“See No Stranger” by Valarie Kaur has been 20 years in the making — though the road its taken has seen many shapes and forms. When the attacks of 9/11 occurred, Kaur was a college kid from a Sikh family and watching the towers fall she, like everyone, was horrified. “And then I saw the image of men in turbans, and realized that our nation’s new enemy looked like my family,” she says.
In the days that followed, her family and community would get calls of hate crimes erupting all over the country — and on Sept. 15, 2001, they received word of the killing of Balbir Singh Sodhi.
“[He] was a Sikh father who was planting flowers in front of his gas station in Arizona when he was killed by a man who called himself a patriot,” Kaur says. “I was planning to become an academic. I wanted to study religion, teach religion, and his murder changed my life.”
She embarked on a road trip with her cousin cross country to speak to people about what was happening, and saved Balbir’s wife for last.
“I asked her, what would you like to tell the people of America? And I was expecting bitterness, despair. And she said, ‘Tell them, thank you. When I went to Arizona for my husband’s memorial, they came out in the thousands. And they wept with me, and they cared for me. They didn’t know me, but they loved me. Tell them thank you for their love,’” Kaur says. “And when I went back home, I realized that the nation as a whole didn’t know Balbir Uncle’s story, but this tiny community had told the story to their neighbors, their faith communities, educators, and 3,000 people came. And that act of love, that act of seeing Balbir Uncle, not as a terrorist, or as the stranger, or as a foreigner, but as a brother, was revolutionary for this family. It was healing.”
Thus began her real work around the idea of revolutionary love, which is the work that guides her today, both with her book, “See No Stranger,” and with the platform she has created online around education and tools for how to talk about 9/11. The concept of revolutionary love, which her publisher told her is “a cultural intervention,” is her process of asking questions that she believes will lead us to a more peaceful world.
“The future is dark — is this the darkness of the tomb or the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead, but a nation still waiting to be born?” Kaur says. “What if the world that we dream is waiting to be born? A world that is multiracial, equitable, sustainable, healthy…”
Kaur grew up in Central Valley, California, the granddaughter of Indian immigrants, in what was a very white, Christian community. She first heard racial slurs when she was in grade school, felt pressure from those around her to adopt Christianity and was the only one in high school to go to a prestigious university like Stanford, which is where she was, trying to make sense of the world, when 9/11 happened.
“I keep thinking, revolutions happen not only in the big, grand, public moments. The marches in the streets, the flooding of halls of power.…They also happen in the spaces where people are coming together to inhabit any way of being,” Kaur says. “And I feel like that is my particular role in the movement now. For the next 20, 25 years, I want to be able to help equip and inspire people to put love into practice right where they are. In their homes, in their schools, in their industries, in their streets, in their neighborhoods, as well as in the halls of power.”
It all comes back to Balbir Singh Sodhi for her, as she takes this moment, the publication of her book, to reflect on her 20-year activism journey.
“He wore his turban as part of his Sikh faith. It was part of his commitment to love all. What if we made the value that he died for our North Star? What if we refuse to keep dividing the world into us versus them, and instead, affirmed human dignity above all? What if we chose like Balbir Uncle to see no stranger? What world might we be able to birth 20 years from now?” Kaur asks. “I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life organizing around hate. I’m going to be spending the next 20 years of my life organizing around love.”