News Source: The Arizona RepublicPublication Date:
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi was a respected gasoline station owner in east Mesa who built a new life after emigrating from India.
Sodhi and his three brothers chose the United States because our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
He was slain outside his gas station four days after the terrorist attacks simply because he wore a turban as required by his Sikh faith. His attacker thought he looked like an Arab.
Sodhi's death was a harsh reminder that religious freedom has not always equaled religious tolerance in our country.
Throughout our nation's history, members of numerous religions have been victims. Singh Sodhi became a dramatic new example as the result of one man's misguided and violent reaction to our nation's worst national tragedy.
Like most thinking people in the Valley, I was appalled by Singh Sodhi's murder, an innocent man slain without reason.
My next question was, who are the Sikhs?
Two years later, I found myself sitting on the floor in a Sikh temple in central Phoenix, wearing no shoes, interviewing Harjit Singh Sodhi of Mesa and Rana Singh Sodhi of Gilbert, Balbir's brothers.
Their fourth brother, Sukhpal, a San Francisco cab driver, also had been shot to death a year after Balbir's slaying, although police there did not consider it a hate crime. The two murders seemed at the time like a sad end to one immigrant family's American dream.
It is an experience I'll never forget. For me, this is the essence of why I am a reporter and why I've done this job for a quarter century.
Soon, I would learn that Sikhs are different from Muslims, that they come from a different region, that their religion teaches religious tolerance because of their belief that there is more than one path to God.
As the death penalty trial of Sodhi's assailant, Frank Roque, played out weeks later in a Mesa courtroom, I also learned that the family was not vengeful, that all they wanted was a guilty verdict because Sikhs believe everyone is accountable to God and that they were repulsed by Roque's insanity defense.
Roque's sentence was reduced last year from death to life in prison without the possibility of parole because of doubts about his sanity.
From the sadness of an innocent man's murder came the birth of a mission for the brothers. The mission was from Balbir's own lips to fellow Sikhs shortly before his death to educate Americans about their largely unknown faith to avoid senseless violence as a backlash from the terrorist attacks.
"In my inside, I feel I must spend my whole life educating people. I'm trying to make my future better for myself and my children," said Rana Singh Sodhi, who lives in Gilbert.
He has spoken about religious tolerance to children in his 8-year-old son's classroom.
Now, his mission is about to get national attention. His battle for religious tolerance and his faith in American ideals is the focus of A Dream in Doubt
, a documentary that premieres Sunday at the Slamdance Film Festival
in Park City, Utah. The festival is a showcase for first-time film directors.
"What's interesting about Rana is how he never loses his faith. He remains steadfast in his belief," director Tami Yeager said. "It's Rana's faith and hope that kept me fueled."
Yeager directed the documentary on a shoestring budget. Her major breakthrough was obtaining a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Yeager plans to show the documentary at the Lincoln Center in New York City on Feb. 22, and at the International Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco. She said her hope is that it will be shown nationally someday by PBS, or at least be picked up independently by PBS stations throughout the country.
Her goal is that Balbir Singh Sodhi becomes a national symbol for religious tolerance.
"It's telling the story throughout the country that we respect everybody and we deserve the same thing," Rana Singh Sodhi said. "Even if he was a Muslim, it (the terrorist attacks) wasn't his fault. It shouldn't happen to anybody."
Rana Singh Sodhi will be in Park City for the documentary. I'll be there, too. I'm in the documentary, telling the story from a reporter's viewpoint. We were two men who never would have met each other if not for tragedy, but we became united in a cause to eliminate future hate crimes.
And, despite the countless frustrations, that's what makes being a reporter a great job.
- Jim Walsh