“Life growing up was disheartening,” says Japjee Singh, an 18-year-old from Dunwoody, Georgia.
Growing up in a northern suburb of Atlanta in DeKalb County meant Japjee, a brown-skinned Sikh from Punjab, tended to stick out. He describes it: “I’m here, this one brown kid, who wears a turban”, and the other kids were quick to notice.
When he was eight-years-old, Japjee’s family moved to Dunwoody from Amritsar, Punjab, a predominantly Sikh part in India. Although his family had deep roots in Punjab, Japjee’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles had already moved to the United States, particularly around Atlanta, so it was a natural move for Japjee’s family to join them. Japjee’s parents believed moving to the United States would give him and his sister Aasees a better life, one where they would have the opportunity to make the best future for themselves possible.
These dreams came into sharp contrast with Japjee’s life in his new school. His childhood was filled with trips to the principal’s office, often spending dozens of days a year for incidents involving other kids picking on him for looking different. He was the only Sikh kid in his class, and in the second grade, kids were making sure he would know it.
“I feel like my childhood has been ripped out…I didn’t have a childhood really,” he says. Other students would physically attack him, forcibly cut his hair, and send him death threats. “Every day was a hassle,” he explains. “All they see is the face and the turban.”
Added to that pressure was being in an immigrant family trying to establish itself in the community.
Japjee describes his father having to get up at 6 a.m. for some of these meetings with the principal before having to go to work downtown. It made Japjee feel guilty.
“For immigrant families, the parents work longer, they work farther, they work harder, just to put food on the table.” And the trips to the principal’s office started to feel normal. “I can remember very vividly, when all [my dad] could think about was me. And part of me didn’t want him to stress about me.”
One incident in eighth grade involved a fellow student punching Japjee in the face, breaking his nose. Although the school had cameras setup in the area, the footage for that specific period of time was missing, and school administrators showed little interest in pursuing the matter, going so far as to threaten legal action towards Japjee’s father if he considered pressing charges.
“They would affirm him that they were investigating fairly and to the maximum possible,” Japjee reflects, “but…that’s not the results we got.” Japjee’s family went through all the appropriate channels to get the situation resolved, but with no justice in sight, they worked with the Sikh Coalition to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Education. This led to two resolutions in between the DOJ and the DeKalb County School District, the first directing the county to create a special safety plan for Japjee, and the second directing the county to provide training for over 100,000 students and staff on the harm of harassment based religion and nationality.
Grade nine brought along some of the same hardships of earlier years, but with the move to high school, Japjee decided to take charge of his life. During that first year he had the idea to form a club at the school to help new students adjust to the world of high school.
Although he was the only freshman to be a part of the initial group, he worked with his upperclassmen to create a support system for students, giving them a network of peers to speak to about their problems, from schoolwork to bullying. The group was aptly named Peer Leaders.
“We didn’t want them to be scared [and] feel alienated, and [now] they have someone to talk to at the end of the day.” The program was a success, and is still up and running to this day. “I wanted to make it clear we don’t tolerate bullying,” he adds, and that the group is made up of: “students that believe in change, that believe that we can all be equal”.
Japjee began taking his message to a wider audience, training with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and broadening his message to reach out to all communities. At 16 he went to the National Youth Leadership Mission held by ADL in Washington DC where he was joined by young people from 13 different cities. The trip helped inspire him as he made new friends and connections, sharing stories of their own experiences, and the methods they’ve learned to cope with difficult environments.
He carries with him the Sikh concepts of Seva (selfless service) within his Sangat (company, fellowship). In other words, being an active part of the community to make it a better place while being supported by like-minded individuals. It’s one of the parts of his faith that he’s brought from his place of birth to his new home.
Another set of words Japjee carries come from former First Lady Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high”. These words are another source of inspiration for him, inspiring him to never let the hatred he might encounter pull him down to that level.
Japjee’s motivations paint the picture of the American immigrant experience, a fusion of both old and new traditions that have coupled within him to motivate Japjee to make his community a better place. “My vision is to make sure that this hate does not come knocking at a local level again.
We’re better than that…No matter what’s going on politically, we are united.”
Now Japjee is focusing on finishing high school and preparing for college. Although his time there hasn’t been as difficult as those middle school years, there are still some challenges ahead.
“I feel that even now,” he says “I can be a victim of hate, but I still live on.” Being able to choose his classes, and his placement in advanced courses minimizes his exposure to potential bullies, but it’s still difficult to be in the minority in school, usually one of four or five non-white students in his classes.
“Even after ten years, people are still confused about who I am and what I stand for,” he goes on, expressing a desire that any of his fellow students who don’t know him might consider taking the time to speak to him, and learn who he is as a person, and not judge him based on his appearance. Having spent more than half his life in the United States, and growing up there, he doesn’t think of himself as an outsider. “We hold American values, we are American.”
Even outside of school it can be difficult to be a visible minority in a community that only has about 300 Sikh families in it. “I’ve had some people talk to me slowly in English,” he remembers, often responding in perfect English and then having a laugh about it. He tries to approach situations like that as a teaching moment, and to use humour to say “we still love you, you’re still human to me, and I don’t have bad wishes on you”.
He follows a Sikh saying ‘Chardi Kala’, meaning to him: “with your head held high, in high spirits…I still go to school,” he continues “and try to make a difference.”
The experience has made Japjee stronger. Still a young man, he’s hoping to do more for his community to make sure no kid has to go through the childhood he had, or at the very least, won’t
have to go through the hard times alone.
“It got the best of me, but it also made me the best of me”