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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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In Marketplace

"People think we are Muslim," says Varinder Bhatia.

In Marketplace

Amarjit Singh Virk works 80 hours a week at Siegel Liquor on KK, which he purchased in 2007.

In Marketplace

"We are all immigrants," says Rakesh Rehan of United States citizens.

Sikhs in the local business community share experiences


Varinder Bhatia planned to go to the Oak Creek Sikh Temple on Sunday morning, but he was out so late on Saturday evening seeing a play that he didn't wake up in time on Sunday morning. Whether or not oversleeping saved Bhatia's life will never be known.

Bhatia, who moved to the United States from Punjab, India, in 1990, landed his first job in a North Side gas station that was owned by Satwant Singh Kaleka, the president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and one of the six people to die during the mass shooting.

Today, Bhatia is the manager at the Mobil gas station store in the Walker's Point Plaza, 605 S. 1st St. Bhatia says he has received racist, misinformed comments before while on the job.

"People think we are Muslim," says Bhatia. "We have the same style as them. But actually our turbans and our mustaches are different."

Bhatia does not wear a turban nor facial hair, but not to avoid racism. "It's too much work," he says, smiling.

According to a study by Reuters, hate crimes against Sikhs have spiked since Sept. 11. During the same time, anti-Muslim attitudes increased, too.

Bhatia believes educating Americans about other groups is a step toward eradicating crimes of hate.

One could begin by pointing out the differences between Sikhs and Muslims, but that also wouldn't be enough. A deep-seated Islamophobia persists, in which American immigrants who practice that faith are targeted.

Bhatia says he tries not to hold on to racist or misinformed comments when they are directed at him.

"I try not to take them too serious. This stuff is going on all over the world. It's going on at home, too," he says.

Because the shooter, Wade Michael Page, showed up at the temple around 10:30 a.m., an hour-and-a-half before worship was scheduled, there were fewer people on site than there would have been later in the morning.

"It would have been even worse if he came at 11:30 or 11:45. It would have been even more of a disaster," he says.

Rakesh Rehan, who owns Fine Vineyard and Cafe India also in the Walker's Point Plaza, was having a cup of tea with his wife in his Oak Creek backyard when he started to hear multiple police cars. He went to the front of his house, but an officer told him to go inside.

Rehan, who moved to the United States from India about 10 years ago, is Hindu, but does attend Sikh services occasionally. He says the temple is as much a place to hang out as it is to worship.

"It's a place to go share your pain, share your happiness," he says. "Anyone is welcome. You don't have to join. The moment you start going there, you belong. The Sikhs are very hardworking, loving, open-hearted people."

Like Bhatia, Rehan believes mistaken identities are the root of many violent actions taken against Sikhs because they dress similarly to Muslims. And also like Bhatia, Rehan does not let occasional on-the-job comments break his spirit or his relationship with other customers.

"If I start listening, I will start mistreating nice people, too," says Rehan. "I will not pass on the bad attitude of one customer to the next 200 customers."

Rehan, who has traveled all over the world, does not feel that Milwaukee is any worse than other places. He says in other countries he has been judged for being "too American."

"You only fear things you don't understand," he says. "We are all immigrants in this country. We might be second- or third- or fourth-generation, but we are all immigrants."

(Of course, the Americas have a first people, as well. Indigenous Americans have been displaced in one way or another by all of us immigrants.)

Rehan also related the content of the U.S. citizenship test and oath to his point, during which people swear allegiance to the principles of the U.S. Constitution.

Amarjit Singh Virk, owner of Siegel Liquor on KK, 2632 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., was worshipping at the Sikh Religious Society of Wisconsin in Brookfield during the shooting. He says he returned home to find calls about what had happened and he immediately phoned a friend whom he knew was at the Oak Creek temple. Luckily, his friend was OK.

Virk, who purchased the liquor store in 2007 and works about 80 hours a week, wears a turban to to work every day. He says he tries to educate customers about his dress code and teach them about the Sikhs.

"I have told so many people over the years. I explain I am not a bad guy, I am a Sikh," he says.

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