Last night, I received the kind of phone call that everyone dreads: a close friend was hurt, and on his way to the hospital. But the news got worse, as I learned that my friend, Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a young Sikh American professor at Columbia University, had been brutally attacked on a public street, the victim of a violent hate crime. My brother and I immediately jumped in a taxi and rushed to the hospital, where we finally saw Prabhjot being wheeled in, bloody and bruised, his face swollen from a fractured jaw. He couldn't speak because many of his teeth had been displaced, but he waved limply to let us know that he was okay.
We joined Prabhjot in his hospital room and were surprised to find it already filled with officers from the NYPD and its Hate Crime Task Force. As he struggled to give his statement, we came to learn that his assailants had taunted him as they beat him, calling him "Osama" and "terrorist." He described being punched in the face repeatedly until falling to the ground. And then he recalled how the punches to the head continued as he laid on the sidewalk.
I saw Prabhjot shudder as he realized how much worse it could have been. He had just returned from dinner, dropping his wife and one-year-old son at home before going for a walk. He reached from his hospital bed and grabbed his wife's hand.
He recounted the scariest moment, seeing a young male put his arm inside his coat, as if reaching for a gun. He also remembered people pulling at his long beard. He couldn't provide any descriptions about his assailants, and it seemed to me that in some way, he didn't want to remember them.
Prabhjot has dedicated his life to serving the underserved. He is currently the Director of Systems Management at the Earth Institute, and he draws upon his experiences abroad to help improve the health of local communities like Harlem. In addition to serving as an Assistant Professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, he is also a resident physician at Mt. Sinai Hospital. His life's work has been to help the underprivileged access quality and affordable healthcare, and he believes strongly that his countless hours of service are an investment in improving the health of impoverished communities.
Unfortunately, his assailants did not see Prabhjot Singh, the professor, the community health expert or the local doctor. They saw a man wearing a beard and a turban--his articles of faith--and saw a target. Sadly, for many other Sikh Americans like Prabhjot, this is a story they have heard and experienced before. This past May an elderly Sikh gentleman was brutally beaten with a steel pipe in Fresno, California, and in March a Sikh male was shot while driving just outside of Orlando, Florida. And as we all know, in August 2012 a white supremacist entered a Sikh place of worship (gurdwara) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire on the congregation.
Sikh Americans have repeatedly been targeted in hate violence throughout the country, and we believe that much of this stems from a dangerous combination of hate and ignorance. Many perpetrators of hate violence are unable to see the humanity of their victims.
It seems that Prabhjot's assailants associated his turban and beard with Osama bin Laden and terrorism. This observation is consistent with a national study released by Stanford University researchers less than two weeks ago, which shows that more than 50 percent of Americans associate the Sikh turban with Osama bin Laden than with any other figure.
In today's America, so many of us can be perceived as different. Whether it is our religion, our racial or ethnic background, our sexual orientation, or our gender identity, all of us are potentially someone's "other," and can be discriminated, excluded, or even targeted for violence because of it. In light of this incident, and all those that have come before, it is increasingly clear that we, the "others," need to build bridges with one another, and with the community at large. We will make the hate and violence stop. We absolutely have to.
Kiran Kaur and Justin Collins contributed to this article.