By Masum Momaya, Curator
Spring 2012 intern Christine Chou contributed to the research and writing.
Eleven years ago, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed while standing outside the gas station he owned in Mesa, Arizona. His death was the first of many reported attacks targeting Arab and South Asian immigrants and Americans in the wake of September 11th, 2001.
The oldest of eight brothers, Balbir Singh Sodhi immigrated to the United States from India in 1987 with a diploma in mechanical engineering. Indeed, the beginning of Balbir’s story is characteristic of the South Asian immigrant experience. He lived in Los Angeles, where he worked as a taxi driver, before moving to San Francisco and later Arizona. In 2000, Balbir opened a small business, his gas station, and was known among the community for his generosity. He kept candy for children who visited his store and provided gas at no charge for customers going through difficult times.
Earlier this year, Rana Singh Sodhi kindly donated some personal effects of his older brother, Balbir, to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Among the artifacts include a journal that contains his business records, a diary entry written one day before his death, and a blue turban worn by him, which will be on display during the 2013 Smithsonian exhibition Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.
The exhibition will explore the history, daily life experiences and professional, political and cultural contributions of Indian immigrants and their descendants. The story behind objects such as the turban represents the shared struggle faced by immigrants of many ethnic and religious backgrounds as they strive for acceptance in a new land. The memory of Balbir, and others like him, remain part of American history in a post-September 11th world.