Area Sikhs gathered Thursday, Jan. 14 for the annual Sikh American Awareness Event at the Ceres Community Center in downtown Ceres.
The event was designed to counter some of the incorrect stereotypes that many Americans have about Sikhs, which are often misjudged for terrorists and Muslim radicals.
The word ‘Sikh' in the Punjabi language means "disciple," this Sikhs are the disciples of God who follow the writings and teachings of the Ten Sikh Gurus.
Members of the Sikh community have suffered random attacks in the United States, including a gunman who killed many worshipers at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in 2012. Attacks on Sikhs escalated after Muslims attacked a San Bernardino Social Services office but there is no association between Muslims and Sikhs. Closer to home, Amrik Singh Bal, a 68-year-old Sikh man was assaulted in December by people who asked the victim, "Why are you here?"
Congressman Jeff Denham attended the event along with a host of Ceres police brass and local elected officials.
"It is this partnership with law enforcement and with the community that changes the community for good," said Modesto City Schools Board trustee Cindy Marks.
San Joaquin County Supervisor Bob Elliott spoke to the group and said a large percentage of Americans "don't really have much knowledge about the Sikhs ... and until a few years ago I was one of those." He said he grew up in a rural area of Kansas and was never exposed to any Sikhs even as farmers.
"I just want to say that I really appreciate the great contributions so many of our Sikh leaders, our Sikh friends, make to our communities and to our county in the professions, in businesses, in the medical profession, and of course many are successful farmers," said Elliott. He then presented a certificate of appreciation from the board with Supervisor Moses Zapien.
Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager thanked the Sikhs for reaching out to public officials like herself.
"Frequently we will stay in our offices and work very hard and not go anywhere," said Fladager, "but when you personally come and say, ‘please come and spend time with us, we want to get to know you, we want to open the door of communicate' you really ... strengthen relationships."
Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney told the Sikhs that they have faced persecution much in the way that his Irish ancestors did. He said most people don't mistreat friends or neighbors that way so he noted meetings like the luncheon were a way to getting rid of ignorance and fear.
"Unfortunately not everyone is raising their children to look at other folks with an inquiring mind," said Sheriff Varney. "They look at it as it's something to be feared and something that's not understood. It's also kind of selfish, quite frankly. We live in probably the most diverse state in the most diverse country in the world and if we aren't willing to teach our young folks to get along with each other and to respect each other's differences then we have a very serious problem."
He said education at an early age to get kids to realize that we can all get along even though we don't look the same.
The event organizers sought to educate law enforcement, showing a slide of things to remember when searching someone wearing a Sikh head covering. Sikhs do not cut their hair for religious reasons and wear turbans or chunnis to cover their head. The slide urged officers who must do a search to respect the religion and offer private rooms for searches and done by only the same gender.
The event featured a luncheon of Indian cuisine.