United Sikhs: Inspiring Activism in Disaster’s Wake

By Balpreet and Surmeet Kaur

Last year was a tumultuous one. In the span of twelve months, the world witnessed the worst of humanity and the best of it.

As stories of disaster upon disaster across every continent filtered in, so did stories of acts of immense courage, love and activism for others. At United Sikhs, we were proud to be at the forefront of this activism, volunteering to help those most affected by the worldwide devastation.

In America alone, 2017 was the costliest year on record for natural disasters, with a price tag of at least $306 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With the support of dedicated volunteers, we were able to coordinate disaster relief projects in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria across the United States, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Our relief projects have impacted thousands, as we provided warm food, water, clothes and care packages.

[Read Related: Being Jain-American: How Faith Fuels my Activism]

All of our activism efforts center on the core belief that the human race is one. That’s why we actively denounced hate crimes and acts of intolerance against communities of color whenever and wherever they arose last year and will continue our fight for equality, empathy and understanding across all cultures for years to come.

When the cries of Puerto Rican Americans were being drowned out by apathy, for example, our Sikh community heard the call of compassion and hurried to their aid. Our team of volunteer engineers repaired a damaged water treatment plant in Utuado, returning the water supply to 15,000+ families.

Through the power of social media, we raised more than $50,000 dollars across various platforms to further help relief efforts and mobilized dozens of Sikh communities to help their Puerto Rican brothers and sisters. In addition, we were able to successfully call volunteers into action and contribute funds last year to help victims affected by the wildfires that ravaged California for months and the Las Vegas mass shooting that left 58 people dead and 489 wounded at an outdoor concert.

While we take pride in each of these accomplishments, one of the most memorable and impactful projects of the year included our Rohingya refugee relief efforts for the thousands living in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. The Rohingya are considered one of the most vulnerable communities in the world, and their exodus from Myanmar into Bangladesh is one of the fastest growing humanitarian crises of our time.

In the span of four months, we were able to provide more than 1 million meals to the refugees. More importantly, what started out as a food and supply distribution project blossomed into a holistic program that addressed the physical and emotional needs of the refugees.

We saw first-hand that many Rohingya were entering the camps badly wounded and deeply traumatized by the violence they endured. It was heartening to see therapists, nurses, doctors, medical students and other volunteers, both Sikh and non-Sikh alike, band together to provide services like mental health therapy, physical fitness, hygienic sanitation stations and warm, cooked meals.

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On the education front in Bangladesh, our team of volunteers was critical in providing support to the 22,000+ orphans at the refugee camps by sponsoring an orphanage and starting a school.

As we rung in the new year, even more excitement has been building around our planned projects. One such project is a drug rehabilitation center in Punjab, India, as evidence suggests an increasing use of illicit drugs, and reported numbers point to more than 3 million substance users in the region. We’re committed to increasing public awareness around the issue and building out a much-needed road to recovery for this distressed population.

Another project we are eagerly looking forward to is the multiple “Warm Winter” projects across the United Kingdom and America. With winter weather becoming more severe, many families are in desperate need of supplies and clothes.

As we continue planning for the future, we hope to involve more young people in our community service and development projects across the world, especially people of South Asian descent and Sikhs. We are often struck by how very few disaster relief volunteers from influential organizations look like us — brown-skinned, young and ready to make a difference.

This needs to change. Community activism can start at any age. We’ve seen the power of the young mind. It is one of the most creative, courageous and audacious forces in the world, capable of inciting positive change in any niche.

We were fortunate to have seen our parents and other role models around us volunteer selflessly, telling us from a young age, “You will never be sad if you fill your heart with gratitude.”

Through them, we realize how desperately we need more young women at the forefront of community development, whether through disaster relief, advocacy, education or any other field. As women, we have a capacity for compassion, love and resilience that is unparalleled to any force in the world, and if acted upon, that potential revitalizes and uplifts others in a fearless, yet loving way.

We love having the opportunity to connect and amplify such critical work being done in some of the most vulnerable places in the world. Our message to all young women is that seva (selfless service) is the path to true happiness.

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United Sikhs has helped us connect with incredibly selfless and humble individuals who truly embody the spirit of chardi kala (Sikh ethos of ever-rising spirits). They are imbued with compassion so much that they are willing to put their lives on hold to help humanity.

Most importantly, we enjoy being part of an organization that is deeply committed to creating a just and equitable world. No matter who you are or where you are from, you become a part of a family of changemakers and are empowered to make a difference in your own way.

Our advice to Brown Girls everywhere this year is that whatever you can do to channel your potential, do it with ferocity and humility. Whether through our organization or your own independent community activism, we want young women to strengthen our philanthropic forces toward positive change and make the world a happier place, uplifting humanity when it needs it the most.

About the Authors

Surmeet Kaur has served as UNITED SIKHS’ Financial Platform Manager in Virginia for the past five years. She first started volunteering with the organization in San Francisco making meals for a homeless shelter and helping impoverished children get much-needed help with their education through the “After School Help” program.

Balpreet Kaur serves as the UNITED SIKHS’ Social Media Coordinator, where she helps draft external communications, such as newsletters and articles, to ensure that the story of compassion and love the she sees behind the scenes is showcased to the world. She began volunteering with the organization in Sept. 2017, organizing shipments of supplies across North America to reach areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

About United Sikhs

United Sikhs is an UN-affiliated, international non-profit, non-governmental, humanitarian relief, human development and advocacy organization, aimed at empowering those in need, especially disadvantaged and minority communities across the world. To learn more about the organization or to get involved, please visit http://www.unitedsikhs.org.

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