SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Canada’s Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, the keynote speaker at the Sikh Foundation’s 50th Anniversary gala held at the Asian Art Museum May 5, said Indian Americans must focus on the potential of the next generation.

Sajjan, who was appointed to his post Nov. 4, 2015 by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, told the packed audience that his work often takes him to conflict zones around the world. “Every time I look at child, instead of just looking at what state that they’re in, wow, what could this person be if they had the opportunity?” stated the defense minister.

Sajjan stated his belief that every child is born with a gift, and must be mentored to find their special talents. He said the Sikh Foundation’s 50th anniversary celebrations were important, because “we need to look at the past to look at where we’re going to be in the future.”

He shared a story about a university-bound girl named Lucy Kaur, who was found in a dog’s mouth when she was just a baby and grew up in an orphanage in Jalandhar. “Horrible, yes. But somebody had seen value and now Lucy Kaur is going to university.”

Sajjan noted that the Sikh Foundation was already working hard to mentor youth. “I’m really looking at you for all of your leadership. How do we work together to make a difference in this world? If we focus on the youth, we really can do so.”

Dignitaries from around the world attended the celebrations, which honored the foundation’s first 50 years and also welcomed the next chapter.

Founded Dec. 20, 1967, by Narinder Kapany — a pioneer in the field of fiber optics — the Sikh Foundation is a cultural organization that works to promote and preserve Sikh art, heritage, education, culture, and religion.

The organization’s objectives include passing on the Sikh heritage to Sikh youth and the community’s growing diaspora, and contributing the Sikh perspective to global concerns.

In its 50 years, the foundation has published numerous books and articles, established Sikh studies chairs in colleges and universities, and organized art exhibits around the world. The foundation represents the first “concerted effort of Sikhs worldwide,” and its work, in particular the Sikh Research Journal, has created a “mindshift” about Sikhs and Sikh culture in the U.S. and around the world, Sonia Dhami, the Sikh Foundation’s executive director, told India-West.

The gala opened with a tour of the “Saints and Kings: Arts, Culture, and Legacy of the Sikhs” art exhibit, followed by a cocktail reception that featured music, a live dance performance by DholRhythms Dance Company and live painting.

The evening also included a dinner program during which the foundation honored outstanding women in the Sikh community with the Nirbhau Award. The 2017 Nirbhau Award — which means without fear — was given to Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, the first Sikh and non-Muslim member of the Afghan parliament, who was honored for championing women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Artist Arpana Caur was recognized for her contributions to Sikh art and support for under-privileged women, widows and leprosy patients.

Nikky-Guninder K. Singh of Colby College, in Maine, received the Nirbau for her contributions to Sikh studies and promotion of Sikh ideas and ideals in the modern world.

Susan Stronge, senior curator in the Asian Department of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, was honored for her work as an ambassador for the Sikh Foundation and its mission to make Sikh art known throughout the world. And activist, lawyer and filmmaker Valarie Kaur was recognized for her civil rights work, which helped the Sikh community win a historic federal policy change on hate crimes.

In his welcome address, Kapany spoke about the progress of Sikhs in the U.S. and around the world, noting that 50 years ago there were only a few hundred thousand Sikhs in the U.S. and one gurudwara. Now, he said, there are Sikhs in all arenas of American life, including in prominent positions.

In spite of this, he said, there are still misconceptions about the community.

“Kids are bullied, people think we are from the Middle East,” he said, adding that Sikhs need to work with schools and the government to promote awareness about the community. The most important work to be done, Kapany said, was with the youth. As such, he had invited 20 university students to the gala so that they could interact with members of the Sikh community and learn about opportunities available to them.

The Sikh Foundation honored Satinder Kaur Kapany, Narinder’s late wife, at the event. Kiran Kaur Kapany, their daughter and foundation trustee, told India-West:

“My mom walked the walk. She epitomized for me the best of what it means to be a Sikh, in all of her actions, every day. I’m most proud of the way my mom and dad, through their love and their faith, have worked tirelessly and diligently over the last five decades – a half a century – to make the Sikh Foundation such a wonderful elegant place for everyone—Sikhs as well as the rest of the public—to become more aware of the rich heritage and culture of the Sikhs,” adding that her dad, though 90, has the energy of a 50-year-old and is an inspiration to everyone who knows him.

The dinner also featured a musical performance by the Raj Academy, a violin and tabla performance by Raginder Singh and Shobit Banwait, a sitar and tabla performance by Tej Anand and Jasprit Singh, and a second dance performance by the Dholrhythms dance company.

Commenting on the foundation’s future endeavors Dhami said: “How will Sikh Studies evolve to take on the challenges of the future? How will the arts appeal to future generations? How can the connection with our past heritage be maintained? These are some of the questions we think about as we celebrate 50 years of the Sikh Foundation and continue in our mission to inspire, educate and engage communities around the world,” she said.

Kapany told India-West he is concerned about the preservation of Sikh monuments. “It’s a huge, huge issue because some of the monuments are Pakistan. It’s a multi-billion dollar effort but we are working towards it.”

Already, the foundation has successfully partnered with UNESCO to restore the Guru Ki Maseet at Sri Hargobindpur in Punjab, India, a mosque built by Guru Hargobind in the 1600s.

Kapany also said the foundation was working with museums around the world to create permanent collections for Sikh art, adding that he “wanted the world to know about the art of the Sikhs.”

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