LIVINGSTON — Life changed dramatically for Sikhs living in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Although they practice a separate religion and come from a different region than the terrorists, they were lumped together with those who carried out the attacks and discriminated against, recalled Mohani Kaur, coordinator of United Sikhs for the Central Valley.
For Kaur, being called a "terrorist" became commonplace after the attacks and is still a problem today, she said.
Kaur understood that the hatred she experienced was the result of ignorance, so instead of getting upset, she used the situations as opportunities to educate people.
She wanted to explain that the attacks affected her as much as they did any other American. "I was hurt," she said. "I cried. How could a person do that to another person?"
It was the experience of Sept. 11 that made Kaur want to educate people about the Sikh religion.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that was founded in India. It has 22 million followers, more than 5 million of whom live outside India.
When Chief Doug Dunford of the Livingston Police Department contacted Kaur about hosting a Sikh cultural training event, she was more than willing to help, along with her friends from United Sikhs.
The four-hour training, which took place Wednesday at the Livingston Police Department, was mutually beneficial for officers and Sikhs, Dunford said.
"It's a major culture within the state of California, but also within the city of Livingston, that we have no direct training about," he said.
"I think it's important that we reach out to them and have them educate us regarding their beliefs."
Sikhs wear five items of faith at all times, said Kashmir Singh, director of United Sikhs. Known as "the five Ks," they are kes (unshorn hair), a kangha (wooden comb), a karha (iron bracelet), a kachhaira (boxer-like shorts) and a kirpan (a small religious sword).
The five Ks are worn by Sikhs even when bathing or sleeping, said presenter Japneet Kaur. The kirpan is a constant reminder of faith.
"When it was given to us, we were told specifically that it was to defend the honor of those who need your help," she said. "It's not just about us, it's also about those around us."
Misunderstandings over kirpans
Many of the misunderstandings between Sikhs and officers come about because officers viewed kirpans as weapons instead of articles of faith, Singh said.
Kirpans range in size, and Sikhs often try to make accommodations to prevent people who are unfamiliar with their religion from feeling uncomfortable, he said.
With Sikhs making up nearly 20 percent of the Livingston population, it isn't uncommon for officers to interact with them, Dunford said. Misunderstandings do occur but are rare.
Interaction with Sikhs has helped the department understand various dimensions of the culture its officers have had to deal with, including covering their heads when they enter a temple and learning why some Sikhs won't look them in the eye, he said. "In certain cultures, it's a sign of respect (not to look someone in the eye)," Dunford said.
The Livingston Police Department has never held Sikh cultural training before. Dunford said he hopes other agencies will hold similar events modeled after theirs.