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Sanmeet Kaur shares her personal experiences of life as an Afghan Sikh in the UK

When you type the words ‘Afghan Sikh’ into a search engine, you will most likely be presented with the following headlines: ‘Why are Afghan Sikhs desperate to flee to the UK?’ Afghan Sikhs: one of the most vulnerable minorities in the world’. In August 2014 the plight of this small community hit national headlines when thirty-five immigrants were discovered stowed in a shipping container at Tilbury Docks in Essex. One man was found dead whilst others were taken to hospital suffering from severe dehydration and hypothermia. I remember reading the story and feeling a horror that I hadn’t felt in a while. It was reminiscent of my own journey to the UK. A story of being stowed away in similar circumstances and being detained even though we had committed no crime other than to run from the devastation orchestrated by the very countries now desperately trying to close their borders. This is the story of my people and it is one that remains largely untold.

Growing up in the UK, I always struggled to understand my heritage. How could I be Afghan if the majority of the Afghans were Muslim? How could I be Afghan if I spoke Punjabi, a language spoken by Sikhs with its roots in India? If religion played such a huge factor in deciding which diaspora I belonged to, it made most sense for me to turn to the Punjabi community as we shared the same faith of Sikhism. However I found this was complicated by the fact that my spoken Punjabi did not match theirs. Unlike most Sikhs, Afghan Sikhs speak a unique dialect known as ‘Kabli’, which is an amalgamation of Persian Dari and Punjabi. Over time I learnt to stop looking outwards and to instead focus on the Afghan Sikh diaspora as one that stood its own ground. I came to realise that the Afghan Sikh community faced dual persecution as Afghans fleeing decades of wars waged on their land and as Sikhs fleeing religious persecution as one of the smallest religious minorities in the country.

My family came to the UK when I was 5 years old and growing up I did my best to ‘assimilate’. Until recently I hardly ever thought about my background. I was too busy trying to be ‘British’. I would insist on only listening to English music, refuse to go to Southall because it was full of ‘freshies’ and hated every time I had to wear traditional clothes. As I reached my twenties and became to question my identity and place in the world, it struck me that nobody knew about my people.

Having studied history at university, I threw myself into research but was disappointed to find little other than a few articles on our journeys to the West. To the outside world it is almost as if we didn’t exist until we landed here. My questions about my community’s history remain largely unanswered. For now, I have only the stories that my family recount to me. Often these stories speak of events that affected the Sikh community as a whole, such as the 1984 Sikh massacre in India. My dad recalls how the murder of thousands of Sikhs in their own homeland affected those outside of India and hardened the perception of the Indian state as one that does little to respect minority rights.

At other times, his anecdotes are unique to the Afghan diaspora. For example, one of my favourite facts about my dad is that he can speak Russian. My dad was 10 years old when Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979. His most formative years were spent under Soviet rule so it came as no surprise when he reached working age that he took frequent trips to Moscow where he worked in the trading industry. Quite amusingly, to my grandparents’ generation the word ‘Russian’ is synonymous with ‘foreign’ so whenever I speak English around them, I’m often asked to translate from ‘Russian’ to ‘Kabli’.

As a religious minority in Afghanistan, Sikhs face severe persecution. Treated as second-class citizens, few attend mainstream school and many frequently face verbal and physical attacks, their un-cut hair and proud turbans instantly marking them out as different. As a teenager, my mum recalls going to the Gurdwara on Vaisakhi, a key event in the Sikh calendar, when the Afghan guardsmen at the gates revealed the guns hidden underneath their shawls and began to indiscriminately shoot at the crowd. She had grabbed her baby brother and lay on the ground pretending to be dead. I have tried to search for any official recording of these events but again nothing appears. Their suffering does not exist on paper.

That is not to say the good times did not exist. For me, my parents’ wedding video is perhaps the best testament to this. My parents got married in Gurdwara Karte Parwan, one of the few Sikh temples remaining in Kabul. Neighbours, both Muslim and Hindu, came along to festivities held at my grandparents’ house. My favourite image of Kabul is that of a car adorned with flowers driving my parents home from the Gurdwara, with the Hindu Kush Mountains visible in the background and the popular 1992 Bollywood song ‘Kabhi Bhoola Kabhi Yaad Kiya’ accompanying the scene.

Gurdwara Karte Parwan in Kabul (Photo, Wikimedia).

The Afghan Civil War (1989-1992) and the advent of the Mujahedeen and later the Taliban, brought along a new wave of persecution and terror that would see hundreds of Sikhs fleeing their homes. The horrors of the war had been accompanied by a rise of fundamentalist ideology, which forced many to mark themselves as different in public. Although the rights of minority religions are protected under the Afghan constitution, the Taliban made Sikhs and Hindus publicly identify themselves by wearing yellow patches on their clothing as well as having to mark their homes, businesses and places of worship with a yellow flag.

In the years since my family left, the rising intolerance towards the minority group has seen attacks on the Sikh funeral custom of cremation. As cremation is a practice forbidden in Islam, Sikh funerals have been a focal point of dispute, with protestors frequently disrupting funeral processions. Alongside this homes and land have been illegally confiscated, leaving an already weakened community facing near-extinction. Although no official census exists, community leaders estimate that in the 1990s nearly 50,000 Sikhs lived in Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 400 families remain.

As the refugee crisis came to the fore in 2015 I remember watching in despair at the humanity afforded to the most vulnerable minorities in our country. Afghan refugees in particular are amongst those now most likely to have their requests for asylum rejected. Although the country is now deemed ‘safe’ by the Home Office, a UN report released in July 2017 revealed that the number of civilian deaths in the Afghan war has reached a record high, with the Taliban’s homemade bombs resulting in 40% of civilian causalities in just the first sixth months of 2017. For minority groups such as the Afghan Sikhs, this is compounded by the fact that their religion makes them an instant target for other forms of violence. In 2012 the Guardian reported on the distressing case of 23-year-old Afghan Sikh, Baljit Singh, who was deported to Afghanistan by the British government. Upon arrival he was taken aside by Afghan officials and imprisoned for 18 months without a conviction. His crime, he was told informally, was that he was falsely claiming to be Afghan. In prison he was verbally and physically attacked; his turban kicked off his head and at one point he even had boiling water thrown in his face. After months of appeals, he was finally allowed to return to the UK.

In Britain, the majority of Afghan Sikhs live in London and often come together in Southall, where the local Gurdwaras act as a focal point. The customs of home have continued into a foreign land. At weddings Afghan music blasts from the speakers and guests wear a mixture of traditional Indian and Afghan clothing. At home we regularly eat Afghan food including ‘bolani’, a baked flatbread with a vegetable filling, to my favourite, ‘mantu’, a meat-stuffed dumpling. My dad still listens to the songs of Ahmad Zahir, a popular Afghan singer often referred to as the ‘The Elvis of Afghanistan’ whose gravestone was reportedly destroyed by the Taliban shortly after they seized Kabul in 1996. As much as I grew up confused about my Afghan heritage, all these things make it hard for me to reject my roots.

When a close family member passed away last year, one of the first thoughts that ran through my mind was that he never had the chance to return to his homeland. He left Afghanistan not knowing he would never return. But his story lives on through us: the Afghan Sikh community.

 

Sanmeet Kaur is a recent history graduate and aspiring writer from London. She has written for gal-dem zine and enjoys all things books, politics and intersectional feminism. Twitter: @sanmeeet

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Click here to read the research paper

A research paper on the Afghan Hindu and Sikh diaspora community in the West and how it has changed in recent years in regards to topics such as language, religion, and social customs.

Abstract:

Whether it was due to conflict or in search of better opportunities, migrating populations have provided opportunities for culture to develop in unique ways. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent conflicts led to the emergence of an Afghan Hindu and Sikh diaspora as members of that community left the country to find safety in the West. This diaspora has experienced several changing trends in recent years. My goal in writing this paper was to explore how the culture of the Afghan Hindu and Sikh community has changed through the question: “To what extent has the emergence of a diaspora been a force for cultural change in the Afghan Hindu and Sikh diaspora community in the West?”. I referenced different ethnographies conducted in the past that studied the Afghan diaspora, and conducted informal interviews with various knowledgeable community members to gather qualitative data and personal perspectives. I investigated the context of this diaspora and how immigration to other countries has affected language, identity, and the institutions of religion, marriage, and family in these Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities. I also examined the various factors that have influenced those changes. Moving in the midst of new culture added many more layers of complexity to an already multi-faceted communal identity. Diaspora has also changed the way religion and customs are practiced, as they pick up Western influences, and intermarriage with other communities has become more common. Furthermore, the mother tongue is being spoken much less by those in the second and third generation, and many fear it will become extinct in the near future. However, Sikhs have retained much more continuity than Hindus in regards to language, religious traditions, and marriage as a result of a much more close-knit community.

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Click here to read the thesis by Chitra Venkatesh Akkoor who completed this work in 2011 as part of her PhD degree in University of Iowa. Chitra made multiple trips to Germany and spent significant amount of time with Afghan Hindus in Hamburg, Frankfurt and Cologne to complete this work.

 

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Source: GetWestLondon

Afghan Hindus in Ealing will be holding their annual Diwali Fete this weekend, celebrating the sixth anniversary of the charity.

The event will be held on November 8 at the Asamai Community Centre, Johnson street, Southall.

This is an annual event that the Asamai youth committee holds for its members with more than 300 people expected to attend.

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Last year’s Afghan Hindu Diwali Fete at the Asamai Community Centre Southall

Proud member, Komal Supra said: “Afghan Hindus migrated to England about 15-20 years ago. Hindus in Afghanistan have always been the minority group and remain in a minority in England too. However we are a very hard-working, determined and obedient minority group within the UK. Every single Afghan Hindu family is registered with the Asamai cultural trust that runs the Asamai community centre.

“Many youths, adults and older generations are involved with the trust and regularly attend all the events and help out with day to day activities. None of these members get paid for their help. The trust also holds free Hindi classes every Sunday for the members. The teachers are also volunteers.

“The fete is a wonderful celebration of how everyone works hard to come together. The fete will include activities for the whole family. We have stage performances by kids from our Hindi classes, free food stalls for members, a games stall, raffle draw and many more attractions to keep visitors entertained. I am very proud to say I am a member of the Asamai Cultural Trust and active member of AsaMai Youth Committee.”

Asamai Cultural Trust is a registered charity formed and run by Hindus from Afghanistan who live in the UK. The Trust was formed in 2008 to give help and support to all Hindus from Afghanistan adjusting to their new lives in Britain.

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