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Wisconsin's Sikh community a decade after fatal temple shooting


It has been nearly 10 years since a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek and shot 10 people. And in the decade since, there have been more attacks on houses of worship, from a church in South Carolina to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. For some members of the Sikh temple, that makes this an especially difficult anniversary. Rob Mentzer of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

ROB MENTZER, BYLINE: Satwant Singh Kaleka brought his wife and two sons to Milwaukee from the Punjab region of India in 1982. He'd been a farmer in India. In America, he worked in a factory and later started a full-service gas station. By 2012, Milwaukee was his home. He was president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. That August, his son, Pardeep Kaleka, had a chance to reflect on just how far his dad had come.

PARDEEP KALEKA: August 3 was my birthday. It was the last time that I would see - I didn't know it at the time, but the last time I would see my father alive.

MENTZER: On August 5, a gunman entered the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and fatally shot six people, including Satwant Kaleka. Four others were injured. One victim who was paralyzed would die from his injuries in 2020. A police roadblock stopped Pardeep Kaleka and his young family on their way to the temple that day. He waited all day for word about his father.

KALEKA: He was the most determined man I've ever seen. And so by the end of the day, I really - I knew before they ever made notification that he was probably one of the people that died inside.

MENTZER: The shooter shot one police officer. Another officer managed to shoot him. The gunman died by suicide in the parking lot in front of the temple. Next week, the Sikh temple in Oak Creek will mark the 10th anniversary of the shootings. Priests there will perform a 48-hour prayer. The temple, or gurdwara, will hold a candlelight vigil. It's a somber anniversary. But for some members of the Sikh community, it raises new frustrations. The last decade has seen a rise in mass shootings and a series of high-profile terror attacks on places of worship, including attacks by white supremacists. Anisha Singh heads the nonprofit Sikh Coalition.

ANISHA SINGH: Oak Creek can be seen as that warning of an increasingly violent and assertive role that white supremacy was set to play in American society over the next decade.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

MENTZER: At a Wednesday evening service at the temple, priests and gurdwara members read prayers. Navi Gill was 18 when the shooting happened. In a library room at the temple, he showed a visitor photos of the victims of the 2012 attack.

NAVI GILL: These are the images of the six people that were lost. Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh were brothers.

MENTZER: Today, Gill is in medical school. His life and the world have changed a lot. But when he thinks of the shooting...

GILL: Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday. Like, some of the memories are so vivid. It feels like, you know, it just happened. And then you realize now, like, these people have been out of our lives for 10 years, and you miss them.

MENTZER: The man who opened fire in Oak Creek was named Wade Page. He didn't leave a manifesto or a trail of writings online, but he was an active member of hate groups, and he probably targeted the Sikh temple because its members are visibly different - mostly brown-skinned, some wearing turbans. Today Pardeep Kaleka's main work is doing therapy for people who've been lured by extremist ideologies. He's worked with former white supremacists, Islamists and even eco-terrorists.

KALEKA: We do not get upstream enough. And I'm trying to prevent the next Wade Page out there from hurting any community.

MENTZER: Members of the community say the anniversary is a reminder to take the threat from extremists seriously. They're planning to observe it with community service events across the country. For NPR News, I'm Rob Mentzer in Oak Creek, Wis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Mentzer