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"REINFUSION OF SIKH VALUES THROUGH SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT OF IMMIGRANT COMMUNITIES" by Mr. Harpreet Singh

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This page was last updated on May 15th 2000.





Featured Article

By Mr. Harpreet Singh (USSA)

Since the last decade, the Sikhs of rural Punjab have been emigrating to North America in large numbers. Upon their arrival in an unfamiliar land thev face a multitude of challenges as they are unable to effectively communicate in English. Social isolation and economic strain have not only caused undue hardships, but have forced many Sikhs to forsake their kakars, the Sikh articles of faith. Even the jobs that they aspire to pursue are unavailabic because they lack the interpersonal skills that are essential in today's workplace. Presently there is no Organization that provides assistance to these individuals in a systematic and comprehensive manner. Our goal is to serve these individuals through several avenues, including the creation of educational and development programmes as well as coordinating the efforts of existing organisations so as to provide formal and fundamental means of revitalising the Sikh spirit in these communities.

Not surprisingly, economic survival overshadows the need to embrace a religious discipline. Among these new immigrants, financial hardships lead to a variety of social problems such as domestic violence, alcoholism, child abuse. and crime. Richmond Hill, where a large number of Sikh immigrants reside, has experienced a significant increase in crime in recent years. According to Pam Rinando, a New York Police Department's uniformed officer, Sikhs are considered "illiterates, dirty, and criminal in nature" by a majority of the officers serving Richmond Hill, Precinct 102.

Such problems are not unique to Sikh immigrants; other immigrants have been similarly challenged and many have evolved appropriate support mechanisms. Jewish Organizations in America provide admirable services to Jewish immigrants. Their support includes relocation and career counselling, job placement, education, temporary housing, and monetary aid. Apart from easier transition into the complex mosaic of contemporary American society, such assistance provides the immigrants with a sense of identity and responsibility to the Jewish community, thus fostering unity. The Sikhs of New York have done little to emulate these well known examples if Jewish support. On the other hand, many affluent Sikhs who are capable of helping sikh immigrants, have moved away from these communities. Unfortunately!. their distancing themselves from the plights of the recent immigrants have created a vacuum of social and economic poverty that is in dire need of being filled

Perceiving a compelling urgency to address the above issues, the "United Sikhs in Service of America (USSA)" came into existence in the summer of 1998. We aim to empower and invigorate immigrant communities through the creation of educational and development programmes enabling them to become full participants in the political, social, and economic spheres of North American society. We have chosen Richmond Hill, New York, as the site of a pilot programme to develop a complete set of services that would enable immigrant Sikhs to gain a competitive advantage in the workplace. and that would assist them to keep their religion and culture alive.

Geographic Strategy: Why Richmond Hill ?

Richmond Hill is probably the first neighbourhood in the urban United States that has a majority Sikh population. It is located in the southeastern corner of the borough of Queens, one of the five boroughs of New York City. Richmond Hill is no more than 5 square miles and it is home to approximately 3000 Sikhs. In 1971, Richmond Hill Gurdwara was the first gurdwara in New York. In the early 1980s the gurdwara was the centre of Sikh religious activity in New York City and yet very few Sikhs lived in Richmond Hill. After 1984, substantial immigration to the Richmond Hill area resulted in a sharp rise in the Sikh population. Of course this also brought many problems that pervade immigrant communities, including difficulties in employment, education and language barriers. The Sikh community also experienced difficulty dealing with alcoholism, domestic violonce, discrimination on all fronts, and identity issues such as integrating their cultural and religious background in the best social climate.

There are approximately 100 Sikh children in Richmond Hill's local elementary school and 80 Sikh youth in its local high school. Sikh men in the area are predominantly employed as taxi drivers, and construction, store and warehouse workers. A small percentage of them own small businesses or work for the government. Women are mostly housewives and store and warehouse workers. There are few professionals or large business owners who have continued to remain in Richmond Hill.

Because of the density of the Sikh population in this area, Richmond Hill is a unique target site to implement our proposed programmes. We aim to serve the needs of the Sikhs in the area in a systematic and comprehensive fashion with the ultimate goal of creating a pilot programme that would serve as a modal for future programmes in other areas.

Enumeration of Problems

A Sizeable number of Richmond Hill

  • are unable to speak English and lack the interpersonal skills to enable them to perform simple tasks (e.g. Grovery shopping) with competence and confidence.
  • are unable to help their children with homework and are unable to address teacher's concerns.
  • are unfamiliar with basic American laws and rules of american society behavious.
  • are unaware of standard safety procedures (e.g. what to do during a fire, a medical emergence, etc.) or unable to communicate with the local authorities.
  • are unfamiliar with types of public assistance available and unable to access available services.
  • are limited to low paying jobs and lack oppurtunity for professional advancement;
  • often practice rituals contrary to Sikhism and lack a basic understanding of their own religion.

Sadly, a large number of women are the victims of domestic violence, as continuously reported by social activists. Alcoholism is rampant in this community. High school students are not taking Scholastic Aptitudc Test (SAT), without which they cannot gain admission to a good college or a university. The Richmond Hill community is divided into three major factions Jats, Lohanas, and Ramgarhias

Our Achievements

United Sikhs in Service of America has started English classes for adults in one of the gurdwaras with classes held every Saturday. The classes have been divided into different groups, based on the level of knowledge that each student possesses. So far we have 20 students with more students joining each week Since September 1998, drastic improvement has been noted among all participants. A handful of the previously illiterate individuals now possess fundamental reading capability and are continuing to thrive in the programme. As many of the parents attending these classes have no childcare support, they also bring their children with them to the classes. This has provided an unforseen, unique opportunity to start a separate class for children, helping them with schoolwork, as their parents learn English.

USSA is also addressing the crime issue in the area. We have established a relationship with the captain of the local police station. He has asked us to make presentations on Sikh beliefs to the officers during their roll call. This was the first time that Sikhs went to the Richmond Hill's police station as American citizens who were concerned about police-community relations previous police-Sikh interactions have been based largely on alleged criminal activities and violence committed by the Sikhs.

USSA also conducted a survey of Sikh families who face age-related and family problems. we assessed the feasibility of a daycare center in the area that would serve the needs of the families in a nurturing and affordable manner. There exists a need for childcare; however, the cost of opening a daycare centre is prohibitive at this time. Along with this the issue is the crisis of the elderly. Many feel removed from their social networks and some are even financially destitute. With the addition of language and cultural barrier it becomes self-evident that the needs of the elderly Sikhs are far from being met.

One of the means that USSA will utilize is the media. A local 24 hour radio station has agreed to provide airtime for educational activities. This will allow us to expand our audience and keep it informed of services available to them. Newspaper articles in both PunJahi and English will also be used to inform and educate both the Sikhs and the lay public

Our Needs

We believe that for the effective implementation of these programmes, our Organization must be a part of thc social fabric or the Richmond Hill community. USSA realises the need for a fully functional community centre in the heart of Richmond Hill. It should contain a computer centre, a library a recreational facility, classrooms, and a counselling centre. Such facilities arc the minimum requirements to achieve the goals outlined above, and we are already experiencing difficulty in achieving our goals with current limitations of physical space and ancillary services. Additional resources would of course he required for professional Staff and for the further development ot individual programmes. Funding is now sought so that our on-going programmes can be financially stable. This initial support has to come from within our community. We feel confident that once a series of activities are established at a minimum level, we can access external sources for additional funding, so as to establish a permanent Sikh Community centre.

Needless to say, the work does not end with the establishment of a community centre, for such a centre would be the beginning of a concerted effort aimed at penetrating the core issues that concern the Sikh community at this time. The Richmond Hill area would merely be a prototype for other areas in North America, many of which are experiencing similar social challenges.



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