British Sikhs work to demystify organ donation

Organ Donation: A snapshot from British Sikh Nurses facebook page
By Aysha Khan | RELIGION NEWS | US |

LONDON (RNS) — Last fall, Sikhs around the world marked the 550th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Some did it with religious pilgrimages and processions. Others celebrated with brilliant fireworks displays, art exhibits and global tree planting campaigns.

But in Southall — the West London suburb dubbed “Chota Punjab,” or Little Punjab — Sikh leaders at the largest gurdwara outside of India chose to memorialize the occasion in a different way.

“We decided to do something different in the U.K., something that would leave an everlasting legacy,” said Harmeet Gill, a trustee at the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall gurdwara. “Not just the usual fireworks.”

So on Nov. 12, Guru Nanak’s day of birth, the gurdwara launched Project 550, a campaign to register at least 550 Sikh organ donors before the end of 2020. With just two weekends of campaigning, they exceeded their target, leaving organizers stunned.

The campaign also received a stamp of approval from Giani Harpreet Singh, who heads the Akal Takhat supreme seat in Punjab and is considered the spokesman for Sikhs around the world, when he visited Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall in January.

“Guru Nanak Dev Ji and other Sikh gurus devoted their lives to humanity, and some sacrificed their lives for the welfare of others,” said Dhanwant Kaur of the Sikh Welfare and Research Trust, who worked with the gurdwara on the project. “Sikhi teaches the importance of giving and putting others before oneself.”

The campaign is one of a handful of recent initiatives to challenge the taboo around organ donation among Sikh and other South Asian communities in the U.K. That means educating community members about how organ donation aligns with Sikhism’s ethos of seva, or selfless service, demystifying the donation process, and encouraging families to discuss donation at home.

According to an NHS report, rates of consent to donate from white families were around 70% in recent years, compared to about 40% for Asian people. Most minority families who denied consent reportedly did so due to religious and cultural beliefs or uncertainty as to whether the patient would have agreed to donation.

Older South Asians often have hesitations and questions about the prospect of donation, Gill said: Will the nurses look after me if I’m ill and dying, or will they just be interested in getting my organs? What if my organs go into a bad person? Doesn’t my body need to be intact to go and merge with God?

Many immigrants from India, familiar with corruption in the medical system and stories of organ harvesting and trafficking there, also fear organ donation in Britain, he added.

But when most people speak to medical professionals and faith leaders openly about the process and understand that one donor can save nine lives, they typically decide against opting out, advocates said.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, the conversation is shifting,” said Rohit Sagoo, who founded British Sikh Nurses in 2016, which has successfully signed up around 300 donors and spearheaded several campaigns for South Asian live donors, including the viral Hope4Anaya campaign, which found a kidney donor for a 2-year-old Sikh girl. Sagoo regularly visits local gurdwaras and appears on Sikh TV and radio channels to raise awareness about the urgent need for South Asian organ donors.

“We talk about marriage and buying a house, but we don’t think about what will happen towards the end of our life,” said Sagoo. “Now families are actually beginning to have that conversation and ask, ‘What will we decide in that moment?’”

And like other ethnic minorities, Sikhs, who advocates say comprise up to 800,000 members of Britain’s population, face an above-average likelihood of needing an organ transplant due to a heightened risk of diabetes, hypertension and other conditions that can result in organ failure.


Sikh organizations are now working to educate members of their communities on the new policy change, as well as Sikh beliefs on organ donation, hoping to increase family consent rates among South Asians.

Last year, Project 550 and British Sikh Nurses were among 25 faith-based and community initiatives funded by the National Health Services Blood and Transplant’s BAME Community Investment Scheme to educate black and minority ethnic communities about organ donation. The initiatives also included projects embedded in Jain, Hindu, Muslim and black and Asian Christian communities.

Read the full story, ‘Eyeing shortage of minority organ donors, British Sikhs work to demystify donation’ (Religion News, 10 Feb 2020), here.


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