Counselors, a camp and the tools to stand up to bullies | Opinion

At the camp, I met kids who were just like me. They were bullied at school as well. Some had their turbans pulled off....

My daughter, Maya, recently ran for her middle school’s president. She made a humorous campaign promise that if elected, she would help “keep the bears away.” She won the election. We didn’t even need a recount.

But that same evening while we all celebrated, she was in tears. Another student had posted remarks in a student chat room stating that she only won because the other students felt sorry for her. Her experience of cyberbullying is a growing trend, unfortunately. Moreover, Sikh and minority children are subjected to bullying and harassment at rates that are much higher than the average student according to reports by the Sikh Coalition, Saldef and other Sikh organizations.

I remember being teased about my turban and my long hair when I was in elementary and high school. I also remember the moment I started developing a sense of pride for my identity. It was at a summer camp organized by Ujagar Singh. I had no interest in going, but my parents had heard that there was something special about this camp and that I needed to be there.

At the camp, I met kids who were just like me. They were bullied at school as well. Some had their turbans pulled off. Others recalled the fights they kept getting pulled into. This camp provided an open forum and became a vehicle that helped us fight back against the discrimination and bullying we experienced in our daily lives.

The counselors at Camp Chardi Kala taught us about our amazing Sikh military history and about our spiritual legacy. They gave us a sense of pride and gave us the tools to stand up for ourselves. 

Camp founder Ujagar Singh was a visionary in that regard. He planted the seeds for greatness at the camp.

Many of the children from that camp went on to become community advocates who would have national impact: Amardeep Singh founded the Sikh Coalition. Kiran Kaur is the executive director of Saldef. Ravi Singh Bhalla became the Mayor of Hoboken. Gurbir Singh Grewal is now the Attorney General of New Jersey. And I fought to open doors for Sikhs and other religious minorities in the U.S. military.

More importantly, the network of camp Chardi Kala friends became an organizing force for all sorts of wonderful initiatives over the years that helped to celebrate and defend the Sikh identity. The network led to the formation and development of a number of Sikh organizations such as the Sikh Coalition, Saldef, United Sikhs, and SAVA to name just a few.

Ujagar Singh passed away last month surrounded by his loved ones. Ujagar is an old Sanskrit name. It means “to manifest” and “splendid.” He was born in Amritsar, India, in 1928, and shifted to the United States in 1969 with his wife, Govind Kaur. Together, they established Camp Chardi Kala in New York as a way to connect Sikh children to their history and their religion...

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...Ujagar Singh’s family continues this legacy of service because they are passionate about his vision and have seen the fruits of this labor. It is hard to put a price on what they have achieved. Now, we go to Camp Chardi Kala each year as a family to disconnect from our electronic devices and reconnect with the things that matter to us.

Maya decided to confront her bullies through formal channels in the school. I’m proud that I have a kid who’s not afraid to stand up and fight for herself. She remembers how her Ujagar Uncle would tell them to “be strong” and “be proud” at camp. He will be missed not just as a pillar of the community but as a family member who would sit and tell us stories around the campfire.

Kamal S. Kalsi is an ER doctor and a U.S. Army officer who deployed to Afghanistan and has served in the military for 20 years. He currently serves in New Jersey as an emergency medicine physician and disaster medicine expert in the Army Reserves. The opinions expressed above are his alone and do not represent the opinions or positions of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Army.

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