Tami R. Yeager
“A Dream in Doubt” began in the dark hours following the flood of images featuring 9/11’s turbaned and bearded terrorists. My Sikh-American friends—who also wore turbans and beards in accordance with their faith—immediately felt the backlash of misdirected anger but no one was truly prepared for Balbir Singh Sodhi’s murder on September 15, 2001. This was America’s first post-9/11 revenge killing, a Sikh gas station owner shot to death in Mesa, Arizona. Though many Americans recall hearing about this story, it was ultimately a blip in the media amidst the chaos of the 9/11 attacks.
Over the next two years, I watched as this phenomenon received no national analysis or significant media coverage. Why wasn’t America talking about this hate? I was raised in a small southern Tennessee town, as the daughter of civil rights activists and a United Methodist minister. My childhood dinner conversations included discussions about promoting inclusion, and how “each of us is personally responsible for insuring it.”
Although I am not Sikh, I had previously produced an educational media project for the Sikh-American community, and felt I could gain access to the Sodhi family to tell their story. When I contacted the Sodhis in May 2003, I learned that another member of the Sikh community had recently been shot in a hate crime. At this point, with support from my parents and a Sikh-American co-producer, I knew there was no turning back. I began chronicling the Sodhi family’s experience, which represents the hate that many Americans have endured throughout the years; though this time there weren’t white hoods and burning crosses, but rather, Americans attacking their fellow Americans.
Today, five years after 9/11, the issue of hate crimes against “suspicious-looking” Americans continues to be germane. As Hollywood films dramatizing 9/11 hit theaters and the “global war on terror” continues, Americans who are, or appear to be of, Arab or Muslim descent, regularly face questions about their faith and loyalty to America. While there have been other post-9/11 films about national security, civil liberties, and honored heroes, “A Dream in Doubt” is the first to explore hate crimes on a familial level. It offers a uniquely personal perspective about life in post-9/11 America. And for me, the Sodhi family’s story represents the country’s core values of freedom, justice, and the American Dream.
My journey of producing “A Dream in Doubt” began when I emigrated from India to the U.S. because of growing violence against Sikhs during the mid-1980s. As a young boy, I saw how hateful intolerance could translate into senseless violence. By settling in the San Francisco Bay Area, my family believed that we could leave behind the brutality of such bigotry. However, immediately following 9/11, the sense of danger my family and other Sikh immigrants thought we had escaped came roaring back in our adopted homeland.
Although there were isolated hate crimes against Sikh Americans prior to Balbir Singh Sodhi’s shooting on September 15, 2001, that event shook the notion that American dress and accents could shield Sikh Americans from such hate. My father, who had draped his Honda Accord with American flags, advised me to do the same; he also told me not to wear a black turban, lest I be even more visibly linked with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.
Since I had been involved with the Sikh community in the Bay Area, many Sikh families asked me to speak to their children’s classrooms due to the bullying and harassment their children experienced following 9/11. Having personally experienced harassment as a limited English-speaking immigrant to the U.S., I felt compelled to create educational resources that would celebrate diversity and feature Sikh-Americans. Shortly after 9/11, Tami and I worked together with another colleague, Mandeep S. Dhillon, to produce an educational media project called “The Sikh Next Door” introducing the Sikh religion and culture to students.
Given our successes on the last project and the glaring need to educate the public about the Sodhi family’s story, Tami and I agreed to collaborate on an independent, feature length documentary about the Sodhi family.
I realized that while the stories of James Byrd, Vincent Chin, and Matthew Shepard had been immortalized through films, Balbir Singh Sodhi was still unknown to most Americans. I knew Tami and I had a rare and important opportunity to share his story and his family’s struggle with students and academics, law enforcement officials and interfaith groups. Now that “A Dream in Doubt” is complete, I hope the Sodhi family can add another patch to the American quilt, demonstrating their journey from hate to hope.