OAK CREEK, Wis. – Prabhjot Singh Rathor entered the sanctuary and bowed low toward the holy book at the front of the room.
Prabhjot’s father always told him that he must go to the temple every week, so here he was this Sunday, just like every Sunday and usually other days of the week, too. Here he was, at the place where he met his friends and ate his favorite Indian foods and paused quietly to pray.
Here he was, at the place where his father was killed.
Prabhjot had lived in America for less than three months when he witnessed one of the deadliest mass shootings at a house of worship in the United States.
This Saturday will mark the five-year anniversary of the shooting in Oak Creek, when Wade Michael Page killed six members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin who were attending Sunday services.
Page, who spent years performing and hearing white supremacist anthems in neo-Nazi rock bands, was killed by police officers at the scene.
For many Americans, Aug. 5, 2012, was the first they ever heard of the Sikh religion, a minority faith that only became known to them in the garish headlines of the massacre. For Prabhjot, it was the day that divided his life into before and after, the day he saw his father’s body on the ground just after a gunman shot him.
“That day shattered my world,” he wrote in a memoir for a high school assignment.
He was just 12 then, a child who seems very distant from the wary, still-grieving teenager he has become.
Even as he has moved forward – graduating from high school, preparing to start college – Prabhjot still struggles to come to terms with what it means to live in a country that showed him its worst hate in his first days here.
Before this Sikh temple, known as a gurdwara, joined the list of houses of prayer that have been scarred by hate crimes – from the Birmingham, Alabama, church where four little girls were killed in a bombing in 1963, to the Charleston, South Carolina, church where nine black worshipers were shot in 2015 – it was Prabhjot’s first home in America.
Prakash, Prabhjot’s father, first heard about this gurdwara from a distant relative. The community of Sikh immigrants from India was growing in the Milwaukee suburbs – it’s now estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 families, served by two temples – and this gurdwara needed another priest. Prakash had the training in Sikhism, the 500-year-old monotheistic Indian religion with about 200,000 adherents in the United States.
Prakash and his wife, Ravinder, decided that he would go first, leaving their home in the northern India city of Haridwar. As soon as possible, Ravinder would join him, bringing their two young children.
In the years that followed, Prakash called his son and daughter every night. Prabhjot asked endless questions: What kind of work did he do at the temple? Were there mountains like the ones surrounding him every day in Haridwar?
Prabhjot boasted to the boys he played cricket with in India’s dusty streets that someday soon, he’d be leaving for America. They laughed, but before long, he was the one laughing as he boarded his first plane, bound for the place called Oak Creek.
The family of four lived, for those first few weeks, in the temple itself. Then, on a Saturday night at the beginning of August, they spent their first night in their own apartment.
The next morning was Sunday. Prabhjot, his mother and younger sister, Palmeet, went to the temple and waited for the services to start.
At first Prabhjot thought the harsh staccato sound might be fireworks, which he’d heard just weeks before when his dad had taken him to celebrate his first Independence Day. Then the screams started, and he knew it was gunshots.
Ravinder had been frustrated during the family’s brief time together in Wisconsin, bored, unable to speak English and too frightened to drive. So after her husband was killed, she announced to relatives in India that it was time to return home. How could they remain in a country that had shown them such hatred?
Prabhjot thought that if his father had lived, he would have considered leaving too.
“I thought if he would have been alive, he would have moved back to India that day, when that happened,” he said. “I would have left too.”
But the family’s relatives insisted that the children would have more opportunities in America, and they flew in to support Ravinder.
Prabhjot first reluctantly returned to the gurdwara with his mother and sister two days later. Inside – where he had hidden with others in a basement during most of the shooting, then come upstairs to find his father lying on the ground – the carpet was still thick with blood.But what stands out to him now is the scene that greeted the family in the temple parking lot: Hundreds of people of different faiths standing vigil with candles, many wearing white turbans in solidarity with the Sikhs.
In so many different ways, the strangers told them: ” ‘We know what happened, and it should not have happened,’ ” Prabhjot recalled.
Walking toward the temple, as candlelight flickered across the faces in the crowd, he was surprised by how comforted he felt.
Last month, Prabhjot spent two days at his orientation at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Over tofu and rice at the gurdwara the next Sunday, he proudly showed the other teens the photograph on his new student ID, showing his traditional Sikh headgear.
Yet even as he thrives outwardly in many ways, Prabhjot is now always attuned to racism and violence.
Four months after the Oak Creek shooting, he was shaken by the news of the murder of 20 children and six adults at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School; when the sister of a victim came to Oak Creek, Prabhjot went to stand vigil with her.
“It’s every day . . .” he said. “I don’t see a point. Like, why do they do it? Like, why?”
In Oak Creek’s Sikh community, the lesson that many people drew from the shooting was the importance of educating Americans. Sikhs are often mistaken for Middle Eastern, even though they come from India, and for Muslim or Hindu, although their faith is distinct from both of those religions.
Sikhs believe in one God, read from a holy text called the Guru Granth Sahib and preach equality, a rejection of the prevailing caste and gender discrimination when their religion was founded 500 years ago. The religion prohibits both men and women from cutting their hair, so most Sikh men hide their long locks under turbans.
Almost all turban-wearers in the United States are Sikh, not Muslim, but many families in Oak Creek said that they hear the occasional taunt of “terrorist.”
Four days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a Sikh man in Arizona was killed by a man who said he thought his victim was Arab. Hundreds more incidents have been reported since then; this year, a Sikh man working on his car in his driveway near Seattle was shot by an attacker who shouted “Go back to your own country.”
Nirmal Kaur Singh, a member of the gurdwara, has made education her mission. She has relentlessly offered to teach about Sikhism to anyone who will listen – at schools, even nursing homes. But the rise in hate crimes in recent years has left her dispirited.
“There’s still that kind of hate in a lot of people’s minds, especially after the election,” she said. She said she’s been frustrated that President Trump hasn’t done more to condemn white supremacist groups and recent hate crimes.
“When we’re trying to educate, trying to end these hate crimes – here somebody comes who’s way bigger than us, more powerful than us, creating more problems,” she said.
Sikhs in Oak Creek still brace in fear whenever an unfamiliar person comes to the temple, even as they strive to maintain their faithful tradition of offering a free vegetarian meal to anyone who arrives hungry. They have more security cameras now, and a lock on the front door that reminds them every time they enter and exit their house of worship of what happened there five years ago.
At home, Prabhjot watches his mom break down in tears, even five years later, when she comes across an item like Prakash’s wallet or an old photograph. Prabhjot and Palmeet avoid talking about their memories with their mother, who declined to be interviewed for this article.
“I can’t see my mom cry; I can’t handle that,” Palmeet says – but brother and sister each have their own triggers.
Palmeet, an honor roll student halfway through high school, weeps when the women who prepare food in the gurdwara kitchen recall how eager Prakash was to serve their food to visitors.
When the family visits their relatives in India most summers, Prabhjot always heads to the pile of toys his father brought to him as gifts there during the years they lived apart.
The community has constantly supported the six grieving families – for Ravinder, who doesn’t drive, the head priest Gurmel Singh offered rides for years until Prabhjot got his license.
Nirmal Kaur Singh asks her son, around the same age, to check in on Prabhjot. She asked Pardeep Kaleka, who also lost his father in the shooting, if he could talk to him.
Kaleka was 35 to Prabhjot’s 12 when their fathers were killed, and Kaleka has emerged as a leader of the community; he’s joined with a former white supremacist to lead a national hate crimes prevention effort. But when he tries to talk to Prabhjot, he said, he often feels like he can’t get through.
“He’s just shutting down,” Kaleka worried recently. “I don’t think he’s had the chance to really process, really grieve. The stare that sometimes you get is almost emotionless.”
But as reserved as Prabhjot is, frequent flashes of humor break through – like the day his math teacher asked him what he hated the most about growing up in India. “Teachers,” he replied.
He’s looking forward to college, where he’ll pursue an engineering major that was inspired by his enthusiasm for AP physics in high school. He hopes to one day work at Apple or Google.
He’ll pay for college with a scholarship from the gurdwara, state aid and his earnings from his job working the grill at McDonald’s.He handed his first paycheck to his mom, who donated some of it to the gurdwara. “Wish he could have been here,” Ravinder said, thinking of Prakash.
Days before the anniversary, Prabhjot sat in the gurdwara library beneath the portrait of his father that hangs alongside the five other victims on the wall, and recalled again how hard it was to enter this place after his father was murdered.
But he came back, again and again and again. “This is like a God house. You can’t really resist. You have to be here,” he said. “My dad taught me. You have to go to the gurdwara, he used to say.”
And so Prabhjot returns. And the place where he learned the hatred that is possible in America remains his home, in a country that still doesn’t make sense.
— The Washington Post