A Sikh man’s murder at a gas station revealed another tragedy of 9/11
By Harmeet Kaur, CNN
Photographs by Caitlin O’Hara for CNN
Published September 11, 2021
Mesa, Arizona — Sukhwinder Sodhi is standing behind the register at the Mesa Star Chevron, the lone cashier on duty, when a customer checking out asks him about the memorial out front.
Outside in the Arizona desert, about 100 or so feet from where Sukhwinder is standing, is a spot of marble, with flowers on each side and an American flag just off to the left. A bronze plaque bears an inscription: “He was killed simply because of the way he looked.”
The man is new in town and tells Sukhwinder he’s been stopping at this gas station ever since he noticed the memorial. Sukhwinder points to a portrait of a turbaned Sikh man hanging on the wall above the Pepsi machine behind him. “That’s my dad,” the 48-year-old says. “He was killed here after 9/11.”
Sukhwinder’s father was the first person believed to be killed in a supposed act of retaliation for the 9/11 attacks — his killer had reportedly declared that he wanted to “go out and shoot some towel-heads.” Later, he would characterize the atrocity to police as an act of patriotism.
The customer is vaguely familiar with the story. Sukhwinder, who has run the business for the last two decades, gets other questions like these from time to time. When he recounts what happened here all those years ago, many of his customers say they remember hearing about the Sikh immigrant shot to death outside his gas station because he wore a turban and full beard.
They just didn’t realize it happened here.
Before September 15, 2001, the Mesa Star Chevron was just like any of the thousands of gas station and convenience store combos that dot the American landscape. It was a business that Balbir Singh Sodhi built from the ground up, in hopes that it would allow him to control his destiny and provide a better life for his family.
Four days after 9/11, however, the Mesa Star Chevron grew to represent a difficult truth: That for a certain subset of Americans, the American Dream was always fragile — and their place in the nation’s fabric was too.
That day, as Balbir stood next to a team of landscapers outside the gas station he built, trying to figure out where to plant some flowers, a White man pulled up in a pickup truck and shot and killed him.
After firing at Balbir, the man drove to another gas station where he shot at a Lebanese clerk and then shot into the home of an Afghan family. Miraculously, he missed both times. That same day, a White supremacist killed Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani Muslim and father of four daughters, at his Dallas convenience store.
By one Yale law professor’s estimate in 2004, as many as 17 more Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs and South Asians died in a similar manner in the aftermath of 9/11, though others put the count lower or higher. Countless others were subjected to assaults, slurs and vandalism from their neighbors and racial profiling, surveillance and detention from their government.
Balbir’s murder made national headlines, inspired two documentaries and prompted an outpouring of love and support from people across the country. Yet 20 years after the fact, many Americans don’t know his name. Balbir Singh Sodhi doesn’t garner the same recognition as James Byrd Jr. or Matthew Shepard. His story rarely appears in history books.
Now as the nation marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Valarie Kaur and other activists hope that the rest of the country will start to grapple with what they’ve been seeing for the past two decades.
Kaur, a family friend and civil rights leader who made a film about Balbir’s story, says there’s a lot more Americans need to learn about what happened in Mesa that day.
On September 15, she, the Sodhi family and other members of the community will gather again at this gas station, like they do every year, to remember Balbir Singh Sodhi. They’ll reflect on the hate that took his life and on the future that they hope to build.
“My invitation to the country this 9/11 anniversary is to see the gas station where Balbir Uncle was murdered as the second Ground Zero,” she says. “If we can make the gas station a place where we remember, reckon and then commit to repair, then perhaps we can make different choices going ahead.”
It’s something Sukhwinder does from behind the register each day. Reliving the trauma of losing his father each time he tells his story isn’t easy, he says. But it is necessary. After his father was killed, his family made it their mission to ensure that no other innocent life would be taken that way. If even one family can be spared the pain they went through, it would all have been worth it.
From Punjab to Phoenix
Sukhwinder might not have ended up in the US were it not for his father’s belief in the American Dream. He initially wanted to complete his education in India and start a career there, but his father wanted more for him. In America, his father said, he would have more opportunities. He would have a better life.
Born in India in 1949, Balbir Singh Sodhi grew up in a small village in the Kapurthala district of Punjab, the third oldest of 11 children. He came from a family of farmers and businessmen and owned a fabric shop before he and several of his brothers came to the US in the late 1980s.
Balbir left his homeland for reasons that were especially American, his family members said: He wanted religious freedom and economic opportunity.
In 1984, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards after she ordered the Indian Army to storm the Golden Temple, Sikhs across India were scapegoated. Thousands were lynched, burned alive, beaten and raped by violent mobs over the course of several days because of their faith. The carnage left many Sikhs afraid for their safety.
Like many other Sikh families, members of the Sodhi clan left India after 1984. Balbir ended up in California, working at a 7-Eleven, a clothing shop and as a cab driver, before settling in the Phoenix area to open his gas station.
He had a “totally different personality” than the rest of his family, his youngest brother Rana Singh Sodhi says. He radiated love everywhere he went. Back home in India, he had new clothes made each summer and winter for an elderly woman in his village and made sure all the local school children had uniforms and shoes to wear. In the US, he’d take his nieces and nephews to swim at the community pool, give free candy to kids at his gas station and let those who didn’t have the means fill their tanks for free.
Continents and oceans separated Balbir from his wife, his children, his parents and other family members but he called them all often, racking up a phone bill of about $2,000 a month. The huge cost was worth it to him to hear from the people he loved.
In fact, money never seemed to matter much to Balbir, Rana says. He was always ready to pick up the check after a dinner out with friends or to donate his money to a good cause. He pushed others to be just as generous, sometimes to their annoyance.
Once, when a group of Sikhs came to Balbir’s gurdwara seeking funds to open their own place of worship in San Jose, he shelled out $500 and told Rana to do the same. Rana was reluctant — at the time, his gas station business had been closed for a few months and he had no source of income.
“Don’t worry,” Rana recalls his older brother saying. “God will give you more.”
When planes flew into the Twin Towers, killing more than 2,700 people and leaving behind a pile of rubble, Balbir wanted to go to New York and help. One of his brothers reminded him that he wasn’t trained to respond to disasters. About half an hour before he was shot, Balbir emptied out his wallet and donated $75 or so to a fund for 9/11 victims. Then he called Rana and asked him to find some American flags.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, though, Balbir knew that Sikhs could become targets and worried about his community. Rana says he had been threatened at a gas station in another part of town, and they had heard similar stories from friends. Their turbans and beards made them visible, and they doubted most Americans could differentiate between them and the images of Osama bin Laden flashing constantly across their TV screens.
Still, Balbir wasn’t afraid for himself. When his son Sukhwinder called and suggested his father not wear a turban for the next few days, Balbir dismissed the notion.
“Everybody’s so nice,” Sukhwinder remembers his father saying. “Everybody knows me around here. I don’t have any issues.”
For anyone who didn't know him, Balbir had a plan. He and Rana had met with Sikh leaders in the Phoenix area and were preparing to hold a press conference to educate the community on who they were.
A day before the event was to take place, Balbir was killed.
The backlash after 9/11 wasn’t new
Long before bullets flew across Balbir's gas station parking lot, Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs and South Asians across the United States faced suspicion, hatred and racist attacks.
South Asians who migrated to the US in the late 1800s were targets of racism and xenophobia. In 1907, a White mob in Bellingham, Washington, attacked and intimidated Sikh and Hindu laborers there until they left the city. Immigration laws prevented South Asian men from bringing over their wives, from owning land and from becoming citizens.
Things started to change after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which did away with immigration quotas based on national origin and allowed new waves of Arab and South Asian immigrants to enter the US. But the notion of the “perpetual foreigner” proved hard to shake, while another label — the “suspected terrorist” — also began to take hold.
Dr. Jaswant Singh Sachdev, a retired neurologist and Sikh community leader in the Phoenix area, remembers that while attending a conference at a hotel after the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, a teenager came up behind him in the restroom and told him to take the “towel” off his head. Arabs, Muslims and those perceived to be Arabs and Muslims faced similar taunts during the Gulf War in 1991 and after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
“Gradually, that ebbed down,” Sachdev added. “But then 2001 came along and things picked up again.”
The backlash after 9/11 was far-reaching. And Balbir’s death was only the beginning.
Deepa Iyer, a South Asian American activist and author of “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future,” groups it into two buckets: the hate violence and the state violence.
On the interpersonal level, people like Balbir were getting attacked or killed, harassed on the street and painted as suspects. Some Muslim women in the workplace were told to remove their hijabs at work or be fired, and Sikh boys in patkas were being bullied in school.
And while some government agencies moved to protect Arabs, Muslims, Sikhs and South Asians from hate and discrimination, other branches of the government were implementing policies that allowed the state to spy on ordinary citizens, track the movements of noncitizens from certain countries, detain people without cause and deport them — all in the name of national security.
“This undercurrent was always there, of perpetual foreigners, suspected terrorists, particularly around Muslims and Islam, and it got exacerbated,” Iyer says.
Before September 11, 2001, there was a sense among many people in these communities that aside from the occasional racist comment or incident, this country was a place where they were accepted for who they were, says Valarie Kaur. What happened after 9/11 shattered those illusions.
“The hardest moment when I was gathering those stories of Sikhs after 9/11 wasn't the moment of violence,” Kaur says. “It was watching our aunties and uncle-jis grapple with this lost sense of belonging, this stolen dignity and this realization that they had always been seen by others as automatically suspect, perpetually foreign and now potentially terrorist.”
That’s how it felt for Rana Singh Sodhi.
“I never got threats before 9/11. I could go anywhere in the United States — daytime, nighttime — and I’m never concerned about my security,” he says. “This episode changed our lifestyle, though.”
Now that the Taliban have seized power and Afghanistan is making global headlines again, Rana’s wife worries that people will once again associate his Sikh turban with terrorists. And when he leaves the house, she tells him to be extra vigilant.
Progress has been slow, but the family fights on
The murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi turned Rana into a national advocate against hate.
Over the past two decades, Rana has crisscrossed the country to share his brother’s story and educate other Americans on who Sikhs are. At his home in Mesa, Arizona, objects on display in the foyer provide snapshots of his journey.
There’s a charcoal drawing that a junior high student drew of Balbir after Rana spoke to her class. A collection of glass awards from the Anti-Defamation League, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee and Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund in recognition of Rana’s leadership. A framed photo of Rana at a state dinner in 2009 shaking hands with President Barack Obama.
Asked if he ever gets tired of repeating the same story over and over again, of continually trying to educate Americans on who Sikhs are despite their long history in the country, he says he feels quite the opposite: Doing so gives him energy and peace.
“It’s my responsibility,” he says. “I think every person who lives in this country has a responsibility to make this country beautiful, to educate each other.”
But change has been slow. The nation never fully reckoned with the hate and violence that Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs and South Asians in the US experienced after 9/11, a reality that became clear in the years that followed.
Near the Arizona state capitol, 54 phrases are etched onto a circular piece of steel, each capturing some element of what happened after 9/11. One of the names carved into the metal is Balbir Singh Sodhi’s, along with the phrases “fear of foreigners” and “foreign-born Americans afraid.”
To some state lawmakers, Balbir’s name didn’t belong there because he wasn’t killed in the attacks that took place on September 11, 2001. After years of efforts to change the memorial, a bill that would have removed Balbir’s name passed both chambers of the state legislature in 2011. That stung, Sukhwinder says.
“Do you think that my dad would have lost his life if 9/11 didn't happen?” he asks.
Thanks to the work of advocates, thousands of people wrote letters to then-Gov. Jan Brewer, requesting that she veto the bill. She did, right in front of the Sodhi family. The Republican lawmaker who proposed the bill apologized to the family, too.
It was a small step forward. But in the coming years, there would be huge steps back.
In 2012, a White gunman opened fire on a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and injuring four others. The hate that had always been there reared its head again through more mass shootings, attacks on houses of worship and hostile rhetoric. The nation elected a president accused of demonizing people of color. And all the while, many of the harmful policies instituted after 9/11 remain on the books.
“We really do need to look in the mirror and have some really honest and transparent conversations about 9/11 and its aftermath and its ongoing impact,” Iyer says. “Unless we do that, we're doomed to repeat these cycles.”
Rana is hopeful. With more awareness and dialogue, he says, the ignorance that fuels people’s hate can be eradicated. He witnessed it firsthand when he spoke with Balbir’s killer, 15 years after his brother’s murder. As they talked on the phone, Rana says the man told him he was sorry for what he did to his brother and that if he were ever released, he would join Rana in helping to tell this story. Rana says he forgave him.
“I believe one day we can finish hate in our community too,” he adds. “It takes time, but one day it can be finished.”
Despite the pain his family has experienced, they haven’t given up on America.
Balbir Singh Sodhi showed the world who Sikhs are
Twenty years later, most of Balbir’s huge extended family now calls the US home.
At a family gathering at a sprawling home in Paradise Valley last week, Joginder Kaur is stationed on the couch, dressed in a pastel green salwar kameez. There’s hardly a moment that someone isn’t by her side — sisters-in-law, daughters-in-law and grandchildren come up to her throughout the night to chat, joke around or just be close.
At other points in the evening, women take turns doing karaoke to old Bollywood songs, couples take a few spins on a makeshift dance floor in front of the couch and kids dart back and forth across the room. The room is full of love, joy and laughter.
These moments are what have helped Joginder Kaur get through the last 20 years.
She was living in India when her husband Balbir was killed. That upcoming November would have been their 25th wedding anniversary. For years they had lived apart as Balbir worked to build a better life for them all. Shortly before he died, though, he had made plans to retire and come back to India so they could be together again. His eldest son Sukhwinder would take over the Mesa Star Chevron, and Balbir and Joginder would live in the new house they had built in Punjab.
“We never got the chance,” she says in Punjabi through tears.
She reflects on everything that Balbir has missed out on: his sons’ successes in the US, his daughter’s wedding, his 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. It hurts to imagine him here, playing with the kids and enjoying the fruits of his labor. She misses him all the time.
But God had other plans for his life, she says.
While in the US, Balbir kept a diary. The last lines he ever wrote in it turned out to be prophetic:
“God, you are my friend. You are my companion. You’ve given me so much happiness in my life that I can’t even begin to tell you. Whatever task you need me for, I am ready.”
Balbir’s death helped show the world who Sikhs are. His story continues to inspire those who know it. And after all this time, people still remember him.
“He fulfilled his life’s purpose,” she says.