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Camp Promotes One Sikh Nation

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    Saturday, about 1,200 Sikh children imagined a world without divisions.

    "One Sikh Nation," a day camp that took place at Sikh temples in 11 cities across California, including Pittsburg, was the brainchild of a group of college students that began meeting in 2000 to raise awareness of the faith and Punjabi culture for those in and outside it.

    The students say although the Sikh faith does not recognize caste distinctions, many of the older generation have not been able to shake off its influence.

    "We are trying to teach the kids to treat everybody the way they would want to be treated," said Kamaljeet Surila, a member of the Pittsburg Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha temple, where the Bay Area event took place.

    The Jakara student organization has met every year for the past seven in Fresno, home to the largest Sikh community in California. Each conference takes on a theme: Last year's was feminism. This is the first year for the children's day camp.

    Workshops and lessons borrowed from the civil rights movement, with older students instilling in children as young as 5 a sense of knowledge and pride in their culture.

    "To me, this was a big thing because we grew up going to this temple but never understood what was going on," said Sonia Pal, an economics-anthropology major at UCLA. "At college, we got exposed to other people of our generation who knew more."

    Through activities and art projects, volunteers

    encouraged children to conceive of "Begampura" -- a sublime place envisioned by Sikh founder Sri Guru Arjan Dev Sahib Ji where people of all cultures live in peace.

    The Sikh faith, which is more than 500 years old, began in the Punjab region of India. Today, adherents number nearly 23 million worldwide. Estimates in the United States range from 190,000 to 440,000.

    Sikhs hold that all religions serve God and share a vision of love, peace and equality.

    Rejecting the caste system, Sikh women adopt the surname of Kaur; men, Singh.

    A fan whirred ineffectually in a humid classroom in which elementary school students in four teams competed for prizes by guessing the answer to questions such as "What is the caste system?" Antsy after a morninglong Power Point presentation and a pinata, the orange T-shirt-clad youths flopped about on the floor.

    "Come on, you guys, we just talked about this," said Ranjit Kaur, a College of Marin nursing student in a deep indigo veil.

    Team Four won hands-down with its definition: "Poor people and rich people separated into higher and lower groups."

    Josh Surilia, 8, said he learned a lot.

    Begampura, for instance, "is a city where they are treating everyone the same."

    Sabrina Kumar, 10, said Nishansahib "means identity and respect."

    High school students created posters on the "building Begampura" theme, expressing in art what Begampura would look like if it were a place. Gagandeep Anand, 13, drew a Muslim, a Hindu, and a nun holding hands under a collaged sky.

    "The Muslim looks like a hippie," mused Nonie Raln, 9.

    The day was more than a feel-good exercise. Some of these children have experienced first hand the sting of discrimination. An arson fire claimed the home of one family.

    Called a degrading name by a classmate, one boy said he responded with a nasty comeback of his own.

    "Then I explained," he said.

    The explanation of Sikhism will come first in the future if the workshop proves successful, volunteers said.

    The roots for ending discrimination are in the faith, organizers said. Traditions include the langar, or communal kitchen, which is open to all who are hungry.

    Said Sonoma State University student Kanta Dugh of Petaluma, "We want to give them a base to start on."

    By Rebecca Rosen Lum

    Rebecca Rosen Lum covers religion.
    Reach her at 925-977-8506 or

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