Growing Sikh community seeking permanent home on NSW-Victoria border

These are the members of the Albury-Wodonga Sikh Sangat, or congregation, at their Gurdwara (place of worship). They cook Langar – a free meal for worshipers and anyone who stops by.

During the black summer bushfires of 2019-2020, food production became excessive, with the Sangat preparing up to 200 meals a day to donate to local charities.

This sangat started with a handful of families 15 years ago. One of its original members, Supreet Arora, who migrated from India in 2007, says it is now packed.

“In 2011-12 the government opened visas for students to come to this area to get permanent residency, so they have to live here for three years, so many people came and then the community exploded, I would say, just exploded, ”she said.

It is estimated that 1,500 Sikhs live in the vicinity of Albury-Wodonga Gurdwara. Religion is still considered a minority religion in Australia, but since 2011 it has experienced the fastest growth, mainly due to migration.

Preparation of naan bread at the Albury-Wodonga Gurdwara.

Source: SBS / Abby Dinham

People arriving from overseas on regional skilled work visas are required to stay in the Australian region for several years and are then free to relocate to a capital city.

But the chairman of the Sikh organization of Albury Wodonga, Gurminder Singh, says that once people experience life in the border region, many choose to stay.

“If you’ve lived here for several years, I don’t think anyone plans to go back anywhere because after that we consider ourselves a local,” Singh said.

Members of the Sikh community serving Langar at the Albury Gurdwara.

Source: SBS / Abby Dinham

He has lived in Albury since emigrating from India in 2007. At the time, he says there were four or five Sikh families, but long beards and turbans were still a novelty in the Twin Cities.

“When we go to the mall they look at us like ‘who are these guys?’ During this time, we passed in the street, a young guy a little drunk comes towards me, says to me: ‘Hi [Osama bin] Laden, how are you? ‘

Now he says the community at large has a much better understanding.

How a Sikh community developed in this Australian region and began to help others

The growing number of Sikhs along the Victorian-New South Wales border also places the region on the migration map.

Ms Arora says in the past those who applied for visas from India only knew the names of capital cities, now she says Albury-Wodonga is a place they recognize.

“Before that people just knew the big cities, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, but now [Albury-Wodonga] is on the radar of the Indian community, it’s a name they recognize.

Supreet Arora has seen the number of Sikh communities explode over the past decade.

Source: SBS / Abby Dinham

But as this Gurdwara welcomes more members, they quickly overtook the space they rented for a temple for the past eight years, which during COVID-19 forced the Sangat to worship on a rotating basis.

Sikh organization secretary Albury Wodonga Gurpreet Singh said that often during COVID-19 restrictions, they were forced to ask worshipers to move to make way for others.

“These are the constraints that we have to follow because we don’t have a big room, everyone is understanding,” Singh said.

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The Sangat is now considering establishing a new, permanent community-owned Gurdwara in the border region, large enough to ensure that no one is ever turned back.

The Sikh organization Albury Wodonga raised enough money to buy land in the nearby town of Thurgoona. She now needs funds to build it.

Gurpreet Singh says the pandemic has delayed fundraising and construction efforts.

Gurminder Singh (center) chats with other members of the Sikh community at the New Gurdwara site.

Source: SBS / Abby Dinham

“I’m very confident that if this COVID thing hadn’t happened, we would already have the funds to build the entire construction. “

The current rental property can accommodate around 80 members of the local Sikh community, but it is hoped that the new facility will accommodate up to 400 and, most importantly, establish a new spiritual home for Sikhs in the Australian region.

Shabnampreet Kaur moved to Albury from Melbourne three years ago. She says having a permanent temple would be a big step.

“This is really a milestone for our Sikh community as most of the Sikh temples are in bigger cities like Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra – we haven’t established a temple here.”

Worship rituals at Albury-Wodonga Gurdwara.

Source: SBS / Abby Dinham

The new temple is specially designed to help continue the charitable work that brought pride of place to the Sikh community during the black summer bushfires.

Sikh volunteers helped clean up the bush fires, cooked meals for relief organizations and firefighters.

Gurminder Singh says that as soon as the emergencies arose, the Sikh community took action.

“We started cooking every day, we cooked around 150 to 200 meals, we started to distribute to local charities. “
Gurpreet Singh says he hopes that with a bigger facility they can do even more.

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He says the charitable efforts of Sikhs during state and national emergencies have helped forge better relationships and understanding between the community and Australia at large.

“COVID and the bushfires which I call an icebreaker between the two communities because before everyone was busy with their own business it helped us to mingle with them and share our thoughts. “

Gurpreet Singh (left) and volunteers from the Sikh organization Albury Wodonga.

Source: SBS / Abby Dinham

The new Gurdwara is designed to foster cross-cultural understanding, with plans for a massive increase in the charitable work of the Sangat.

The new building will have an industrial-sized kitchen to provide more meals for the hungry, it will have rooms to house those in need, and large halls to accommodate emergency services in future disasters.

Gurminder Singh says the plan aligns with the simple principle of the Sikh religion.

“Anything you can do for a human for humanity, do it. We do a lot of things for ourselves, if we can do anything for the community, there is nothing better than that.

They hope to raise funds to begin construction in early 2022 and settle permanently in the community they serve.

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