When the mayor of Visalia, in California's agricultural Central Valley, mentioned to a local Sikh businessman that the city of 120,000 might have to forgo a July Fourth fireworks display because of financial concerns, the religious community jumped.
The Sikhs chipped in $10,000 for the festivities, which will also benefit a children's charity.
“Visalia considers this to be very generous and helpful. We appreciate their show of patriotic support, as one of our newer groups of American citizens,” Visalia Mayor Warren Gubler told NBC News.
The donation is part of a new nationwide campaign to educate Americans about Sikhs that launched earlier this year with $1 million in TV advertising featuring Sikh families playing football, discussing their love of “Game of Thrones,” and explaining that “Sikh values are American values.”
“Our core central beliefs are profoundly American: Racial equality; gender equality; religious tolerance,” said Gurwin Ahuja, a former Obama administration appointee involved with the campaign.
Sikhs, members of a religious group that originated in India, represent the world’s fifth-largest religion. But they are not well known to many Americans, who often mistake them for Muslims because of their turbans. (Few Muslims actually wear turbans, while most Sikhs do.)
"Daily Show" correspondent Hasan Minhaj recently spoke to a group of Sikhs about how they can distance themselves from hate crimes and when he asked why more Sikhs don't say, "Hey, I'm not Muslim," a member of the group answered: "It's not just an option for us to throw another community under the bus."
The roughly half-million Sikhs living in the U.S. have been unwitting targets of discrimination and violence since 9/11. A Sikh man in Arizona was one of the first hate-crime victims after Sept. 11, and the attacks have continued; from a Wisconsin temple shooting in 2012 that left six people dead, to the March murder of a Sikh man who was told to “go back to your own country.”
Religions don’t usually launch public relations campaigns and Sikhs have tried to keep a low profile, with a culture that values selflessness, humility and community service.
“Sikhs have been in this area over 100 years. We’ve been in the World Wars, the industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution,” said Bill Singh Nijjer, a Sikh activist in Fresno, California, which has one of the nation’s largest Sikh communities. “We haven’t done any outreach. That is probably the reason we were targeted and misidentified.”
The leaders of the National Sikh Campaign concluded Americans were not going to understand who they are without some kind of intervention.
“The needle has not moved, so we decided we needed to do something,” said Dr. Rajwant Singh, a politically active dentist in suburban Maryland who founded the campaign.
Six-in-10 Americans admit to knowing “nothing at all” about Sikhism, according to a survey conducted by Democratic pollster Hart Research on behalf of the campaign. And just 11 percent say they personally know a Sikh person.
That’s in contrast to the 86 percent of Americans who say they know at least something about Jewish Americans, the 76 percent who say the same of Muslim Americans, and the 62 percent who know at least a little about Hindu Americans.
Gagan Kaur, a young Sikh leader in the Fresno community, said she knows two men who were killed for wearing a turban.
“Everyone I know has experienced discrimination,” she said. “I hope that one day this (campaign) will allow our children to not have to go through what we went through.”
Amritpal Singh, the businessman in Visalia who first heard about the city’s need for help with the fireworks, makes the rounds once a month to offer work to homeless people he encounters.
Two years ago, he met a man who was sleeping outside a post office and offered him a job at a carwash Singh owns.
“His first response when I went to pick him up was, ‘You have a turban. I shouldn’t go with you,'" Singh said.
But with a bit of prodding, the man took the job and just last month proudly showed off the new car he had been saving up for, Singh said.
“This is the story of America,” Singh said. “We want to give to the people who need the most. But people, just because they see a turban, they say, 'Oh, my God.' Even the person who was standing on the street asking for money, he said, ‘Oh, my God.’”