FBI honors Norwich Sikh for teaching people to live without hate

Swaranjit Singh Khalsa stands in the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 28, 2017. In his hand is the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award, which he received for his work to raise awareness about Sikhism in Norwich and beyond. (Lindsay Boyle/The Day)
Swaranjit Singh Khalsa stands in the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 28, 2017. In his hand is the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award, which he received for his work to raise awareness about Sikhism in Norwich and beyond. (Lindsay Boyle/The Day)

Washington — Cleveland, Ohio, parents who started a nonprofit after their son lost his life to a drug overdose.

A Jackson, Miss., woman who has been advocating for civil rights since 1963, when she, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helped house and feed more than 3,000 people who were marching following the assassination of Medgar Evers.

A 16-year-old boy who’s the founder and CEO of a North Carolina nonprofit that works to empower youth in one of the state’s most violent cities.

And Norwich’s own Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, who began working in the city to help people understand Sikhism — a monotheistic religion that emphasizes compassion and service to others and is separate from Islam — about seven years ago. He realized at the time they were avoiding his Norwichtown Shell gas station because they were wary of his turban.

These four and more were among the almost 60 people and organizations honored Friday during the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ninth annual Director’s Community Leadership Awards.

In a brief speech to a packed room within the FBI headquarters Friday, Director James Comey said he often encourages youth to get involved in their communities and not shy away, even if activism can be controversial.

He asks them, he said, to imagine themselves in their final years of life and ask, "Who do I want to have been?’”

“I’m telling you this because this auditorium is full of people who’ve already answered the question in the most remarkable way,” Comey said. “We’re here today to say thank you. ... Most of all we hope your example inspires others to do what you have done.”

“Because of you,” Comey concluded to thunderous applause, “the United States of America is better.”

Singh Khalsa’s wife, daughter, parents-in-law and two friends made the trek to D.C. to watch him take the stage, shake Comey’s hand and receive his award Friday.

“I’m not surprised, actually,” said Singh Khalsa’s friend, Sunmit Khalsa, of the fact the FBI recognized Singh Khalsa. “He’s been active in the community for a long time.”

Outside the headquarters Friday morning, Singh Khalsa still was talking about his work in the community and outside of it. He spoke of being involved in a $1.3 million national campaign to launch commercials depicting everyday Sikhs on CNN and Fox and to retain Facebook marketers for six months’ worth of awareness-raising. He talked about informative billboards he helped put up around Norwich, and about his ongoing work to get multi-language welcome signs placed at the city’s entrances. He mentioned, too, that Norwich recognized April 14 as “Sikh Day" in part at his urging. For Sikhs, the 14 is a holiday called Vaisakhi, which Singh Khalsa likened to Christmas.

A pamphlet distributed at the ceremony details more of Singh Khalsa’s work. He educates first responders about best practices for interacting with diverse communities. He organizes tributes for fallen officers and vigils for victims of crimes perpetrated because of race, religion or culture. He teaches courses aimed at helping inmates better understand the diverse communities they’ll eventually enter.

“Mr. Khalsa has made his life’s mission to educate people on tolerance, respect for differences and ways to live in a peaceful society without hateful ideology,” the pamphlet reads. “This has helped reverse negative stereotypes some people hold of Middle Easterners simply because they wear turbans or traditional Sikh clothing.”

According to Singh Khalsa’s wife, Guntas Kaur, Singh Khalsa wasn’t always an activist.

Back in India, she explained — Singh Khalsa is a native of Punjab, a state in the northwestern part of the country — Singh Khalsa’s father was heavily involved in politics. Because of that, Kaur said, Singh Khalsa was not.

Once he arrived in the United States, where equality among all people is a hallmark of society, that changed.

“He spends so much time outside doing so much for the community,” said Kaur, who married Singh Khalsa in 2009, not long after meeting him at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Hey, where’s my time?’” Kaur continued with a laugh. “But that’s who he is. He just wants everyone not to hate, not to be ignorant. I’m really proud of him.”

As for Singh Khalsa, he said he considers the award one that honors the “whole Sikh nation.” He dedicated it to other Sikhs working to raise awareness about the religion and fight for equality in their communities and beyond.

Singh Khalsa said he likely wouldn't have gotten FBI recognition were it not for the support he has received over the years from Norwich officials and residents.

"I want to thank everyone as well," he said.

l.boyle@theday.com

Swaranjit Singh Khalsa stands outside the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 28, 2017. Singh Khalsa was one of 59 FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award recipients. He received the honor for his work to raise awareness about Sikhism in Norwich and beyond. (Lindsay Boyle/The Day)
Swaranjit Singh Khalsa stands outside the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 28, 2017. Singh Khalsa was one of 59 FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award recipients. He received the honor for his work to raise awareness about Sikhism in Norwich and beyond. (Lindsay Boyle/The Day)

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