“When I compare my path to my parents’, it’s been easy. Compared to those with no education, family or parental support, or to those who are handicapped physically or medically, I’m extremely privileged. I had chances to fail and be rejected but only because I received opportunity after opportunity. I have been blessed with an ability to do more, and be more.”
– Jujhar Singh
“You are wasting your time!” said the high school academic advisor, when Jujhar Singh made the University of Oxford his first choice. Her view made him think again, but he was determined. The odds were unfavorable particularly because some teachers questioned his ability. The school did not expect any of its students to go to Oxford or Cambridge. Maybe he was unduly influenced by Hollywood and Bollywood – he believed that with hard work, he could be the first.
Jujhar grew up in a rough neighborhood in Wolverhampton, England. Competitive sports, hip-hop music, and fast cars were the norm, as were drugs and violence. Since his early days, he regularly faced adversity – initially at school because he was studious and later because of his sport successes. He also endured racist comments and physical assaults. “I was five when my mother and I walked home past a park, when suddenly a large group of teenagers chased us and threw stones. They kept screaming ‘Paki’. We tried to get help from nearby houses but no doors opened. I remember less, the cuts and bruises on my mother’s face and the lack of help, than the anger in the eyes of those kids.”
Jujhar’s love of movies, particularly in sci-fi and horror, sometimes helped him minimize the reality of violence in his own life, and sometimes served as an escape. The school day could bring challenges, but he always had the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Simpsons to rebuild his reserves of humor. To this day, he is as funny as he is serious.
Poverty was another challenge. “We already ate…right before you came home,” his parents would say reassuringly at dinnertime. But as he grew older he understood a different explanation. “I didn’t want them to know that I knew, as it would have broken their hearts. Things were complicated for my father, because many personal betrayals had caused my parents to lose all their savings twice. Thankfully, my brother doesn’t remember sleeping in a cupboard drawer as a baby. My parents worked day and night to get us out of poverty and give us an education. Their relentless work gave us a better start.”
As a young boy, Jujhar’s teachers told him: “You’re not going to get anywhere.” His class made fun of him, and he was often on ‘time-out.’ “I frequently found myself alone at the naughty table or in detention.” He found the will to focus on his own efforts, as his mother encouraged him to be brave and ignore unkindness, while his father pushed him to excel.
When the school assessed his intelligence, his teachers were dumbfounded; the results showed that his intellect was on par with older students and suggested that boredom probably explained his behavior. He skipped up a year. Eclipsing expectations became a theme. “When it came to exams, my parents held nothing back. It was unacceptable for me to come home with anything less than a 100% score in any subject. My father taught me lessons using methods that may be unacceptable today. However, I needed that discipline and it kick-started my life.” His father’s tenacity grew out of his own challenges: despite superior ability in math and strategic skills honed through a life-long love of chess, cricket and hockey, he had struggled to meaningfully progress financially. He did what he could to protect his son from this pain.
Jujhar’s interests included sports, and competition was a positive outlet for his frustrations. His love of soccer started the moment he could walk. However, this passion came with confrontation and complexity, as he endured verbal obscenities and physical conflicts. “Off the ball, I lost count of how many times I was kicked, elbowed, and punched. Running down the sideline I would hear racist insults but these were easier to ignore than the spitting.”
The worst of the physical assaults came at the age of 11 when walking home late from school, a group of a dozen white boys used metal and wooden bars to beat him up. He survived. “ I realized I had to elevate my paranoia and that my future was going to be less straight-forward. With that beating, I lost my innocence perhaps forever and for good reason.”
He has always worn a turban as part of being a Sikh, and in defiance of the attacks that could result. “Every exceptional person I had met was completely different and I admired that. Wearing a turban was a non-spiritual way to stay different and not to conform.” Although he never gave in to the stares, insults, and attacks, the toughening-up did bring a less trusting nature. “Most of my closest friends were made outside of high school, but this also put me in dangerous situations. I’ve been threatened with knives on my heart, and with guns to my head but after a few incidents, the sense of danger evaporates. It may sound crazy, but I became desensitized; when I was forced to look down the barrel of a gun for the fifth or sixth time, it didn’t feel so serious. However, it wasn’t all bad. I had plenty of fun along the way. I was playfully mischievous, and reveled in all the positive experiences that offset the negative ones.”
Even the physical attacks had at least one positive outcome: they kept him from ever trying the drugs that surrounded him, because he felt he needed to be sharp at all times. Instead, he turned to entertainment – the X-Files, hip-hop and Indian music, and dancing to anything with a beat.
Jujhar’s early circumstances of poverty were regularly ridiculed; the stationery he used, the bag he carried, the clothes and shoes he wore, not having the latest goods, or having to go home for lunch instead of buying it. “Of course it bothered me, but it also gave me resolve to make my own money, and to become financially independent.” At 13, he began working at a market stall on the weekends, waking up at 5:00am to take a bus for an hour to buy goods and sell them at marked-up prices. At 16, he worked at a discount grocer on weekends and after school. “ I needed to save tens of thousands for university living costs so I worked hard for a year to get my hourly wage up from £2.00 to £2.50.” His mother’s tireless efforts inspired him. On the smallest budget, she excelled in cooking, and while being the main breadwinner, she maintained their home as if it were the greatest gift. Indeed his family life became a gift, because she taught him the self-love needed to embrace the world with all its joys and hardships.
Trying to get into Oxford while working long hours was difficult. At school, he had to self-teach the Further Mathematics A-Level. “My teachers did everything they could for me, but there was no resource for focusing on two students. They told us to go and learn it for ourselves. So I did.” University was also demanding, as he had to work to keep himself there. “Student loans only go so far and I was too proud to ask for help. In hindsight, I didn’t give myself a chance to flourish and benefit fully from this wonderful opportunity. I was studying and working full-time, but I still made time for sports. I was obsessed with competition.”
With the 9/11 attacks in the United States, a wave of racism passed through the UK. While out with work colleagues in central London, he would often hear calls of “Taliban,” “Osama,” and “Bin Laden.” Although by that time Sikhs had been in England for over a century, Jujhar was now suddenly an outsider to some. People taunted him by shouting: “What does it feel like to be a Muslim?” “You guys are stealing our jobs,” “We’re going to kill you and your family.”
He was brutally reminded of his childhood, following the London attacks in 2005. Two white men attacked him from behind at London Bridge station, during the evening peak rush hour. As he fought one off and held him down, he saw the other pull out a knife. Another group of white men approached, and Jujhar braced himself for the worst. But this group had come to help – to defend him from the attackers. Jujhar experienced compassion from an unexpected place.
“It was the best thing to have happened to me, a strong reminder of my privilege. I realized that being financially independent was not enough and that I had to seize life and do more. It took me too many years to work this out.”
Although the racism, the abuse, and the alienation continued through his adult life, in that one incident, Jujhar had seen both the best and worst of humanity. He came away realizing that he could help spare future generations from prejudice in any form. “Sikhi teaches me about how to realize equality and equity for all. I just don’t accept prejudice of any kind for any human. None of it exists when we’re born so its eradication from society is required, and possible.”
Earning the highest grades and winning trophies for his sports accomplishments, attending the University of Oxford, and modeling as a turbaned Sikh, were the beginnings of his success in restoring courage and belief to isolated individuals. Although he became a mentor to several young people, he knew he could do more. And so, he founded Sikhi Alpha. Today, Jujhar will act as a mentor for any person, Sikh or non-Sikh, and tries to spread awareness as a way to end prejudice and secure a better tomorrow.
“I’m far from perfect and I make many mistakes. I have done things I know I shouldn’t have. I learn from a multitude of daily failures by making small improvements with each passing moment. Sikhi has shown me the way to self-reflect, develop and achieve more through compounded progression. I’ve sacrificed many relationships, both family and friends, in order to invest time that would allow me to give back. It has sometimes been a solitary and painful journey but also extremely rewarding. Waheguru looked out for me every step of the way.”
Lacking a career role model or a strong support system, Jujhar was blessed with strong and supportive parents, and passionate interests in music, story-telling and faith. He realized that people need support to achieve their potential. His achievements paved the way for personal growth and success – he is a family man now, enjoying work that fascinates him (see board profile). As he gives back to his community, Jujhar is determined to contribute to bettering society through Sikhi Alpha.
“I was helped enormously and given numerous opportunities. I took a few and then worked as hard as I could. I focused on consequences and not probabilities, for mostly I was told that good things were not likely. I want everyone to have help and opportunities, while enjoying experiences and having tremendous fun.”
– Jujhar Singh