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In this Seattle suburb, Sikh Americans make historic gains amid tough challenges

Kent, Washington, elected its first Sikh city councilmember in November. Months earlier, a community member was shot and injured by a masked gunman.

by Chris Fuchs /

Satwinder Kaur made it official in March. That’s when the 31-year-old single mom announced her candidacy for City Council in Kent, Washington.

Eight months later, Kaur’s victory made her the city’s first elected council member who is Sikh, she said.

“They’re really, really proud that one of their own is representing at City Hall,” Kaur told NBC News.

“They’ve taken measures to make sure that the child and the family feel safe. But at the same time they’re also trying to deal with the broader aspect, the anxiety that such an incident causes in the community.”

“They’ve taken measures to make sure that the child and the family feel safe. But at the same time they’re also trying to deal with the broader aspect, the anxiety that such an incident causes in the community.”

Just outside Seattle, Kent is home to many of the Sikh faith, a religion founded in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent during the late 15th century.

Kaur’s election is a big deal for this city of roughly 127,000 that found itself in the media spotlight back in early March, when a turbaned Sikh man working on his car was shot and injured by a masked gunman who told him to get out of the country, police have said.

“That created such anxiety in the community,” Jasmit Singh, one of the founders of the Khalsa Gurmat Center, a community group based in nearby Renton, told NBC News.

“All the elderly who used to take walks would no longer go out, they would not sit in the public parks,” he said. “There was a sense that somebody was on the prowl that would shoot them.”

The shooting, which authorities were investigating as a possible hate crime, remains unsolved.

Kaur, who announced her council bid just days before the attack, said she had conversations about the shooting with the police chief, family, and community.

“People seem to have moved past that in the community — kind of,” she added.

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School bullying is another big concern for Sikh parents, Singh said. It’s an issue that Kaur said she vows to address as a councilmember.

Just over 50 percent of Sikh children have reported being bullied in school, according to a 2014 report from The Sikh Coalition, a community-based nonprofit.

To show their commitment to their faith, Sikhs keep unshorn hair, which men are required to cover with a turban. Some women also wear turbans, while young Sikh boys wear a patka, or smaller turban.

That appearance has made Sikhs the target of bias-based bullying, as religious articles like the turban have been wrongly linked with media images of terrorists following the Sept. 11 attacks, according to The Sikh Coalition.

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“It has improved a lot,” Singh said, referring to school bullying. “But every time an incident happens, our people just assume the worst.”

One case that made headlines recently involved a 14-year-old Sikh boy punched on the street in late October as another student videotaped the attack, police and school officials said.

Cmdr. Jarod Kasner, a Kent Police Department spokesman, told NBC News that the two boys had had an earlier in-class disagreement at Kentridge High School, but said race had nothing to do with it.

The boy who hit the unidentified 14-year-old and the child who videotaped and uploaded the clip to social media were both sanctioned, according to Chris Loftis, a Kent School District spokesman.

Loftis said the video was posted along with racially charged language, with words to the effect of, “Who wants to go with me and beat up Indians tomorrow.”

While the district does not disclose the specific sanctions students receive, Loftis said suspensions are used in the most serious cases. “And these were both serious cases,” he added.

Singh said the school district, after learning of the attack, was extremely responsive in reaching out to the Sikh community.

“They’ve taken measures to make sure that the child and the family feel safe,” he said. “But at the same time they’re also trying to deal with the broader aspect, the anxiety that such an incident causes in the community.”

 Satwinder Kaur Courtesy of Kaur for Kent campaign.

Kaur, who said she spoke with parties involved in that incident, said she plans to sit down with the school district, even before starting her term in January, to review how such cases are handled.

“If our kids are not feeling safe in schools, we have failed in the city as a whole, including the school district,” she said.

Parts of King County, which includes the City of Kent, are home to a sizeable Sikh population that traces its roots back to the early ’60s, according to Singh.

He estimated there are between 8,000 and 10,000 Sikhs living in Kent and nearby Renton and Auburn. He put that number closer to 50,000 when SeaTac, Federal Way, and Seattle — all in King County — are included.

While the Sikh community had participated in parent teacher associations, it wasn’t much involved in local politics, according to Singh. That began to change between 10 and 15 years ago, he said.

“With the kinds of issues that the community was facing across the board — whether it was in the schools with the kids, whether it was housing discrimination, whether it was jobs — it required a more active participation in all aspects of civic engagement,” Singh said.

For Kent as a whole, Kaur identified a range of issues she plans to tackle while serving on the seven-member council. It includes figuring out the city’s finances, creating a police force representative of Kent, and forging better communications with residents, she said.

“I want to be the voice for every single person,” Kaur said.

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The nonpartisan city council position is part-time, meaning Kaur will keep her job as an IT director during her four-year term, she said.

In addition to Kaur, who grew up in Kent, victories of other Sikh candidates this past Election Day could pave the way for more Sikhs to run for office, Amrith Kaur, legal director of The Sikh Coalition, told NBC News.

Those include Manka Dhingra, a Democrat elected to Washington’s state Senate, and Ravi Bhalla, a Hoboken councilman who is now that New Jersey city’s mayor-elect.

“If anything, their candidacies and elections show for other people in the community that it’s possible,” she said. “And my hope is that this brings out the people who are willing to put forth that effort and put themselves out there, and stay true to whatever they believe in.”

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