Sikhs cook up a rescue package in troubled Haiti

Hindustan Times | ByBetwa Sharma, Port-au-prince
Apr 17, 2010 11:26 PM IST

The January earthquake left millions homeless. Today, Sikhs are serving home-cooked meals and bringing books and toys to orphans, writes Betwa Sharma.

More than two months after the earthquake, millions of Haitians are receiving food rations from different aid organisations and the United Nations. A home-cooked meal is still a luxury, which only a handful can procure.

HT Image
HT Image

Everyday however more than 4,000 Haitians, especially children, get a scrumptious meal prepared by a team of Sikhs as part of their traditional langar.

The practice has spread far and wide since Guru Nanak's first free kitchen in the 15th century.

"If we have food, we should give up food," said Karnail Singh, a 41-year-old volunteer who owns a trucking company in Surrey, Canada.

Teams of six to ten people from Sikh groups across North America are running the Haiti langar under the umbrella organisation, United Sikhs, a non-profit based in New York City.

The earthquake that struck the Caribbean nation on January 12 claimed more than 2,00,000 lives and left more than a million people homeless.

In its immediate aftermath, the international community was struggling to get basic supplies into Haiti but the Sikhs were transporting gas cylinders, spices and flavouring ingredients from neighbouring Dominican Republic by road.

"Our goal is not to provide packed food. We believe in hot and fresh food," said Kuldip Singh, 40, an IT consultant in New York who is heading the operation.

The cooking begins at dawn. By noon, the food is ladled into white plastic containers and taken along with books and toys to different locations.

At its onset, the operation suffered a small setback as Haitians didn't like the spicy Indian flavouring. So, a local cook was brought onboard to moderate her Sikh counterpart's delicacies. The menu, now, is made up of beans, rice and pasta.

"We had to adjust to the local palette," said Ramandeep Khaira, a 29-year-old volunteer from Surrey.

"Having a cook from here helped us get it right."

In the coming months, the United Sikhs intend to branch out from food into providing shelter, which is needed desperately before the looming rains threaten the lives of the displaced people living in flimsy make-shift camps.

While the UN has handed out tents and tarpaulins to one million people, the demand is still huge. More than 2,000 tents, which have been collected through a variety of charities and Gurdwaras by the Sikhs, are also on their way to Haiti.

On the energy side, they plan to distribute small solar panels for five or six families to share.

"The langar will continue but we have more ideas," said Kuldeep.

"We will not be leaving soon."

The team has engaged a couple of Haitian boys to help out. The spindly 13-year-old, Jefferson Etienne sits ensconced among the burly Sikhs humming Punjabi hymns that he doesn't understand. The fifth-grader confided that while hanging out at the langar is fun, he wants "to go back to school."

The UN estimates that 5,000 schools in Port-au-Prince were hit and presently there are two million children not getting an education. Even before the earthquake, only fifty per cent of school-aged children went to primary school. Although "temporary learning spaces" have been constructed, the magnitude of the destruction is debilitating the government's efforts to get primary schools running this month (April).

The orphanage, where the Sikhs are headed with food, books and pencils, has started serving as a school but not much studying gets done. However, a surprising level of discipline is maintained while the goodies are distributed.

Smaller children hug to their chest, the plastic boxes that are too big for their hands. While some of them youngsters tuck into the meal, others line up for a basic medical examination conducted by two doctors in the team.

They are helped by a handful of young teachers who shoulder the responsibility of comforting their grieving students.

"They're calm most of the time but they remember suddenly and start crying," said Nadley Bony, 21, who supervises the 3 to 5- year-olds that make up kindergarten.

"Singing makes them forget."

There are no clear statistics on the vast number of orphans after the earthquake. With traffickers on the loose, UNICEF is registering the all the unaccompanied children — not an easy task in a country where nearly half of its 10 million people are under 18.

Hundreds of teachers also died as classrooms collapsed. The few who are still teaching have lost their homes and family members.

Responsible for the first and second grade, Mombrum Marie Louroles, 23, lives out of a tent in an open field. Luroles made the decision to teach after the earthquake.

"I am more like a mother right now," she said.

"I talk about the disaster and tell them this can happen in any part of the world."

Sharma is a journalist based in New York

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