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I still believe in the American dream: Son of Oak Creek victim

September 20, 2012 11:31 IST

In a highly emotional yet powerful testimony before a United States Senate Committee on Capitol Hill, Harpreet Singh Saini, the 18-year-old son of one of the victims of the Oak Creek gurudwara shooting, urged the US government to add a separate category for Sikh Americans on the form used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to gather data on hate crimes.

His mother Paramjit Kaur Saini was among six innocent Sikh worshipers slain by Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist and neo-Nazi who perpetrated the massacre on August 5 at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin gurdwara.
 
Saini, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, said, "Senators, I came here today to ask the government to give my mother the dignity of being a statistic."

The Subcommittee was chaired by Senator Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, who had convened the hearing titled, Hate Crimes and the Threat of Domestic Extremism.
 
Saini lamented that "the FBI does not track hate crimes against Sikhs," and noted that "my mother and those shot that day will not even count on a federal form. We cannot solve a problem we refuse to recognise."
 
Saini also exhorted the lawmakers "that the government pursue domestic terrorists with the same vigour as attackers from abroad," and pointed out that "the man who killed my mother was on the watch list of public interest groups."
 
"I believe the government could have tracked him long before he killed my mother," he said.
 
Saini also called on the lawmakers to "stand up for us," arguing that "as lawmakers and leaders, you have the power to shape public opinion. Your words carry weight. When others scapegoat or demean people because of who they are, use your power to say that it is wrong."
 
He disclosed that "so many have asked Sikhs to simply blame Muslims for attacks against our community or just say, 'We are not Muslim.' But we won't blame anyone else. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us."
 
Saini lives in Oak Creek with his brother Kamaljit Singh and his father Inderjit Singh. He is a freshman at Milwaukee Area Technical College and is majoring in law enforcement. Saini plans to become a police officer or an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation after he graduates.

"I want to be part of the solution. That is why I want to be a law enforcement officer like Lieutenant Brian Murphy, who saved so many lives that day," he said.
 
"I want to protect other people from what happened to my mother. I want to combat hate not just against Sikhs but against all people," he said, and added, "Senators, I know what happened at Oak Creek was not an isolated incident. I fear it may happen again if we don't stand up and do something."
 
Saini said, "I don't want anyone to suffer what we have suffered. I want to build a world where all people can live, work, and worship in America in peace. Because you see, despite everything, I still believe in the American dream."
 
He reiterated, "In my mother's memory, I ask that you stand up for that dream with me today, and in the days to come."
 
The conference room in which the testimony was heard -- the Hart Senate Office Building, Room 216 -- was filled to capacity with over 400 people, including several hundred Sikhs from Oak Creek and from across the country.
 
There were also scores of civil rights leaders and members of a coalition of advocacy groups who have stood in solidarity with Sikh Americans ever since the August 5 massacre. To accommodate the overflowing crowd of people who had stood more than an hour in line to get into the public hearing at 2.30 pm on Wednesday, a separate overflow room was opened so they could also witness the hearing.
 
Flanked on either side of the dais of the conference room were large portraits of the six killed by Page -- Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suvegh Singh, Paramjit Kaur Saini, and Satwant Singh Kaleka, the founder and president of the gurdwara, and also one of Lieutenant Murphy.
 
Earlier in his testimony, Saini, who was introduced by Senator Herb Kohl, Wisconsin Democrat, declared, "I am here because my mother was murdered in an act of hate 45 days ago. I am here on behalf of all the children who lost parents or grandparents during the massacre in Oak Creek, Wisconsin."
 
He said that Page "a white supremacist fueled by hatred walked into our local gurdwara with a loaded gun," and killed his mother "while she was sitting for morning prayers. He shot and killed five more men -- all of them were fathers, all had turbans like me."
 
"This was not supposed to be our American story. This was not my mother's dream," he added.
 
Saini recalled how two days after his mother was killed, "my brother Kamal and I ate the leftovers of the last meal she had made for us. We ate her last rotis, she had made them the night before she died."
 
"Along with the last bite of our food that Tuesday came the realisation that this was the last meal made by our mother's hands that we will ever eat in our lifetime."
 
Saini said his mother was no more "because of a man who hated her because she wasn't his colour, his religion?"
 
"I just had my first day of college, and my mother wasn't there to send me off. She won't be there for my graduation or my wedding day. She won't be there to meet her grandchildren," he said.
 
Saini then asserted, "I want to tell the gunman who took her away from me, you may have been full of hate, but my mother was full of love."
 
"She was an American. And this was not our American dream," he added.
 
Saini said even as "we ache for our loved ones and we have lost so much, I want people to know that our heads are held high. My mother was a devout Sikh, and like all Sikhs, she was bound to live in Chardi Kala -- a state of high spirit and optimism."
 
"Like my mother, my brother and I are working every day to be in a state of high spirit and optimism," he said. "We also know that we are not alone. Tens of thousands of people sent us letters, attended vigils and gave us their support -- Oak Creek's mayor and police chief, Wisconsin's governor, the President and the First Lady."
 
Saini said, "It is their support that gives me the strength to come here today."
 
Obviously deeply moved by Saini's testimony, Durbin said, "Your testimony was so touching. It was such a tribute to your mother."
 
"I hope the spirit that you bring will teach us to be more tolerant," he said, and added, "Thank you for your courage of your testimony today."
 
Kohl, echoing Durbin's sentiments, also praised Saini for his decision to go into law enforcement and said, "I am sure your mother would be very proud."
 
Immediately after his testimony, Saini was overcome with emotion and was in tears; he  was hugged and comforted by his brother. Other members of the public also hugged him and praised him for his extremely moving testimony.
 
Durbin also came down from the dais to laud Saini for his testimony and promised him that he would continue to press for Sikhs to be listed in a special category on the FBI form used to gather data on hate crimes.

Aziz Haniffa In Washington, DC