Sehaj Kaur on Why Sikh Family Center’s Survey is Necessary
“You remember, when we first met four years ago, when I told you I just didn’t believe any Sikhs cared?”
I remember that well. In fact, a driving motivation for the non-profit Sikh Family Center has been the outrage we feel each time a Sikh goes unsupported in their quest to fight fear.
“By speaking out, we show other people like me that we care. That we aren’t ashamed or afraid. And we remind ourselves that we care. It’s really quite simple.”
Sehaj is now a volunteer for Sikh Family Center and is helping disseminate SFC’s online needs assessment survey for Sikh Americans launched in English & Punjabi this winter. The short, anonymous and confidential survey seeks to hear from the community about the issues, needs and desires, so more tailored services can be created. SFC believes in asking, not assuming; acting, not despairing at collective problems.
We had begun laughing uncontrollably. We needed the break. She had just quipped about the quintessential “Americaness” of non-fat drinks that accompanied our jumbo piece of cinnamon swirl coffee cake. She-I’ll call her Sehaj*, equipoise, because that is what comes to my mind when I think of her now, because she is not ready to come out and be identified with this story just yet, if ever-had stopped mid-sentence to comment on the baked goodies on our Starbucks table. As she stopped giggling, her slim frame curled a little and she dropped to a quiet register again.
“You know, I’m not just watching my calorie intake… I really, actually have to struggle to remember what I like eating and what I don’t… I had lost myself. I was told what to eat, when, and when not to eat. And sometimes I just couldn’t eat for days anyway.”
Once again, I was meeting someone for an informal coffee and ‘safety planning’ (her husband was still scarily obsessed with finding out how she had managed without him and she needed to strategize on keeping a safe distance). And once again, we were having a non-linear conversation. Of bruises and bags (she related to my inability in finding my phone in the sack I carry), of being stalked and being stoked (she had just found a new job), of fear and of fearlessness.
I sat marveling at her strength and resistance. A victim-survivor of violence, who is re-discovering her love for life. On her own terms.
Thirty-one-year-old Sehaj recounted the small ways in which things had gone from bad to worse with her California-raised husband: from yelling to breaking property, from monitoring to slapping, to punching her in the gut, again, and again.
“You know, when I left the house, he filed for divorce and almost immediately, the few relatives who were in my corner started suggesting I look for another husband…That was the most useful thing they could offer! I can’t even dream about that right now! I mean, I know not all men do this… Not all people try to strangle you every time their own life feels a little out of control…”
I sensed a question mark at the end of her sentence and said, “Indeed, not all men at all. But even one is one too many. Love has to be freedom from fear.”
This freedom from fear of loss-of things, of others, of self-is what domestic violence survivors, like Sehaj, strive to re-experience in life. Once trust has been shattered, it takes a lot to believe again that love is indeed freedom, rather than constriction, palpitations, panic attacks, and, as in Sehaj’s case, attempted murder.
I first noticed her, almond eyes blazing into the lukewarm water for the teabag. She sighed. Then she smiled immediately when I asked if she needed to re-heat the water. Tongue-searing hot tea ran in our Punjabi families. I dared not pressure her with offering any other possible commonalities, though I noticed the steel karaa gleaming as she held up the teacup. We moved to take our seats in the circle.
Her turn for introductions came soon enough. “Yes, I’m happy to be here, to be alive after three years of hell followed by a hell year of divorce court. But I’m here to talk solutions. Not one person in my own community offered help, offered an ear, offered even sympathy. My gurudwara…” She looked down to the floor for a second, deciding on the best English translation, or pushing back one of her worse memories, or both.
“My place of worship, of calm, where I always went. When I asked the person who sat up there reading our sacred words every day, when I asked him if there was a place to stay for 1 or 2 nights…he rebuked me, and didn’t even ask why I was asking. Something needs to change. Now I work on translating Punjabi to English for other girls who come to other shelters. There is nothing our community does.”
Some chairs later, I explained I was representing the Sikh Family Center, a nonprofit some of us created in 2009, keen to respond to the roadblocks to access to social services for Sikh Americans. Sehaj was looking at me blinking back tears. “Clearly, we aren’t big enough or spread out enough yet to reach even a fraction of community members in need…and it’s not fair that no such Sikh organization has yet been created in the United States where Sikh social and technological and other entrepreneurship has otherwise thrived…but SFC is here now to listen and learn and we wish to change what we can.”
We were at a workshop in Berkeley, sponsored by APIIGBV, with a group of Asian Pacific Islander anti-violence community organizers: Koreans talking to Japanese, Samoans talking to Kashmiris, Indians to Pakistanis, us Punjabis from both sides commiserating with Tibetans from no side. We were gathered for a closed, confidential meeting on community violence. Each of us co-organizing this meeting had invited a victim-survivor of family violence whom we had worked with and who was now part of the movement to end violence. I brought a non-South Asian colleague. I had no idea someone had invited another Sikh woman. She had no idea other Sikhs existed in the anti-violence movement.
Sehaj walked over during lunch, “We really need to talk. This is the first time I’ve heard of our community organized around the kind of thing that nearly killed me.”
We meet for dinner. She is a SFC volunteer. SFC has just launched its online Needs Assessment Survey for Sikh Americans. She wants to help with outreach.
“See, when you have an infection, right, you have to take an antibiotic…”
She was a trained physician who never got to practice after marriage.
“No one generally says, haanji, haaww, you have this infection. When you get the Flu, no one says Hawww, Let it be, don’t talk about it. Push it into the corner…
“But. With all many of the issues we are asking about in the Survey, the response is exactly that! Domestic disputes? O, you don’t know how to manage your own home. Need counseling? O, you are wasting your time. Depression? O, start moving around and stop being lazy…Why can’t we accept there are issues…? Let’s deal with it!”
“Let’s just start with creating awareness, that yes, there are problems in the community…. I saw in an Asian shelter… 90% Punjabi women from all age groups, working, non-working, kids, no kids. And chalo, I didn’t have kids…but still….It was shameful. And they weren’t getting the support they need…culturally, spiritually… Each pangaa, finances, forms, court, makes people feel more isolated.”
“We have one life to live, we need to make it worth living…” Sehaj hopes survivors take strength from her own story of escaping a dangerous situation, despite the odds. She is working with SFC to create an audio podcast about her story.
SFC joins Sehaj in believing, deeply and desperately, in the mandate of our Gurus since 1469: to live and facilitate lives of fearless love & freedom.
Whether a teenage boy fearful of applying to college because he has been told he isn’t good enough; a college sophomore being pressurized by her boyfriend; a man seeking help for anger management told he will bring dishonor to the community at large; an undocumented person told he should be ashamed; a woman who has never seen a primary care physician because of lack of insurance; or an elderly person told to never speak about their homeless situation. Sikh Family Center connects members of our community with resources they may not otherwise access. We seek to create resources that do not exist. And we proactively work with our community’s existing resources.
SFC depends on and fosters collaborations and partnerships to forward our mission. We have received referrals from across the country, including from Gurudwaras. We are proud partners with Gurudwaras that have been urgent shelters and safe spaces for someone in danger or someone in the midst of a mental health crisis or someone during a time of loss. As much as we learnt from Sehaj’s negative experience, we have been heartened and at times even embarrassed at our own surprise when the Gurudwaras and often older males who generally run them stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones to work with us, speak about taboo topics and take justice-oriented positions. We seek to multiply such experiences in the Guru’s many houses and hearts across the United States.
For this, we need to know what exactly we are working with and how to prioritize. If you are a Sikh American above the age of 18, take our Survey today. There are otherwise no statistics specific to the Sikh American community and its needs. There are otherwise Sikhs like Sehaj wondering if they are alone in their experience. There are otherwise survivors like Sehaj wondering if the community will ever rally around issues that blight every community, but remain especially unaddressed in some. The idea here is not to create new victims or scapegoats, but to move forward, together, stronger. This fight begins at home and there are no shortcuts.
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and writer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the U.S. and South Asia. She teaches at UC Berkeley Law and is a Founding Director of the Sikh Family Center.
This survey is entirely voluntary and anonymous. Your response will not be identified with you personally. There are no legal implications.
Here are the results of the 500 in-person paper surveys conducted by SFC in previous years: