As a child in San Antonio, Simran Jeet Singh never saw anyone who looked like him or his family. As Sikhs, they do not cut their hair or beards and wear turbans as part of their religious beliefs. He often searched for people like him in books. But found no one.
“It’s even more isolating when I would look around and see that everything, whether it was books or movies, there was nobody who looked like us there either,” Singh, 36, of New York City, told TODAY Parents. “I remember asking if there is anything where someone looks like me and my family on the pages and they said, ‘It’s just not relatable.’”
After hearing that excuse, 6-year-old Singh vowed he would change that by writing his own book with a character that look like him. Thirty-years later, he fulfilled his promise to himself as Penguin Young Readers published his children’s book “Fauja Singh Keeps Going,” with illustrations by Baljinder Kaur. The book tells the story of Fauja Singh, who started long-distance running in his 80s and became the first 100-year-old to finish a marathon. Singh first noticed Fauja in an Adidas ad with two of Singh’s heroes, Muhammad Ali and David Beckham.
“Alongside them was this older man in a beard and a turban and my jaw drops. I have never in my life seen someone from my community on TV being represented in a positive light,” Singh explained. “For most of my life, the only depictions of people with turbans and beards had been incredibly negative. They’re depicted as terrorists.”
After the commercial Singh started looking into Fauja’s life. He soon was surprised the runner was in an ad with other athletic giants.
“The more I learned about him the more I loved his story,” he said. “The day he crossed the finish line at the age of 100 and set that record, that was the same day I signed up for my first marathon. That’s how inspired I was by him.”
They two started a friendship and it became clear that Fauja’s story was an important one to share. As a child he struggled to walk, but eventually did. But he did not consider running until his late 80s when he immigrated to England after the deaths of his wife, one of his sons and one of his daughters. In his new country, he felt alone and sad and that’s when he laced up his shoes for a jog.
“Running became his refuge,” Singh said.
It also became something that helped him cope with the loneliness he felt as an immigrant in a new place.
“(It tells) what it must be like to leave your home and everyone you had and loved and start fresh and not really have anything,” Singh said.
But Fauja’s story also addresses racism. As the father of two girls, 2 and 4, Singh hope that it can help parents talk about racism with their children.
“We do our kids an incredible disservice when we avoid talking about topics we think are too complex or difficult or too uncomfortable,” he said. “If we can teach our kids to see the humanity in the people most different from them, then they’ll be able to see the humanity in everyone they encounter.”
Even though the book was recently released, Singh has already experienced a few moments where he feels it has made an impact. He read it to his daughter’s class and he felt touched when a classmate expressed awe that he was in a book (It wasn’t him; it was Fauja but Singh also happened to be wearing a pink turban at the time).
“They see me as someone deserving respect and admiration,” Singh explained. “That, to me, was an incredible moment of seeing why representation matters.”
But perhaps the most moving experience came when his 4-year-old daughter first saw a picture in the book of Fauja styling his young daughter’s hair.
“I have never seen her so excited. She squealed and was like, ‘Hey, that’s you and me every morning,’” Singh said. “My heart just melted in that moment. That was exactly the moment I had been dreaming of.”