Local non-profit works to empower Sikligar community
Twenty-two year old Sami Brar remembers looking out the window with her two friends Jasmeen Saini, 21, and Soni Dhaliwal, 22, as their train began to take them away from the station in Agra, India, where their new friends were seeing them off.
Tears streamed down the girls’ cheeks as they watched the kids they had been teaching for the past nine days desperately try to keep up with the train, waving frantically with big grins plastered on their faces.
The Calgarians travelled to India over their university winter break to build a first-hand relationship with the people that their newly formed non-profit organization called A Little Happiness Foundation, was focused on. Working solely with the marginalized Sikligar community in India, the organization hopes to empower youth within the community by promoting educational values, equality and inspiring confidence.
“You want to provide the youth with resources so that they can empower themselves,” says Brar, who spearheaded the creation of the organization after her own volunteer experience within the Sikligar community in India last year.
“It’s not telling them what to do. It’s giving them the tools to make their own path.”
At age 21, Brar took a year off from pursuing a degree in political science at the University of Alberta to volunteer abroad. Spending six months working with Sikligars in India, Brar says the group inspired her after doing research about them online.
She had discovered that the Sikligars have a rich history in India, dating back to the 1600s when they were given their title by a Sikh Guru to honour the contribution they made as the makers of weapons for the Sikh religion. The weapon-makers were frowned upon as British imperialists made their way into India, and the community became nomadic, staying true to their roots by continuing to make weapons in secret despite the criminalization of their trade.
In 1984, the Sikligar community became further marginalized after a little-known genocide targeted Sikhs within India. As well, the industrialization of weapon manufacturing made their special trade much less relevant.
Today, Sikligars are still not recognized as people within India and are exempt from the government census, making reliable statistics on the size of the community hard to find. Sikligars receive no government resources, and few organizations currently exist to help the largely ignored community.
Brar experienced the hardships the community faces first-hand while living with a family of Sikligars during the time she spent volunteering in India. She credits the relationships she built during her time there as her motivation for starting A Little Bit of Happiness Foundation upon coming home. .
“I didn’t want these kids to feel like they put all this faith in me and then let them down,” Brar says.
Because of the traumatic history the Sikligars have lived through, gaining that trust is an extremely long process, Brar says. She knew the strong bonds she had formed were the key to sparking change within the community, and still stresses the importance of building relationships with the Sikligars.
“I thought it was so important to go out and get to know the kids that I was working so hard to raise this money for,” says Saini, who began volunteering with the organization after hearing of her friend’s experience working with the community.
After witnessing the murder of her father and brothers in the 1984 genocide, Brar’s Sikligar host mother, Sama Kaur, found solace in the small Indian town of Alwar where she was raised. It was here that she married a local man and settled into life as a mother of three children.
Knowing the importance of education, Kaur pinched pennies, saving small amounts of money in piggy banks to pay for her children’s tuition and give them the opportunity for a better life.
Today, her son is the first Sikligar to attend university. Studying social work at the Indira Gandhi National Open University in Delhi, he has become an inspiration to his community and part of the reason the organization has decided to focus on the importance of education, Brar says.
“It came as a shock to me that an entire community did not have that option for a secure future,” says Dhaliwal. “As an advocate for education, I wanted to be involved in changing that.”
Teaching in a dark classroom full of rustic wooden benches and tables, the three girls and a handful of local Sikligar teaching assistants played educational games, and taught lessons ranging from math to social studies over a nine-day period at a local school.
“We wanted them to have fun so that we could build that relationship, but the educational aspect had to be there because we wanted to show them that learning could be fun and provide benefits to your life,” Brar says.
As part of the organization’s efforts in Calgary, the girls challenged Calgarians to make “Kits 4 Kids” full of school supplies for them to take with them and handout at the educational camps. Overwhelming public support for the program led to over 100 kids receiving the kits.
In nine short days, the women turned strangers into friends, coming back to Calgary touched and inspired to continue finding ways to empower the Sikligar community. Plans for the future include more trips to India and fundraising for the construction of a library.
“We came in as outsiders, but we left as part of the community,” Brar says. “As much as I am making a difference in their life, they are making a difference in my life.”