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Sikh Resident Experienced 'No Hatred' In Milwaukee


Decades ago, there were hardly any Sikhs in the Milwaukee area. After a 1960s change in immigration law made it easier for people to reach the U.S. from Asia, they began flowing in. And one of the earliest arrivals was Swaranjit Arora, who came in the '60s and arrived in Milwaukee in 1972 to teach at the University of Wisconsin. He talked with us about how things have changed.

SWARANJIT ARORA: In Milwaukee, I was one of first Sikhs to come. Over time we have increased from a handful of four or five Sikh families to almost now 3,000 families. So experience of Sikh families have been wonderful here. I have never faced any, any, any hatred or any discrimination. People have been exceptionally kind and nice to us - all of our neighbors, all of my students.

I've been teaching me at the university for the last 40 years, at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and I have never in my life faced any kind of discrimination. But things can happen and that's what happened this Sunday.

INSKEEP: You came from India in 1967, is that right?

ARORA: Yes, please. I came on student visa. I didn't want to say in the United States. I wanted to go back home, but my dean insisted that if I want to stay and teach at the university, I must get my visa renewed. And to get my visa renewed, he said all I have to do is sign here and he'll get me immigration. And it took only three days to get immigration to United States, Green Card. Now it takes 11 years.

INSKEEP: So you've ended up making your life in Wisconsin.

ARORA: Right.

INSKEEP: How would you describe the community in Milwaukee?

ARORA: Milwaukee community, as I said, is extremely nice. My colleagues at the university, my students, just love me and they adore me, and I really enjoy my teaching at the university here. I am involved with interfaith group. I'm involved with the university committees. I've been on the university senate. So all over I have been actively involved with the different allegiance, involved with the setting up of temples in our Wisconsin - our Brookfield temple and then Oak Creek temple.

So I have been actively involved with all this because when we came, we didn't have any place of prayer. We have nobody, so we used to meet once a month and have prayer services at one person's home.

INSKEEP: Now, as an observant Sikh, am I correct that you wear your hair long, you have a beard, you are wearing a turban - is that correct?

ARORA: Yes, please.

INSKEEP: And that is normal for men in the Sikh community.

ARORA: Right.

INSKEEP: Anybody ever give you trouble about that?

ARORA: Not really. Not really. Only trouble I got was when I was visiting Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas to teach at SMU. So I went there and those were the times when American hostages were held, if you remember, 1980, when President Carter was the president.

INSKEEP: Oh yeah, the hostage crisis - 1979, 1980. Yeah.

ARORA: Right. And they assume automatically that I belong to Iran or Muslim, and somebody came, my first day, when I went to buy some groceries for my family, they put a gun on my head and said, where are you from? I said from India. What religion? Sikh. Oh, if you were from Iran and Muslim, I would have killed you right now.

INSKEEP: So that one strange incident happened in 1980, and...

ARORA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...otherwise you have felt welcome and...

ARORA: Oh, gosh, always. Always welcome. People could not be more nicer to me than I have ever seen. My deans, my chairs, my professors, my provost, and you should see the amount of emails from my former students who are saying, Professor, are you all right? The number has gone over 400 - number.

INSKEEP: You mean in the last few days people have been...

ARORA: Last two days, and you know, all the emails and the phone calls, every five seconds there's another phone call.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned that the community in the Milwaukee area has gone from a handful of families in a few decades to you said about 3,000 families.

ARORA: Right.

INSKEEP: I'm sure everybody has different reasons for migrating here, but what are some of the reasons that people have come in such numbers to the United States from outside the country, Sikhs in particular?

ARORA: Earlier stages I can say that most of the people who were coming were professionals. Now, when I walk around, people say, oh yeah, we saw you driving a taxi. So things - you can see that things have changed over time. There are still a lot of professionals coming, but there's more migration or second-generation people, brothers, sisters, and all of them are coming.

INSKEEP: And now you might get mistaken for a taxi driver, you're saying.

ARORA: Right. Right. Well, there's no harm in that. That's a wonderful experience too. I say, yeah, yeah, I was driving a taxi.


ARORA: Yeah. But that's a wonderful - and those guys are, you know, I have great respect for our gas station owners, our taxi drivers. They work very hard, 16 to 18 hours and day, and then they make their life.

INSKEEP: Dr. Arora, you must have known a number of the people who were killed on Sunday.

ARORA: Yes. I have known all of them.

INSKEEP: What is something that you would like us know?

ARORA: I would simply say that our heart goes for their families, our sympathies, and we dearly feel sad that this incident happened. But sometimes you can never predict what is in the human mind and what is God's will. We all believe in God's will, and this perhaps was God's will.

INSKEEP: Dr. Swaranjit Arora is a long-time member of the Sikh community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dr. Arora, thanks for the time.

ARORA: Thank you so very much. You are doing a great service, letting people know how we feel and that's very important to us, and our heart goes out to Brian Murphy, our, you know, police officer, who really came and put his own life on the spot and helped our community. If he was - police officer was not there, we wouldn't have six dead, we could have 30 dead.

INSKEEP: This is the police officer who was wounded himself.

ARORA: Yes, right. And you know, so we're grateful to Brian Murphy putting his life on the spot and helping everybody.

INSKEEP: Brian Murphy.

ARORA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Dr. Arora, thanks again.

ARORA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.