Among the unsung heroes of the pandemic have been South London Sikh Youth, who have been offering free meals to those in need. SAM DAVIES found about their pride in their faith, and in Woolwich.
Juspreet Singh went through a lot as a Sikh kid growing up in Woolwich. he’s now dedicated to helping others going through similar experiences.
“I always think if we just looked after our own areas, we’d be alright. Show a bit of love in our own area. I think that’s something I learnt, maybe from growing up in Woolwich.” I’m talking to Juspreet Singh, one of a few key volunteers running the South London Sikh Youth, and he’s telling me why he’s devoted to helping people in his community. His answer is not born out of an isolationist mentality — Sikh Youth offers help to people far and wide — but a sense of local pride.
Pride in Woolwich, no less. Juspreet grew up there in the 1990s and 2000s, raised by parents who had moved to Britain from India. He says he had a “colourful childhood”. He was raised Sikh, taught to attend temple every week and wear a turban. “When you wear a turban and you’re growing up in a community where there’s not many people that wear a turban, you’re very confused. You’re not sure what you’re wearing it for. And when you do ask the elders… their mentality is to just do it. It’s not their fault, it’s just that’s how they had it.
“Whereas we grew up here in the West,” he adds. “We’re kind of taught to ask questions aren’t we? At school and stuff. So it was quite a difficult place.” He calls it an identity crisis, a youth spent surrounded by southeast London’s myriad cultures, with a blurry idea of who he was. “And Woolwich in general is a very interesting place.”
He explains growing up “on the wrong side of life. I’d say between the ages of 15 to like 23 I was involved in alcohol and drug abuse and stuff like that. And what it was is obviously back then I didn’t really have a role model. My mum had to work very long hours and my dad wasn’t very present.”
Juspreet used to visit family in the Midlands, which has a strong Sikh community. Though he was going there for the parties, it was there his life began to turn around. “I just found a level of spirituality in my own faith, through meditation.”
When he returned to Woolwich, he joined two friends on a mission to provide the youth of their Sikh community with role models like they’d had in the Midlands. Around 2012 Juspreet gave up drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and meat. The South London Sikh Youth was born, offering young people in the area guidance in finding their own identities. Using the Gurdwara Sahib Woolwich as their base, they organised weekly meditation sessions followed by food and conversation.
Key to the Sikh religion is the acceptance not just of the self, but of others too — whatever their beliefs. “We do not believe in conversion,” says Juspreet. “We’re not here to preach; we’re here to practise. We don’t tell anyone, ever — and this includes people in our own community — to actually practise their faith. That’s their own personal journey. It’s about understanding that whatever you wanna be, you should be it, confidently.”
Working entirely voluntarily, the team taught kids about the powers of meditation, lending advice and providing information on the teachings of Sikhism. “Whether they want to do something in media, something in fashion or even in sport, we encourage it. But we obviously encourage that our identity, whether we have long hair, our turban, our beliefs, they don’t get in the way of that.”
One of Sikhism’s guiding principles is the concept of “seva”, which broadly translates as “selfless service”. “Seva is helping anyone and everyone,” says Juspreet. “So this can be someone from another faith, another community, for us to just to be able to help someone and just to put some sort of light into their lives with any help they need. We believe it’s like a blessing, to be able to help anyone.”
Soon the group’s work extended beyond the youth to include older members of the Sikh community, helping anyone who couldn’t read English and particularly in coping with issues of mental health.
“In the Sikh community, mental health’s a bit of a taboo subject,” Juspreet says. “The elders don’t have much of a education on mental health issues and, as we all know, all around the world mental health issues are rising.”
Also among those benefitting from the South London Sikh Youth is WSUP, a charity aimed at providing homeless people in Woolwich with meals, advice and company. The Sikh Youth provide between 60 and 70 meals to WSUP’s service users every week. Juspreet and co have also worked with a range of other organisations.
In a good year they would host a summer meditation camp for as many as 120 kids. In 2020 this was impossible. Due to the pandemic, the Sikh Youth could no longer host meditation classes either. Mental health in the community, among both the young and elderly, took a major hit. But their work didn’t stop. They provided about 500 free hot meals to Queen Elizabeth and Lewisham hospitals.
Now Juspreet is keen to stress the importance of another global issue. Last summer, the Indian government passed three laws loosening the rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce. It meant private buyers could buy crops from farmers with no guaranteed minimum price. Juspreet notes that Indian farming conditions were already bad: as a result, an average of 30 Indian farmers have taken their own lives every day for the last 10 years. “And it’s only rising.”
Some 250 million people went on strike, while those who marched to Delhi met with arrest and physical abuse from police and opposition groups. Juspreet also notes that the protests encompass people from all religions. “They’ve all walked, got together, said ‘enough is enough’.” The Sikh Youth have sent money over in aid.
“Because that’s our land,” says Juspreet. “Punjab is, the majority of it, farmland. So that’s where I’m from. That’s my basically home. We stand up for the people.”
To find out more about South London Sikh Youth, visit www.southlondonsikhyouth.co.uk.
SAM DAVIES is a journalist who has written for Dazed, DJ Mag, the Guardian, the i, Mixmag, Pitchfork, Readers Digest and Vice. He co-hosts the podcast Exit The 36 Chambers.
This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people and organisations in SE London have dealt with the coronavirus pandemic.
Help 853 continue reporting on public interest issues in Greenwich and southeast London – we are the only outlet regularly producing original journalism in the borough, and we can only do it with your funding.
Please join over 100 donors who use Steady, PressPatron or Patreon to give a little towards our costs every month. Thank you.