OAK CREEK, Wis. — In the aftermath of shooting rampages in Colorado, Virginia and elsewhere, victims’ families have clashed over how to distribute money donated by well-wishers. But after a gunman killed six worshippers at a Milwaukee-area Sikh temple last year, survivors and their families vowed not to let money divide them.
In the weeks following the August 2012 shooting, $1.1 million in donations poured in to the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin from the U.S., India, Canada, England and elsewhere. Contributions came from individuals, corporations, churches, other Sikh temples and even elementary school children.
Among the victims were a 41-year-old mother of two, her family’s primary breadwinner, and an 84-year-old man who retired decades earlier. Their different life circumstances raised difficult questions: Do their families deserve an equal share of the money? Or should the families of younger or higher-earning victims receive more?
In the end, on the advice of outside counsel, temple leaders divided it equally among all six families. It was a controversy-free decision, said Harcharan Gill, a temple trustee.
“There were no issues about, ‘Why did you give this much to this person?’ They’re all just thankful for what they got,” Gill said. “There was some rethinking about the need basis, about the age in life. But the people advised us that a life is a life and the value is the same.”
Each family’s total amounted to more than $125,000. The family of another victim, a 65-year-old priest who has remained nearly comatose since he was shot in the head at close range, also received about the same amount. Another priest was shot twice in the abdomen and survived; his family got about $75,000.
Surinder Kaur’s husband, Sita Singh, was among the dead. She and her four children, who range in age from 9 to 20, came to the U.S. from India immediately after the shooting.
Singh said didn’t know how her family could have survived without the generosity of the countless anonymous donors.
“The money has gone to rent, food, utilities. There’s still some left but life’s getting hard,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. Her 19- and 20-year-old children are still trying to get work permits in order to help support the family, she said.
The outpouring of financial support followed a rampage a year ago Monday in which Army veteran Wade Michael Page, who had ties to white supremacy groups, killed six people at the temple and wounded five others before killing himself. FBI agents were unable to determine a motive, leaving survivors to forever wonder — why?
“It’s frustrating,” said Harpreet Singh, a nephew of the temple’s slain president. “But you can do nothing about it, so you let it go.”
Besides the two priests injured, three people who suffered minor arm or leg injuries were given several thousand dollars.
And temple officials offered $1,000 apiece to the 26 worshippers who were inside the temple during the shooting, including 16 who squeezed into a tiny pantry for two hours until police told them it was safe to leave. Most, though, gave the money back to the temple, Gill said.
The temple also paid $10,000 to Oak Creek police Officer Brian Murphy, who was shot nine times after he engaged the shooter in gunfire in the parking lot. Murphy now speaks with a rasp and has no feeling in his right leg and forearm.
Satwant Singh Kaleka died in the temple he helped found. The temple president fought off the shooter briefly with a butter knife, a move that first lady Michelle Obama praised as heroic because it gave the women and children enough time to hide.
Kaleka’s sons, Pardeep and Amardeep Kaleka, also donated much of their share of the donations back to the temple. About half was used to import five golden fiberglass domes from India to be installed on the temple this week.
“This was something my father always wanted,” Pardeep Kaleka said.
Temple officials are still hoping to raise another $1 million to $1.5 million for a memorial to the victims. They also plan to build a Sikh museum or religious center next door where people can learn about Sikhism and its history, an idea that arose after they were flooded with invitations from schools and churches to attend functions and discuss their religion.
“We got so many invitations we weren’t able to accommodate all of them,” Gill said. “We’re really sorry for that.”
Punjab Singh, 65, was the most seriously injured; he was shot in the head. He requires around-the-clock care, and his family says it’s unlikely he’ll ever speak again. His medical bills, which have topped $1 million, are being covered by the temple’s insurance.
The insurance company has since amended the temple’s policy to exclude coverage of “acts of terror,” Harpreet Singh said.
Punjab Singh’s sons alternate spending every waking hour by his bedside. They don’t have work visas, and have been spending their share of the donations on rent and groceries. They’re not sure what will happen when the money runs out.
But they do know one thing.
“We are very, very thankful to those who donated,” said Singh’s elder son, Raghuvinder Singh. “May God bless those people.”
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