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Ravi Singh: the Sikh who leads relief work from Haiti to Iraq

Ravi Singh. Photo: BBC World News  

Growing up in a religious household in rural Punjab, Ravi Singh was never too far from a gurudwara. In 1981, Singh was 11 when the family moved from the lush green fields of Mundian Jattan to the suburbs of West London. Over the next decade, as Singh adapted to a new language and lifestyle, he drifted further from home, losing his beard and turban, and his faith, in the process.

At 25, a chance encounter with an old friend reawakened his lost belief in Sikhism and set him on an unusual path. “I was reading a book about police killings in Punjab when I saw a pair of eyes I recognised looking up at me,” Singh recounts. “They belonged to a man named Charanjit Singh Channi, a childhood friend.” Singh found that his friend had been brutally tortured to death by the police in his old village for alleged links to the controversial preacher-turned-militant Jarnail Singh Bindranwale.

Singh describes the moment as the turning point in his life. “It was like a reawakening. I put my turban back on and haven’t taken it off since.”

But a return to the fold for Singh meant putting into practice what he believes to be the most important principle of the Khalsa — sarbat da bhalla or well-being for all. To achieve this, and to mark the 300th year of the Khalsa, he founded Khalsa Aid in 1999.

The organisation has evolved into a large international NGO that does relief work around the world. It was present in the Andamans after the tsunami in 2004, in Haiti in 2010 and Nepal in 2015 after devastating earthquakes, and in Kashmir after the floods of 2014. It has also worked with Yazidi survivors of Islamis State (IS) persecution, refugees fleeing the violence of the Syrian civil war in Lebanon and Greece, and with victims of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria.

The journey began with Singh and a few of his close friends leading a small convoy from Southall in the U.K. to the war-ravaged heart of Yugoslavia. “We had just had a large Baisakhi celebration and Baisakhi involves a lot of food. The TV had these images of people in Kosovo fighting and dying for a few pieces of bread. We felt compelled to get involved, to take some food where it was desperately needed,” says Singh.

Khalsa Aid’s first mission was underway. Nobody involved had done anything like it before and surprises were constant. “We pushed into Albania even though we didn’t have insurance,” Singh remembers. “We got stuck a lot; people kept telling us we should turn back. But we met a local priest who helped us deliver the aid.” He paints a vivid image of the experience. “We couldn’t stop for too long anywhere because we risked getting mobbed. So typically we’d drive up really fast, jump out, leave the food and run back into the car.”

There was something else; their distinctive appearance. “In Iraq, the Yazidi refugees were running from beards and turbans and we went in with ours. Our identity makes it difficult,” he explains. “In new places, it’s always a challenge. The foreign forces too look at us like we’re fundamentalists.”

Singh’s work in Iraq is the subject of a new BBC World News documentary called The Selfless Sikh: Faith on the Frontlines. The film follows Singh into the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan as he delivers aid to Yazidi refugees in makeshift camps, barely 70 kilometres from the IS stronghold of Mosul. The plight of the Yazidis, a minority long persecuted in Iraq, is a cause that is close to his heart, evident from the pain in his voice when he talks of them. “These people have absolutely nothing and the world has let them down. If I say there is an animal going extinct in Africa right now, everybody will rush to help, but an ancient people are being massacred and nobody bats an eyelid.”

The constant shuttling around the word in challenging conditions has taken a toll on Singh’s personal life. He is in and out of hospital; he is consumed by guilt about not spending time with his children; he wakes up nights plagued by troubled dreams of faraway places. But he says simply that Khalsa Aid is a way of life, not a job. “Faith plays a big part in my work,” he says. “But we need to go beyond faith and into humanity. You can learn a lot by being human.”

visvaksen.p@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 1:48:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/Ravi-Singh-the-Sikh-who-leads-relief-work-from-Haiti-to-Iraq/article16668303.ece

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