More than 200 people gathered near a freshly planted Indian rosewood that honors Balbir Singh Sodhi, 52, an Indian immigrant and a Sikh who was shot to death outside his Chevron station in Mesa four days after the terrorist attacks. His assailant, declaring that "all Arabs had to be shot," also fired at a Lebanese clerk in another gas station and at an Afghan family's house, police say.
In the year since those crimes, Mesa and greater Phoenix have faced head-on the fear and distrust of Arabs and Muslims spawned by Sept. 11. Sikhs, who are neither Muslim nor Arab, have sought to educate Americans about who they are, too.
It is a tableau played out in other cities that suffered violence and ethnic hostility after the attacks. As many as 18 other slayings are being investigated as possible hate crimes linked to Sept. 11, says the Campaign for Collateral Compassion, a group based in the Chicago area that tracks the cases. They include an Egyptian grocer in San Gabriel, Calif.; a Pakistani grocer in Dallas; a Palestinian-American in south Los Angeles; and a Sikh gas station owner in New Haven, Conn.
Last month, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported 2,042 hate incidents against Muslims since Sept. 11. Those were mostly taunts, beatings and assaults on mosques and businesses.
For the Sodhi family, tragedy didn't end with Balbir's death. On Aug. 4, his brother, Sukhpal, 50, was shot and killed while driving his taxi in San Francisco. The incident is still under investigation.
Followers of Sikhism, the world's fifth-largest religion, believe in one God and tolerance of other faiths. About 500,000 Sikhs live in the USA and Canada, including 600 families in greater Phoenix. Men wear turbans and uncut beards. "Many Americans are nervous about us when they look at our dress and different color," says Sodhi's youngest brother, Lakwinder, 35. "Before Sept. 11, we didn't have any problem."
Within days of Sodhi's death, Sikhs in Phoenix mobilized to teach America about their values of peace and friendship. They began displaying the flag. They printed business cards and buttons announcing "I'm a Sikh American." They handed out flyers explaining themselves to neighbors. They went into schools to raise awareness among teachers.
Sikhs say the effort defused much of the resentment. About 3,000 people came to Sodhi's memorial service. Lakwinder says hundreds of people committed to buying gas from Sodhi's station to help support his family. "Once the people realized who we were, the amount of support we got, and the kindness and love, was overwhelming," says Guru Roop Kaur Khalsa, a religious leader in Phoenix.
Two days before his death, Sodhi told Khalsa of the hate and fear he saw in his customers' faces after the attacks on New York City and Washington. Hours before he was shot, Sodhi went to Costco to buy a U.S. flag to display at his gas station and donated $75 for victims of the attacks. "My brother sacrificed his life to help the innocent," says another brother, Harjit Singh. "That's what my family believes."