Breaking Barriers

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Few weeks ago I celebrated a unique anniversary. It was not my birthday, not my kids’ or parent’s birthday or my wedding anniversary. It was what I would like to call an “eye-opening anniversary” – my exposure to Sikhism and the Sikh people.

Let me start by candidly admitting that before this involvement started, I knew nothing about Sikhs. And I mean NOTHING. I had seen a few turban-wearing men called Sikhs while I lived in Doha (Qatar) years ago as a kid. But I didn’t truly know anything about Sikhs. I remember checking out with my mum (and this was late 80s or early 90s) but she did not happen to know much herself.

Back then the media and technology were not as evolved and hence access to any information was not as effortless as it is today. Thus for a long time, Sikhism remained an uncharted entity for me.

My world did not cross paths with a Sikh until a year ago, in which, to be honest, I think I turned lucky because as we as Egyptians say “Every delay brings the finest” and yes I think I got the finest of all – Mr. Bicky Singh.

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Essraa Nawar and Bicky Singh during the Sikhs in the Great War Exhibition at the Leatherby Libraries

This piece today is not about Bicky; that will perhaps have to be a book instead, as our relationship has since evolved from being just project partners to real close friends. It is indeed a celebration of my enlightenment and my acquaintanceship with a unique culture and community.

To be honest, “impressed” will be a gross understatement of my opinion about Sikhs. While kind, honest, generous and thoughtful are a few of the traits I can use, what makes me spinning the most is the real sense of brotherhood, sisterhood and family amongst all members of the Sikh community. I often ask Bicky, “How many uncles do you have? As it seems like every other person you meet is your uncle.” He smiles and I pledge not to count anymore. The delight of running into a ‘family member’ everywhere you go must be simply astounding.

The fact that all Sikh men bear the same last name ‘Singh’ and all Sikh women have the same last name ‘Kaur’ indeed speaks volumes. In Sikhism, these titles (Singh and Kaur) seem to eliminate discrimination based on “family name” and reinforce the fact that all humans are equal. As a Muslim, I am amused thinking in my mind, “Doesn’t Islam preach us the same? And virtually all other religions and spiritual practices too?” I am appreciatively amazed that the Sikhs are able to hold and realize this precious attribute intact.

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Essraa Nawar and her husband Dr. Hesham El-Askary

My brain was blown away when Bicky invited me to a Gurdwara to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. I felt much honored while I gratefully accepted the invitation. Despite the contrasting ceremonies, I saw more similarities than differences. Folks from both the communities cover their hair, wash their hands and feet (in different order), and take their shoes off. While the scriptures, the languages and the rituals are not the same, the crossover is just something we all need to rationally re-evaluate. Why aren’t we all just getting along despite all these parallels?

I thoroughly enjoyed the ceremony, the prayers and most importantly the Indian food which was very thoughtfully prepared to accommodate any religious practice! What I appreciated the most during my visit to the Gurdwara was the welcoming and warm friendly notes my family and I received from all the Sikhs we met that day. It was an experience that I dearly treasure and I would not miss another opportunity that comes across.

Looking beyond any religious differences, Bicky and I share a mission of “Breaking Barriers” and embedding our diverse cultures in the American society at large so that our kids grow into not only respected and productive United States citizens but true Global Citizens as well.

And how are we planning to accomplish this mission? I am afraid I might have to talk more about me in some detail and how I got associated with issues related to Sikhism.

I have the honor and privilege of working in a place like the Leatherby Libraries at Chapman University, where I co-chair the ‘Arts, Exhibits and Events Committee’ with the Dean of the library Charlene Baldwin. We host programming and exhibits throughout the year that complement and enhance the curriculum, study, and research interests at Chapman University on a variety of subjects and topics mostly committed to diversity. We host events on a variety of subjects and we are not afraid to foster discussions even on controversial topics. In fact, we encourage conflict-ridden issues as we believe that they go a long way to educate the students and the community at large.

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Essraa Nawar and Bicky Singh at Chapman University during one of their planning meetings.

Last year, I had the honor to be introduced to Mr. Bicky Singh through Chapman University where he hosts the Sikhlens Arts and Film Festival. Bicky and I, as the Americans put it, “hit the ground running from day one”. Ostensibly some mainstream folks perhaps even assumed that we were related. I don’t blame them. All they see is a guy with a beard and a woman in Hijab (headscarf). What a combination!

Every time we got together, the conversations did not stop and the ideas kept evolving. We started with intent to plan just one event but ended up planning a year full of events that promote and explain the Sikh religion, the Sikh culture and most importantly the Sikh people and their contributions to the world.

We started with highlighting the role of the Sikhs in the Great War, screening a movie about a Sikh prisoner soldier in World War I, a Vaisakhi celebration and my favorite project is a Turban display which was definitely was a big hit. I was even interviewed by Gurmeet K. Sodhi, the famous Sikh talk-show host.

When I look back at the year and how the ideas were developed, I feel excited and honored to have been part of this wonderful process and I look forward to years of collaboration with the Sikh community myself. What we have in the pipeline is even more exciting!

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It is such an enriching and rewarding experience that did not end at Chapman University and work related projects. Our families are now friends. We visited few times and our kids already socialized with one another. We are looking forward to even more of these gatherings as we discover more of our similarities and explore ways that can make the world a more peaceful place.

At the end of the day, we are all human beings; we all have the same aspirations that include the basic needs of food, shelter, education, and living in dignity. We all look for opportunities to make our kids experiences better than ours and for ways to give them a life that will make them better people for this world.

I hope that everybody can join Bicky and me in our efforts to make the world a more peaceful place.

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About Essraa Nawar

Essraa Nawar is the Development Coordinator at the Leatherby Libraries and the Chair of the Arts, Exhibits and Events Committee at Chapman University. Essraa holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Alexandria University, Egypt, and a Master of Business Administration from the American Management & Business Administration Institute, Cambridge, MA. She is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) at Brandman University.

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