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Sikh doctor preaches peace, not terror

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Posted: Friday, September 6, 2002 10:00 pm

Dr. Navinderdeep Singh Nijher, wearing a long black beard and turban, both typical of those of the Sikh faith, was impressed with how rescue workers at the World Trade Center struggled to help people of different races and cultures on Sept. 11.

However, Nijher, the first doctor to arrive at the New York landmark after it was struck by terrorist-piloted airliners, was disappointed that the unity within the United States was short-lived. Negative stereotypes returned, he said.

Nijher was in Stockton on Friday morning for religious services and a press conference at the Sikh Temple on South Grand Street.

Navinderdeep Singh Nijher

He recalled that just two days after attending to the dead, dying and injured in the streets of New York, Nijher went to a photo shop and asked how much it would cost to develop two rolls of film through one-hour processing.

"For you people, that's $500," the clerk replied.

"He thought I was a terrorist," Nijher told the approximately 40 people who had gathered at the temple.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people in America wearing turbans are Sikhs," Nijher said at a press conference after the service. "They're not the terrorists who committed these acts."

A Manhattan surgeon, Nijher spoke briefly about his rescue efforts at Ground Zero, but he focused more on the need to educate the nation about the Sikh community. Sikhs themselves are to blame for not assimilating more into American society and showing how peaceful they are, Nijher said.

Like the estimated 2,000 Muslims in Lodi, the nearly 1,000 local Sikhs maintain that their religion requires peace and equality regardless of their color, creed, gender, religion and national origin.

"They are peace-loving, patriotic people," said State Sen. Dick Monteith, R-Modesto, a candidate for the 18th Congressional District seat now held by Rep. Gary Condit, D-Ceres.

Sikhism is a religion that was founded in the 15th century in the Punjab region of northern India. Early Sikh settlers arrived in the United States in the late-19th century. It is customary to wear turbans, which Sikhs wear with pride and reverence, according to a flier distributed before the service.

Bhajan Singh Bhinder, a leader at the Stockton Sikh Temple, said the temple has about 5,000 members, most of them from San Joaquin County.

"I would say at least 1,000 of them live (in Lodi)," Bhinder said.

"We need to unite and recognize who our fellow Americans are," Nijher said at the service.

Bhinder added, "No American needs to prove they are a better American than someone else."

The only elected official to attend Friday's prayer service and greet Nijher, Monteith removed his shoes before entering the temple and wore a bright orange turban, which was issued to everyone who didn't have a turban of their own. That included print and TV media representatives.

"I was born and raised in this Valley," Monteith said before the service. "I believe we all have many things in common. The Sikh community has contributed a lot to this Valley."

Nijher said he had not encountered ethnic prejudice prior to Sept. 11, but he has seen signs since that time, starting with his attempt to have his film developed.

However, Nijher said Sikhs face less prejudice in areas like San Joaquin County that have a large Sikh population.

At Ground Zero, Nijher said he was gratified to find that no one questioned who he was or why he was there, despite his beard and turban.

"This camaraderie was a true representation of the American spirit," he said.

Monteith presented Nijher a proclamation by the State Senate for his work at the World Trade Center.

"Dr. Nijher is an American hero," Monteith said. "He saved the lives of numerous firemen, police officers and Port Authority workers."

Nijher replied, "I don't consider myself a hero. I did something any American would have done."

After his Stockton visit, Nijher spoke about disaster preparedness with personnel at Sutter Roseville Hospital in Roseville. He was also scheduled to speak at a synagogue and Lutheran church in Sacramento over the weekend.

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