Sikhs win hearts of Syrian refugees with ‘sewa’

  • Neetika Walter, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Oct 09, 2015 13:32 IST
The charities provide everything from food and drinking water to warm blankets, nappies, baby milk, and even toys for the children. (HT Photo)

True to the perception of the community being large-hearted, Sikh organisations are offering aid to refugees in Europe, as a crisis rages on due to the conflict in the Middle-East.

The charities provide everything from food and drinking water to warm blankets, nappies, baby milk, and even toys for the children.

“It is our duty as Sikhs and as humans to support those who need our help,” says Indy Hothi, a trustee of Khalsa Aid, a London-based non-profit organisation, which has been supporting communities across the strife-torn Middle East for the last two years.

“Sewa (service) is a central aspect of the Sikh faith. We are taught to recognise the whole human race as one.”

Two months ago, Khalsa aid joined relief operations in Serbia, Greece and Croatia. But over the past two years, ‘sewa’ has also taken the charity to some of the most-dangerous places in the world.

Khalsa Aid’s industrial bakery set up on the Iraq-Syria border in 2014 continues to provide 16,000 loaves of bread each day to as many Yazidi refugees in camps.

And earlier this year, the group set up a school in a refugee camp on the Lebanon/Syria border in Lebanon. Roughly 500 children came to learn.

‘Happy to help’

Another UK-based organisation, Midland Langar Seva Society, is actively providing relief in Calais (France). Four weeks ago, the non- profit chose to serve “the jungle”, a refugee camp where around 5,000 refugees of different nationalities are living.

Randhir Singh Heer, one of the founding members of the society, says the group chose refugees to serve after seeing the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned, being washed ashore in Turkey.

“I realised how desperate these people must be and made up my mind that we are going to send out a team to Calais to provide aid,” Heer says.

Sikh Help Austria offer aid to refugees in Europe. (HT Photo)

In Vienna, the Sikh community, under the banner of Sikh Help Austria, is providing food to the refugees at a railway station.

“Our gurdwara has always been a place where all can expect a warm meal. And with the big community we have in Vienna this requires a big kitchen. So, it was clear that we use everything to provide warm meals to refugees each day,” says the group’s Sanjit Sandhu.

Sandhu says the community’s help has also helped fill the gap in the local refugee assistance in Vienna.

His colleague, Hans Sandhu, says another Sikh is working at the border to Hungary, where the situation is serious. “So we are happy that people are helping over there as well,” Hans adds.

‘Still get a thank you’

Volunteers working on the ground say the situation in refugee camps is often worse than they imagined. Kanwar Singh, global project coordinator of Khalsa Aid, calls it “unreal”.

“I have never seen a situation quite like it. Refugees would arrive on a daily basis, tired, confused, and in need of food,” he says.

“People are desperate out there, there are little children roaming around without food, adults walking without shoes, the tensions are high and people desperate.”

There, however, were also moments of joy amid the stress. Sikh Help Austria’s Gunit Mehar smiles as she recalls how refugees, amid all the stress, would burst into Bollywood songs after knowing that the relief workers were Indians.

“It’s wonderful to see people who ask ‘you Indian?’ and start singing songs from Amitabh Bachchan movies. All these small moments make ‘sewa’ a more precious experience,” she says.

Mehar says the relief work has left her with a feeling of peace. “While doing ‘sewa’, you realise that they are no different than we are. Even after the affliction they had to go through, still we get a ‘thank you’ or ‘god bless you’ from them,” he says. “They call us ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ and that is what we all are,” she adds.

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