A Summer Camp For Sikh Youth

Aug 19, 2018
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LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

We're going to turn now to another religious community in the United States. Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team reports on a camp that draws a hundred kids from all across the country who are part of the Sikh religion.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: In a Maryland suburb not far from D.C., the Guru Harkrishan Institute of Sikh Studies is in this wooded park studded with cabins. Some campers are crowded into a room playing traditional Sikh instruments.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

CHOW: And over in the camp's mass hall, some of the younger campers are getting ready to play "Jeopardy" - Sikh "Jeopardy."

GURDEEP SINGH: Put your fingers on your buzzer like this, so that (unintelligible).

CHOW: That voice telling the campers to test their "Jeopardy" buzzers - that's the camp director, Gurdeep Singh, or Gurdeep Uncle, as the kids call him. He started the camp 23 years ago to help young people learn more about the Sikh religion. The religion itself was founded by Guru Nanak. It comes from the Punjab region of South Asia.

These days, there are more than 25 million people in the world who practice this monotheistic religion, making it the fifth-largest religion in the world. In the U.S., there are about 500,000 people who follow it. And one of the ways Singh tries to teach the kids about facts like this is through a game.

G. SINGH: Who is the spiritual mother of all Sikhs?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mata Sahib Kaur.

G. SINGH: Mata Sahib Kaur is correct.

CHOW: Singh wants camp to be a comfortable environment that's not so prescriptive, where kids are allowed to question their faith.

G. SINGH: They ask a lot of questions. They want to know facts. They want to be convinced. They cannot blindly follow anything. And when they come to these camps, those questions are answered.

CHOW: The campers aren't just asking questions about their religion. They're asking what it's like to live in America practicing it. One big topic that comes up here is bullying.

According to the Sikh Coalition, more than half of Sikh kids are bullied in school. In 2012 and 2013, the nonprofit surveyed hundreds of Sikh kids in four states. It also found that 67 percent of Sikh kids who wore turbans reported being bullied in school.

Rucha Kaur is the community development director at the Sikh Coalition, and she was asked to run some trainings at the camp. In one of those trainings, Kaur asks the kids to close their eyes.

RUCHA KAUR: Tell me how many of you have been bullied in school. Raise your hands.

CHOW: A dozen or so kids ages 6 and a little older sit in front of a fan. A few raised their hands. Some tried to peek around to sneak a glance at their friends. Kaur knows from personal experience that if you're Sikh, there's a good chance you've been bullied. And for Kaur, one of the ways to fight bullying comes from the Sikh religion itself.

KAUR: You're a Sikh. What are we taught as Sikhs? Are we taught to be kind?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yes.

KAUR: Are we taught to stand up for people who can't help themselves?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yes.

CHOW: Bhagat Singh has been going to this camp for six or so years. Now, he's 13.

BHAGAT SINGH: If anyone calls you, like, Aladdin Bin Laden or something - something racist - you have to ignore it and move on. All these small things will happen to you.

CHOW: Singh says he thinks every single one of the kids at camp has been bullied. But camps like this can help them work through these issues together. His little brother also goes to this camp. And their mom, when she was a teenager, she went, too.

B. SINGH: We're special.

CHOW: That's kind of cool, right?

B. SINGH: Yeah, it is pretty cool. I love it. I love being Sikh. It makes me feel like I'm, like, the cool one out of everyone at my school.

CHOW: Singh says this camp and being around other kids like him - it makes him feel like nobody can stop him. Kat Chow, NPR News, Rockville, Md. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.