Succour amid bushfire

As infernos engulfed parts of Australia, the Punjabi community offered relief

Succour amid bushfire

Hearth & heart: Food being prepared by Sikh volunteers in Australia.

Gaurav Kanthwal

As bushfires raged across Australia, the Punjabi community settled there came out in full force to provide relief to the victims who had lost their homes and livestock.

Victoria in South Australia, one of the worst-affected areas, has virtually become a battleground for relief workers from the Punjabi community. As the news of bushfires wreaking havoc in Barnsdale first spread on December 30, an eight-member group loaded its two food vans and set out for the site, a five-hour drive from Devon Meadows in Southeast Melbourne.

In the name of humanity: If many people left their Christmas holidays midway to volunteer, several extended theirs to serve those in distess.

“We had no idea where to go. We just packed our vans and hit the road. On the way to Barnsdale, we kept trying to establish contact with people at the local council, but could not. Luckily, we got in touch with an official, Leanne Jenning, who guided us. We were the first to set up food service at the relief centre at the football ground by 9 pm that day. It has been more than 15 days that we’ve been serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to people in distress,” Lakhwinder Singh, a 34-year-old transport company manager and head of Sikh Volunteers Australia, said.

As fires spread, the number of volunteers soared. Many left their Christmas holidays midway and rushed to the fire-affected areas. Some of them extended their holidays to serve people.

Sukhwinder Kaur, 35, who works with Australia Post in Melbourne, was set to spend her holidays at Garhshankar in Punjab but decided to stay back and has been cooking food three times a day for the last fortnight. “Providing food to the victims is one of the major things that we have been doing. However, when we reached here, we saw people were emotionally shattered. They had seen their homes go up in flames. They needed someone to talk to them, comfort them. We have also been trying to counsel them,” Kaur said.

Red Cross, Salvation Army and various government agencies are working overtime to help people in need. For Manpreet Singh, a volunteer who originally hails from Nawanshahr, it has been an overwhelming feeling to deliver freshly prepared food and see people eat it. “The government too has been providing food, but those are packaged meals. Our effort has been to prepare fresh vegetarian food and serve it hot. Sharing a hot meal with someone in distress, and that too as a community, has a different psychological effect. People sharing stories of loss with each other also binds the community,” he said.

It is not the first time that these volunteers have pitched their tents in times of distress. Last year, they helped people when bushfires engulfed Bunyip near Pakenham.

Bushfires are not new for Australia, but the scale was apparently never as huge. “That is why you will see everyone contributing. The other day a young girl brought all the vegetables from her kitchen garden to our food van,” said volunteer Jaswinder Singh, who originally hails from Haryana.

A Bairnsdale couple, Kanwaljit Singh and Kamaljit, has thrown open its restaurant, Desi Grill, their only source of livelihood, to the fire victims. While expressing his appreciation for all the volunteers, Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews pointed at the couple. “Local restaurant Desi Grill opened up the kitchen to prepare food and keep everyone fed. People helping people. That’s what Victoria is all about,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

In the neighbouring state of New South Wales, Sydney-based group Turbans 4 Australia has been carrying out relief work by providing truckloads of groceries, water and food.

Therese Fox, a Sydney resident, thanked the volunteers by posting a message on his Facebook page, “This is the Aussie spirit in action.”

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