Most years, Sikh youth hit the streets of Toronto around the holiday season to distribute warm wishes and clothing to people experiencing homelessness. While this year's rise in COVID-19 cases has hampered some of their efforts, organizers are determined to carry on the tradition.
The initiative is part of a religious tradition called Seva, which encourages service to others.
“Seva literally means selfless service in Punjabi,” says Gurjot Singh, one of the main youth event organizers.
Sadly, the meteoric rise in COVID-19 cases is forcing organizers to dial things back.
“This year, we were planning on 100 care packages that will include necessities that we take for granted,” says Singh.
But because of the Omicron spike, “we are keeping it small and we might even postpone or cancel this year’s initiative.”
The annual care package distribution event is organized by Sikh student associations in the Greater Toronto Area. The Downtown Seva Initiative (DSI) started in 2015 and was put together by Experience Sikhi, a charity dedicated to the growth and prosperity of Sikhs across Canada.
“As Sikhs, growing up we learn how to give back by giving one-10th of our earnings back to the community or people who are in need,” says Singh.
Several local businesses have donated clothing, feminine hygiene products and money for Experience Sikhi volunteers to provide care packages.
“We started off with 50 care packages. Some of those packages went to shelters and some of them went to the streets,” Manjot Singh, one of the main DSI founders, says. The program has since expanded to provide more packages and reach more shelter homes in Toronto.
“In a care package, you will find everything from clothing to keep warm, such as hoodies, socks, gloves, female hygiene products and sometimes burritos.”
There are extras, too, including items like sleeping bags, jackets and blankets for those who need them.
Dalraj Singh Gill is one of DSI’s founding volunteers. During its second year, he got the program up and running in Scarborough.
At first, the group — loaded up with care packages — used public transit to make their way to inner-city Toronto to distribute the goods. “Then we started booking buses,” says Gill.
The young volunteers gathered at Yonge-Dundas Square and branched off from there in smaller groups to cover more ground.
“We have a huge team that brings these students together, that will bring the donations together,” says Gill.
In 2019, approximately 200 youth distributed nearly 300 care packages containing sweaters, hats, gloves, socks, food and toiletries to people living on the streets.
“It’s no accident that Seva takes place at the coldest time of the year,” says Gurjeewan Singh, one of the founding volunteers of Experience Sikhi. December marks an important time of year in the Sikh religion, as they acknowledge the martyrdom of Sikhs and the Chaar Sahibzade, four sons of Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the 10th Sikh guru and the father of the Khalsa — a purified and reorganized Sikh community he established.
“It’s Christmas going on everywhere, and we have our own history,” says Gurjeewan Singh.
In December 1705, the younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh Ji — Zorawar Singh, 9, and Fateh Singh, 5 — were captured by the governor of Sirhind, Wazir Khan, because of their faith and their father’s revolution against the Mughal empire. With their grandmother, Mata Gujri Ji, the younger sons, referred to as Chote Sahibzade, spent three freezing days in a Thanda Burj, which is the tallest and coldest room in an open tower.
During this time, the Chote Sahibzade and their grandmother had no food or anything to keep them warm. The Chote Sahibzade were later bricked alive and killed on the orders of Wazir Khan because of their relation to Guru Gobind Singh Ji. Their grandmother attained martyrdom when she was told of their execution.
“It’s also a time of the year we (Sikhs) reflect upon the history, not only in Canada but back in Punjab, India, where there are no heaters but a big amount of resilience and rising spirits,” Singh said.
The annual Seva giving initiative gives students an opportunity to learn their history, engage in selfless service and be thankful for their blessings.
Kuwarjeet Singh Arora, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer