Valarie Kaur's search for America after 9/11

"Divided We Fall"
Film maker Valarie Kaur traveled the USA following the 9/11 attacks to hear the stories of Americans who were victimized by people angered by the terrorist acts. This Sikh man in California found his property vandalized.
Image courtesy The Fresno Bee (Photo: Christian Parlay)

In September 2001, Valarie Kaur was a 20-year-old college junior, studying religion and international affairs. She planned to go to India to interview people about religious conflict.

Then, like millions of others, she saw the T.V. images of the world trade towers falling again and again. They were intercut with images of a bearded and turbaned Osama bin Laden.

Valarie Kaur
Valarie Kaur left her studies to gather stories of how people reacted to the 9/11 attacks and how some innocent Americans found themselves being blamed for the atrocities.
Image courtesy Valarie Kaur (Photo Sharat Raju)

"On the third day, I began to read the crawling on the bottom of the screen that read,'Sikh man killed in Mesa, Arizona in hate crime,' she says. "His name was Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was murdered in front of his gas station by a man who called himself a patriot. He was the first of an estimated 19 people killed in the aftermath of 9/11."

Kaur changed her travel plans. She set off across America instead.

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Kaur is a third-generation Sikh-American. She wanted to teach others that the people she considered brothers and uncles were not scary just because they looked different.

"The voice of my grandfather came back to me, articulating the central heart of the Sikh faith: 'Nam Dan Isnan.' 'In order to realize God, and realize yourself, you must act, here and now, without fear.'"

But she was nervous. She was young, had no film experience and wondered if even the Sikh community would take her seriously.

"My first name is Valarie. I speak very broken Punjabi. My dad dresses not like the traditional Sikh man with turban and beards. He dresses like Indiana Jones," she laughs. "So here I was -- who am I to do this? And that's when the voice of my grandfather came back to me, articulating the central heart of the Sikh faith: 'Nam Dan Isnan.' In order to realize God, and realize yourself, you must act, here and now, without fear."

And that's exactly what Kaur and her cousin Sonny did. They hopped into a Honda Civic with a map, camera and list of questions.

Along the way, they heard many stories, including that of Navinderdeep Nijher. He's a Sikh surgeon, who went to the world trade center to help treat survivors.

At Ground Zero, he worked alongside police officers and firefighters. But, later in the day, walking home, Nijher, who wears a turban, saw a very different New York City.

"I kind of walked down the street and there were people just yelling at you, and 'Go back to your country," and stuff," Nijher related in the film. "I'm with my roommate, and he's like anglo-saxon. And he's just like, looking at me and he's like, 'Dude, don't go anywhere by yourself.'"

From stories like Nijher's, Kaur discovered how quickly people who considered themselves American, were suddenly made to feel foreign.

Kaur says she and her cousin, experienced it, too.

Sharat Raju
Sharat Raju is Valarie Kaur's co-producer.
Image courtesy Valarie Kaur

"People began to flip us off on the road. People began to tell us to go home," Kaur says. "And it was the very first time that I saw myself through the eyes of other people, who saw me as less American as foreign, as suspect, as less than human. It was a very profound thing to experience when you are at an age when you are trying to figure out who you are."

But there were stories of hope, too. One involved her old Punjabi language professor. He had already been attacked and harassed in the street twice. When a man on his bus began screaming at him and calling him a terrorist, it seemed like he was in for more abuse.

"And then something remarkable happens," Kaur says. "The other people on the bus began to stand up and take this man's hand and say, 'Do you know who that is? That's a distinguished professor. You don't know what you are talking about.'"

Kaur continues, caught up in the story. She tells how when the professor gets off, the abusive man follows. He walks up the the professor and reaches out with his hand.

"And at this point in this story, my stomach is tight," Kaur says. "I'm ready for the violence to happen. I'm ready to cry because I've cried so many times before. And the man takes my professor's hand and says, 'I'm so sorry. My granddaughter was just killed in that second plane that went into that second tower. I'm just angry.'"

Kaur says after her journey, she has become a critical idealist, someone who remains hopeful despite being keenly aware of the realities of prejudice. She says, just as the passengers on the bus helped her professor, it's often the small acts of ordinary people that define the American identity.

"I think all of us are given a window in life where we are presented with a choice that terrifies us, but seems incredibly important, or turning back to what seems stable and secure."

For Valarie Kaur, that choice ended in making her film, "Divided We Fall."