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New Sikh arrivals feel welcomed

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    Tuesday marked the 100-year anniversary of Bellingham’s “Hindu” riots, when a mob rounded up the city’s East Indian mill workers and ordered them out of town. This is the second part of a two-day package examining the riots, their aftermath and comparisons to racism today.

    Satpal Sidhu, dean of Bellingham Technical College and spokesman for the Guru Nanak Guru Sikh Temple south of Lynden, sits in a prayer room at the temple

    When Satpal Sidhu moved to Bellingham from Canada with his family in the mid-’80s, he thought the dozen or so East Indian families already here were among the first to settle in Whatcom County.

    He was surprised to learn there were about 200 East Indian lumber mill workers in Bellingham around the turn of the century — until they were run out of town in a 1907 race riot.

    “Our people have been here 100 years,” said Sidhu, now a leader at the county’s main Sikh temple. “Most of our community has gathered here in the last 10 years.”

    Just over the border, in Canada, where some East Indian families have lived since the early 1900s, some older residents “have this kind of memory — don’t go to America, just stay in Canada,” he said. “That’s why a lot of people never bothered to come across.”

    Today, the county’s Sikh community includes about 600 to 700 families, Sidhu said. About 20 to 25 percent work on family-owned farms. Many others own small businesses like motels and gas stations, and many work in the education and health care sectors, he said.

    The congregation would like to raise money to establish some sort of marker so the community doesn’t forget about the riot again, Sidhu said. Perhaps it can be incorporated into the waterfront development, or at the new city library, he said.

    The Sikh temple will hold an open house Sept. 13 to mark the anniversary of the riot. They picked the date because it was on Sept. 13, 2001, that some kids or young men in a pickup truck hurled eggs and rocks and shot paintballs at the Pole Road temple’s sign, apparently in some kind of misguided response to the terrorist attacks. One of the neighbors caught them and the vandals sped away.

    When word got out, 150 to 200 people from outside the Sikh community came to the temple for a gathering as a sign of solidarity, Sidhu said, a gesture that made quite an impact on the congregation.

    “There are a lot of well-wishers, a lot of good people around in the community,” Sidhu said. “We want to recognize that, to welcome other people, to come visit us and learn more about us.”

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