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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Sikh community in New Zealand, an inspiring story

There's something about being a New Zealander that makes me very proud -- and that is the fact that anyone can walk through the grounds of Parliament without being accosted by police, or checked by security.  It is a surprisingly informal space, where children play, students hold meetings, office workers eat their packed lunches, and young men can hurl frisbees.  Sometimes there are brass bands, and at other times there are protest meetings, where petitions are handed to politicians who come out, smiling or serious, willing to listen, and happy to talk, and completely unafraid, though unescorted by any kind of secret service.

Last Friday was a little different.  The grounds were crowded with Sikhs, all looking extremely happy.  Tables were out, and food was being served to anyone who might look hungry.  "You should be holding a cricket match," I observed to a smiling gentleman, and he and his friends enjoyed the joke -- after all, the major news on the Indian Weekender is invariably the latest cricket score.

I did wonder what the happy occasion might be.  Well, it turned out that it was the 549th birthday of their first Guru and the founder of the Sikh faith – Guru Nanak Dev.  According to the Weekender, it was celebrated all over New Zealand.  Wellington was special, however, as Jenny Salesa, the Minister of Ethnic Communities, was their guest.  “I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the significant contributions made by New Zealand’s small, but deeply committed Sikh community. These contributions, on both cultural and social levels, are recognised by the Government,” she said.

Coincidentally, a stirring and sterling example of Sikh contributions to New Zealand society is described in the current issue of the magazine North & SouthWrites Josie Stanford, "I’m sitting in a black jeep with four Sikh men driving through the streets of South Auckland at dusk. With an orange scarf protecting my crown chakra in traditional fashion, I let their sing-song chant wash over me. Driver Delpreet Singh explains the continuous prayer keeps them focused on their mission: service."

  "This is Sikh Sangat Free Kitchen, which provides food to the homeless and needy. The project began in Auckland at the beginning of winter in 2017 and is now spreading around the country. 
  "In the boot of the jeep are 60 packaged Indian meals, freshly made by women at the Sikh temple in Wiri. On this Saturday night, we’re joined by volunteers who run the Te Puke, Tauranga and Hamilton branches of the Free Kitchen, which also operates in Rotorua and Christchurch.

Meals are prepared at the Sikh temple in Wiri. Photo/Rebekah Robinson/North & South
In Hamilton, the group sets up a feeding station at 8am every Sunday in the city centre. But Auckland is a sprawling place, so we take to the streets, on the hunt for the without-a-roof people. 
“Over there, in the skate park,” comes a voice from the back of the jeep. We pull over and pile out, to be warmly greeted by an ageing Māori man who Singh addresses as “Uncle”. Later, Singh tells me they’d come across the Manukau local five weeks earlier on his first night on the streets, after he was kicked out by his family. 

A few of us head over the grass to the skate park to assess the need, then someone doubles back to collect food, juice and water for each person. One man devours his meal – a paneer curry – in the few minutes we linger and then hands back the empty container.

Sikh Sangat “Free Kitchen” co-founder Jaspal Singh gives food and drink to Ida Pihema, who’s been sleeping rough. Photo/Rebekah Robinson/North & South
We move on to an encampment under a road bridge, then we’re off again, headed to Ōnehunga. 
A tip-off about a group living outside a church doesn’t bear fruit, but while we’re parked up, a young woman approaches. One of the volunteers gives her a meal from the boot of the car and, after exchanging a few words, hands her a jumper; she pulls it on. Most of the people we meet don’t look drunk or high. They look resigned, cold, and grateful.

Left, food is prepared for 60 meals. Right, Father of one Delpreet Singh works for a software company by day. “Giving back is the only way forward,” he says. Photo/Rebekah Robinson/North & South
Next stop: New Lynn. “There’s a community of about 20 we’ve been visiting under the bridge,” Singh tells me. 
When we get there, the bridge is quiet, but we find a group of five camping under tarps next to the railway. A young man, perhaps 19 years old, explains they’d been moved on and the group had dispersed. “Are you warm enough?” asks Singh. “We can bring a jacket next time.” A polite “Yes, please”, and a request for a beanie is met with a promise to bring both next week.

Volunteers hit the streets on a rainy Saturday night. Photo/Rebekah Robinson/North & South
Back on the road, the prayers continue as we head to Swanson. Then, if any meals are still left, we’ll head to the city – but the volunteers believe the forgotten ones are in the suburbs. Their weekly mission ends around 10pm. 
“This is how we spend our Saturday night,” smiles Singh, a father of one who works in Auckland as a finance manager for a software company. 
“Giving back is the only way forward.”

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