Afghan special forces had killed the attackers and rescued at least 80 worshippers. Soni rushed to the prayer room, where he found his three loved ones dead and his mother and older brother injured.

“My mother told me (the shooter) kept shooting and throwing bombs even as people tried to hide,” Soni said. “My brother heard his daughter’s voice crying out for help. He was helpless.

In late August last year, after the Taliban took Kabul, Soni, one of the few English speakers in his community, took on the role of spokesperson and negotiator working to secure their exit from Kabul. He tried to convince the Canadian government to evacuate about 250 Sikhs and Hindus, including his family.

After an Islamic State suicide bombing at the airport thwarted that plan and fears escalated under Taliban rule, the women and children of Soni’s family moved to New Delhi and men shuttled between India and Kabul to tend to their sacred shrine. It then took months of struggle and daily communication between the US State Department; the Sikh Coalition, an American Sikh advocacy group; and Afghan Sikhs in Hicksville to bring the entire family of 13 to the United States

Paramjit Singh Bedi, a longtime community leader who moved to the United States in 1984 and helped bring them here, now hopes to help them secure housing, work permits and medical insurance, along with registered children at school.

“This family has been through a lot,” Bedi said. “But we are a resilient people and we are strong and unwavering in our faith. I know they will be fine.

Bedi has advocated for the permanent resettlement of the Afghan Sikh community here and estimates that around 200 of them live on Long Island.

There are also about 800 Afghan Hindus in the area, according to Doulat Radhu Bathija, a leader of this community.

Back in Afghanistan, gurdwaras and temples still stood side by side, and Bathija is delighted that this is also the case thousands of miles from Long Island; in Hicksville, the gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar is located right next to the Hindu temple Asa’Mai.

Bathija said he views the Hindu and Sikh communities as “the same thing”, and they visit each other’s places of worship and celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, together.

“We come together for weddings and funerals,” he said, “like family.”

Sikhs and Hindus are not recent migrants to Afghanistan, but have hundreds of years of history there. Sikh texts speak of a time when Guru Nanak, the religion’s founder, visited Afghanistan in the 1500s. Yet they are often seen as infidels, said Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, a professor of studies Sikhs at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Women, in particular, were subjected to severe restrictions under the Taliban.

While in the 1970s there were about 200,000 Sikhs in Afghanistan, Jhutti-Johal predicts that by the end of this year there may not be any left. Over the years, most moved to India or the West.

Jhutti-Johal thinks the West may be the best home for these communities, as their Afghan ethnic identity and India’s meager social services complicate matters there.

“They’re also going to need access to mental health services after all they’ve been through,” she said.

Soni’s family is now trying to get formal asylum in the United States, and her supporters say they have a strong case.

“There is an overwhelming and compelling amount of evidence of how this family suffered religious persecution in Afghanistan because they are Sikh,” said Mark Reading-Smith, Senior Executive Director of Programs for the Sikh Coalition. “They lost more than we can imagine.”

The family is slowly recovering. But Soni said he didn’t even know what “normal” life was like, having grown up bullied and beaten at school and on the streets because he was Sikh. In comparison, Long Island feels much more welcoming.

Soni prayed at the gurdwara. He loves to see his little nephews and nieces smiling. And his mother no longer panics as soon as he leaves the house.

“She’s now telling us to go out and enjoy life,” Soni said. “Here, I think, we have the opportunity to become who we want to become.”

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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