By Matilda Boseley | AUSTRALIA |
When Amritvir Sekhon and eight other Sikh men and women drove into Bairnsdale in the middle of the worst bushfire crisis in decades, locals didn’t know what to think.
“They had never seen turbanned men with long beards before – we probably looked pretty alien from them,” Sekhon says.
They were from the United Sikhs, a global aid organisation associated with the UN, with a growing presence in Australia.
“They were thankful that we were there, but they weren’t really sure if they could rely on us or what our agenda was.”
As soon as they arrived the small group set up shop, cooking thousands of free hot vegetarian meals for those who lost their homes in January’s Gippsland fires and were sheltering in the town.
“We’re pretty redneck up here,” says Leanne Jennings, who runs the Bairnsdale Neighbourhood House. “So to have people from different cultures come along and help us out in our town was amazing. It certainly does break down some barriers.”
“They made thousands of meals … there was so much rice, we broke a table because there was so much rice on it.”
The team, which soon doubled, stayed for 17 days, sleeping at the community house and working from dusk till dawn preparing meals and helping the Salvation Army sort donations.
Bairnsdale was a massive operation but it wasn’t the first or last crisis the United Sikhs helped with. In fact, the group is becoming a staple of Australia’s emergency response.
During the pandemic, the United Sikhs and Sikh communities have been vital in organising food relief in some of Victoria’s most economically vulnerable areas. At the Wyndham Park community centre in Melbourne, they have been providing hundreds of hot meals a week.
“My mantra is if you want anything done you get the Sikhs involved,” says Greg Ferrington, who managers the centre. “They can just put a list up on Facebook and within 24 hours they can turn it around and get what they need, that’s just the ethos in the community.”
Gurvinder Singh, the director of the United Sikhs’ Australian chapter, says community service is one of the most important tenets in the teachings of Sikhism.
See full story, ‘If you want anything done, get the Sikhs’: community wins admirers for bushfire and Covid aid, (The Guardian, 13 June 2020), here.
Fighting Covid, the Sikh way (Asia Samachar, 6 June 2020)