Like most Americans, Harjit Dhaliwal remembers exactly where he was when two planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Dhaliwal, who grew up in Malaysia and moved to Vermont in 1995, was in a meeting at the Hinesburg school where he worked.
Like most Americans, Dhaliwal and his family sat glued to the television set that Tuesday evening, unable to eat dinner, shocked and afraid and unknowing what would come next.
In the aftermath, almost immediately, his life changed in ways he never expected.
Dhaliwal, unlike most Americans, was made to feel like he didn’t belong here.
“Everything was fine, and then 9/11 happened,” Dhaliwal said. “A lot of the people that I knew personally, people that I worked with, changed their attitude almost the very next day.”
Dhaliwal’s co-workers’ normal, genial “hellos” turned to curt head nods. One teacher confronted him in a faculty lounge, saying he ruined her day because her family was from New York. Days after, the guy who had plowed his driveway every winter quit.
“I think they just felt like, ‘You’re brown; you’re part of the problem,’” Dhaliwal said.
Only, besides that he had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, Dhaliwal is not Muslim.
Dhaliwal, a 41-year-old I.T. professional and Milton resident, is a Sikh, a member of the world’s fifth largest religion that started in India’s Punjab region just 500 years ago.
Though Dhaliwal shed his at age 15, traditional Sikhs wear a turban, one of five outwardly recognized signs of the religion, and are often mistaken for Muslims – Ten years after the attacks, Dhaliwal still sometimes is.
The murder of Balbir Singh Sodi, a turbaned Sikh man, made headlines on Sept. 15, 2001, when Frank Roque shot him outside Sodi’s Arizona convenience store. The crime, for which Roque was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, was considered the first 9/11 backlash fatality, according to the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Roque wanted to kill a Muslim. Instead he shot a Sikh, while the latter was arranging American flags in front of his gas station, SALDEF’s website said.
In the year following Sept. 11, 2001, anti-Muslim-motivated hate crimes increased 1,600 percent, going from the second-lowest reported religious hate crime to the second highest, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division created a working group to combat discrimination against Arabs, Sikhs, Muslims and other groups because they faced increased violence as backlash for the attacks, its website said.
Though Dhaliwal never faced violence, he said the skepticism and outright racism he encountered increased dramatically after 9/11.
Co-workers admitted to having bad impressions of him. Cops kept their hands on their weapons after pulling him over for speeding. And passersby in the mall gave him shifty looks.
Dhaliwal, an overly easygoing guy, didn’t let much of this get to him. He makes fun of himself for “being brown” and even jokes with co-workers today in racial overtones. But even the most lighthearted person has limits.
In 2006, five years after the attacks, Dhaliwal took a business trip to Boston. A novice photographer then, Dhaliwal brought his camera to document his trip. Walking down the street, he stopped to photograph an interesting building when a security guard told him to move along – no pictures were allowed for “security reasons.”
Dhaliwal expressed his frustration that a white, older woman who stood not 50 feet from him was also taking pictures, but he complied. On the same trip, Dhaliwal was confronted by a train conductor who questioned why he wanted pictures of the train.
The day Dhaliwal was to go home, he returned to his rental car to see it guarded by a Massachusetts state trooper and an agent from Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They told him they’d received reports of a suspicious man taking photos. They knew his and his family members’ names and address and even what websites he posts to.
“Before that, I always thought I was immune,” Dhaliwal said. “When it actually happened to me, it was an eye-opener.”
Dhaliwal said he shook for a week after the incident – which ended quickly after he let the officers look at his photos, showing nothing suspicious or evident of a forthcoming terror plot.
The fact it happened the week after Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which suspended the writ of habeas corpus – a court order through which prisoners can petition wrongful detainment – for aliens suspected to be “enemy combatants,” only made him more nervous. Dhaliwal had a green card until 2008, when he was granted full citizenship.
But instead of getting bitter, Dhaliwal turned his fear toward education.
After describing his Boston encounter to a friend in a store parking lot, Dhaliwal was approached by Moise St. Louis, director of Multicultural Student Affairs at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, who overheard their conversation.
St. Louis, who teaches a peace and justice course, invited Dhaliwal to share his experience and his cultural background with his students.
“When you hear the experience of others and you can really put a face to it, I think you think about what it is that you do,” St. Louis said.
Turns out, he was right. Humanizing racial profiling, which students hear about so often in the news, made an impact. Dhaliwal also spoke to two classes at Champlain College in Burlington, and the students wrote reflections, which Dhaliwal saved to this day.
One student from Boston was surprised people were suspicious of Dhaliwal’s picture-taking.
“Are we as a country so afraid that we jump on every brown person that is taking pictures of a train?” she wrote, adding, “Most people are ignorant due to 9/11, mostly because they’re afraid.”
The student said Dhaliwal’s presentation wasn’t for pity – it was to teach about cultural differences.
“The only way we as a whole can eliminate this type of thing happening is by becoming more knowledgeable about all religions, cultures and races,” the student wrote.
Julie Soquet was the Champlain instructor for that class. She specializes in intercultural communication – everything from prepping businesspeople for trips abroad to students studying overseas.
Soquet thinks talks like Dhaliwal’s were especially important after 9/11 because the events that day pointed a blaming finger at all Muslims – or people who just look the part, like Dhaliwal.
“He’s like an everyday American who does his job, has a family, goes home at night,” Soquet said, “and just because of his appearance, people would make all kinds of assumptions.”
Soquet wasn’t sure if people’s attitudes have changed in the 10 years since 9/11; she hopes that time will cause people to “come back to their senses … that not every person from that part of the world is a terrorist,” she said.
Soquet likened Americans’ negative reactions to Muslims or to look-alikes to having a bad meal at a restaurant – they’re not given a second chance, she said.
“We have to do some kind of work or some kind of intervention to actually help shift that response,” she said. “And that’s what [Dhaliwal] does. That’s his contribution.”
As St. Louis put it, hatred and fear is what caused 9/11, and Americans shouldn’t subscribe to the same mindset as the attackers. He’s afraid it might be too late, given the vitriol in today’s political dialogue.
“That’s the thing we need to be thinking about,” St. Louis said. “If we keep acting based on hate and fear, we just mirror what we say we do not respect.”
Dhaliwal agrees. Instead of reacting with anger, he tries to make light of it when people say offensive things.
“That person, technically I should treat them like my worst enemy, but their day will come,” Dhaliwal said. “How it will come, what will come, it’s not up to me. It will come.”
Though Dhaliwal, like St. Louis, is skeptical Americans’ acceptance of non-whites has changed much, he hopes people use the 10th anniversary of September 11 to reflect and see one another as human beings.
Even if they look or act different, “They also have a heart. They also go through the same hardships,” he said. “It’s karma. You treat people right, you go out of your way to be good and helpful, it will come back to you in a good way.”