In shadow of 2012 U.S. terrorist attack, former white supremacist and Sikh bring message of unity to Calgary
It was an unlikely pairing about 7 years ago and their message against hate is starting to bear fruit
It was an unlikely pairing about seven years ago.
The son of a Sikh temple leader who was killed along with five other people by a white supremacist meets and agrees to work with a former skinhead leader with a single goal: to combat hate.
Satwant Singh Kaleka was among six people slaughtered while worshipping at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., in 2012.
"My father and five others were murdered by a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page. My mom was almost killed, she hid in a closet. I luckily survived because we were running late that morning," Pardeep Singh Kaleka told The Homestretch.
"That sense of survival brought on this inspiration to really do something about it."
Months after the shooting, he met up with Arno Michaelis, who had founded an earlier incarnation of the white supremacist group that Page took inspiration from.
"A sense of responsibility because my actions helped to bring that about," Michaelis says of his feeling after the temple shooting.
"And also a real deep grief at the senselessness of it and how unnecessary it was."
While Michaelis had not been part of the group for years, he was among the founders.
"I was 16 years old when I started a neo-Nazi skinhead gang in Milwaukee with some friends. I was in for seven years, from 1987 to 1994."
He says his path into hate as a teenager involved a lack of options available to him.
"It was my own suffering and inability to find a healthy way to process that. Now, everybody suffers and it's not an excuse to hurt people or hate people, but it's a situation where things go wrong at the wrong times and you find yourself attracted to ideas that repulse people. It was my teen angst gone really, really wrong," Michaelis said.
But those same people he had learned to hate also helped him see the light.
"It was people who I claimed to hate who treated me with kindness. They drove home how wrong it was that I act and think that way," he said.
For Kaleka, understanding the hate became a starting point to working together with Michaelis.
"We both shared a common purpose after the shooting. Michaelis was doing work on his end to provide introspection into what happened and I was doing the same thing for our community. Our work just kind of aligned. I think there was some spiritual divinity that happened that brought us together. Reaching out to Michaelis, I wanted to find out the why. If we don't know the why, we can't do the what. The first time we met, it was clear to us we were going to work together," Kaleka said.
So the two came together, started an organization called Serve2Unite, wrote a book, The Gift of Our Wounds, and now tour sharing their message of unity with young people and communities.
"Throughout the United States and Canada, demographic changes are one of the hardest things for communities to navigate honestly. Our book, The Gift of Our Wounds, really highlights how cultures can come together in a productive way to move forward together," Kaleka said.
And Michaelis says they've seen some concrete examples of how that message is resonating.
"We've worked with young people who have said our program was their favourite part of high school. And that was from a group of white students from rural Wisconsin who took a field trip to Milwaukee to have lunch in a restaurant run by Syrian refugees," Michaelis said.
"On the way out, these kids all wrote Google, Yelp and Facebook reviews for the restaurant. Our students are seeing culture from a different part of the world."
With files from Susan Holzman and The Homestretch