As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered colleges in early March, student organizations like the Sikh Student Association (SSA) at Fresno State had to move their meetings to a virtual format.
When the new board members were elected, they saw an opportunity to give back to their community in a time of need.
According to data by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 17 million people were unemployed in June, and the unemployment rate fell from 13.3 percent in May to 11.1 percent. The economy hasn’t fully recovered, and many people are facing some type of basic needs insecurity, either food or housing.
Over several Zoom meetings, several board members, including President Sandeep Sandhu, Treasurer Sarabjot Mander and Sangat committee member Amandeep Narwal, came up with the idea of hosting a food drive for families in need.
“We thought we could help as many people as we can in difficult times because a lot of [our members] come from middle class families,” Mander said.
Giving back to the community is very common for Sikhs practicing Sikhi (commonly known as Sikhism), the fifth-largest religion in the world with over 20 million members. At a gurdwara, the place of worship for Sikhs, people take part in langar, a communal kitchen service part of every gurdwara in the world.
Anyone can take part in langar and obtain a free meal whether they practice Sikhism or not.
Since COVID-19 has limited the number of people in places of worship, many gurdwaras around Fresno County are unable to partake in langar. As a result, community members have looked for ways to help people outside of the gurdwara.
One of the basic tenets of Sikhism is sewa, which means selfless service. Sewadar is a term used to refer to a person who performs sewa without looking for a reward of any kind.
“A value of the Sikh religion, or Sikhi, is to give back to people in need, so we strongly emphasize that and will continue to strongly emphasize that moving forward as a club,” Sandhu said.
In mid-May, Fresno State SSA created a GoFundMe page to purchase food and supplies, raising around $3,180. Still, the page didn’t gain as much traction as they hoped.
Mander said the goal was to raise around $20,000, so they contacted several local punjabi-owned businesses.
“We went around to Punjabi-owned businesses, mostly trucking companies, and we collected around an extra $28,000,” Mander said. “In total, I think we had around 45 different business donors.”
Several of these business donors included Kerman Car Wash, NB Trucking and Premier Pizza. Although they exceeded their goal, Mander said he’s extremely grateful, but the process was not effortless.
Sandhu, Omreep Mander and Sarabjot Mander went to talk to businesses in Fresno County, but many of them said to come at different times when they weren’t busy. Sandhu said there were several days where they worked from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
“We [drove] almost 300 to 400 miles in a day just going back and forth because some businesses [said] ‘come back at this time,’ and another one would say ‘come back at this time,’” Sarabjot Mander said. “We’ll be in Selma, and then after that we have to go to Fresno to meet someone and then we’ll have to come back to Caruthers.”
Once they received the donations, the next part was thinking about what foods and supplies to buy. Sandeep Johal, a Sangat committee member, said they focused on purchasing foods with a long shelf life, so they could store them for one to two weeks before they were placed in boxes.
“We [purchased] mainly canned food, flour, pasta and granola bars because those are things that are necessities that people can use on a daily basis, but we could also keep them for a week,” Johal said.
The main target group of the drive was groups of four to five-member families, Sandhu said. Based on that, the club members chose ingredients that families could use for cooking supplies such as macaroni, rice and flour.
In total, the club handed out 1,059 boxes to families in Fresno County on June 21 and 22. Each box contained around $30 of dry goods that could last up to a week.
A pamphlet was also stashed inside each box as well, which talks about the message of Sikhism as well as some quick facts.
“A lot of people don’t know about our religion, and a lot of people don’t know what the basis and the values are of being Sikh,” Sandhu said. “..This way people get a better understanding of our religion.”
There are many misconceptions surrounding Sikhs in America, and many people confuse them with Muslims and Middle Easterners because of their brown skin, turbans or beards.
There are about 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States, according to the Sikh Coalition. Estimates say there are more than just 30,000 living in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Because of the many misconceptions, Sikhs have been a target of hate crimes in the U.S. and in the Central Valley. In 2016, a 68-year-old Sikh man, Amrik Singh Bal, was attacked while heading to work as his attacker believed he was a terrorist.
Since the 9/11 attacks, Muslims and Sikhs in America have been the target of hate crimes as many individuals make snap judgments and call them terrorists.
The basic message of Sikhism is the opposite of terrorism — one creator and one human race, all equal each with the creator’s light within.
“Our religion believes in giving back to families and people, and we’ll continue to do that moving forward,” Sandhu said.