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Monday, September 17, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sikh community holds memorial service for victims of attacks

Seattle Times staff reporter

The effects of the hell that unfolded in the streets of New York City, near Washington, D.C., and in an empty field in Pennsylvania six days ago have trickled down to every niche and hollow of America, finding their way yesterday to a small, carpeted space of Gurudawara Sacha Marg Sahib in rural Kent, where Sikhs worship.

Sikhs held a special service there yesterday to express their grief over the terrorist attacks on their country, to show their solidarity with all Americans, and to make the same pleas being sounded from many churches, synagogues, and mosques: Turn the other cheek. Fight evil with good. Love your enemy.

More than 100 people came to the service on a day of continued national mourning and remembrance across all faiths. They left their shoes at the door and tied orange scarves over their heads. They walked in and bowed before the Guru Garanth Sahib — the Sikh holy book. The men sat on one side of the floor, the women on the other, but in all the important ways, people came together.

"The Sikh religion is based upon these principles: love, tolerance and peaceful coexistence," said Dr. Sawraj Singh, chairman of the Washington State Network for Human Rights, as he addressed the crowd. "It is our hope that the crisis brings people together. This is the timeless struggle between evil and good; we have to fight evil with good. We have to be on the side of good at each moment."

Singh's two teenaged children, Preetkamal Kaur and Jugraj Singh, performed music and sang Sikh hymns, translating them into English for visitors:

I have no adversaries, I can get along with anyone;

Even though people look different, I see the reflection of the same God in all of them.

After the service was the "langar," or community kitchen, where men, women and children ate rice, bread and curried vegetables together in a ritual meant to convey the message of equality.

"In India, there is the caste system, which separates people," Singh said. "In the langar, everyone eats together."

In the days after the terrorist attacks, citizens of Arab descent or Muslim faith have found themselves the target of harassment and suspicion. The Sikh community, often mistaken for Muslims because of their traditional dress, have openly condemned the terrorist acts. Indeed, the Sikhs of Gurudawara Sacha Marg Sahib have adorned their gates with twin American flags.

The service was conducted partly in English and partly in Punjabi. Deputy Mayor Tom Byers attended, thanking the Sikh community for its support, including a visible presence days ago at a prayer service at Seattle Center.

"In this shadow of death, one question remains: How shall we use our lives?" he asked. "We thank you for the eloquent power of your example."

Members of the Church Council of Greater Seattle volunteered their help as "watchful eyes" on Gurudawara Sacha Marg Sahib, saying they would stand with the Sikhs to help protect them against any harassment or hate crimes.

But many people gathered yesterday still could not get their minds around what had happened at the World Trade Center, let alone its diluted consequences.

Swarn Kumar of Issaquah cannot seem to turn off the television, no matter how disturbing or repetitive the footage. She has lived in America for 30 years, was educated here, gave birth to her daughter here. Her two brothers live in New York; she was unable to contact them for three days after the attacks.

"This is my home," she said during the langar. "This is my country. I feel like someone attacked us right in our own house."

Swarn works for Boeing; she was injured during the Nisqually earthquake in February, when a file cabinet crashed down on top of her in her office. She has just regained the full use of her right hand. The trauma of last week's terrorist attacks has reopened the wound.

"When I was hurt, I experienced how you feel when you think, 'This is it,' " Swarn said. "This is it. I will never experience life again, I will never see my daughter again."

She does not resent talking to her neighbors about her feelings regarding the attacks, does not resent constantly having to explain herself in a country that questions her patriotism and lumps her in with Muslims. (She is Hindu.)

It is the fear of what is to come, she said, that leaves her sleepless.

Caitlin Cleary can be reached at 206-464-8214 or by email at ccleary@seattletimes.com.

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