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Columbia The New Americans: Homelands and Diasporas

Sikh Case Extends Religious Sanctuary Beyond the Church

By Tania Leah Haas, July 26, 2007
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ABBOTSFORD, BRITISH COLUMBIA -- In a case that tests the tradition of sanctuary, a paralyzed man faced with a deportation order has taken refuge in a Sikh temple in this western Canadian city. In early July, just two days before Laibar Singh, 48, was to be accompanied by Canadian officials to a hospital in India, he moved into the residence of a Sikh priest on the property of the Gurdwara Kalgidhar Darbar Sahib Society.

This is the first time a Sikh temple has become a place of sanctuary in Canada. In the past, Christian churches have served as refuges for individuals avoiding deportation.

Abbotsford, population 160,000, is located an hour east of Vancouver. Abbotsford has more than 85 churches and is situated on the “bible belt of Canada.” But the makeup of the city is changing. Twenty-four percent of the population originates from northwestern India, which has resulted in a new nickname: “Little Punjab.” There are three gurdwaras in Abbotsford, including the oldest-standing Sikh temple in North America.

“This case demonstrates that Sikhs are not a foreign community anymore. This is home,” said Roma Kaur, a producer at Channel M, a network dedicated to multiethnic reporting in Vancouver.

The sanctuary case has also made this small farming community the focal point of a national debate on refugee claims based on economic hardship and disability.

When Singh’s sanctuary was made public on July 8th, the gurdwara was bursting with supporters who cried, held signs and donated money. But a few days later the five-acre property was barely occupied. A few cars were parked outside the temple, and fewer than 40 people were inside the grand, three-storey building. A single handwritten sign, “Save life of Mr. Singh,” lay on a bench by the entrance where devotees leave their shoes.

Just 300 yards away in a home adjacent to the temple, Singh, wearing a blue hospital shirt and dark pants, his hair cut close to his scalp, lay barefoot in a reclining wheelchair. He gazed at the walls of his new home, his motionless legs propped by pillows. Swaran Singh Gill, 45, president of the gurdwara, stood at his side. Gill wore an indigo-colored turban, a long greying beard and the traditional kirpan, the strapped sword indicating commitment to justice. Gill’s congregation had assumed caretaking responsibilities of Singh only a week before, when the paralyzed man arrived at the temple’s doors.

In adherence to the Sikh tradition of khalsa, Gill is committed to protecting the vulnerable and sick of his community. Every gurdwara provides langar, a free kitchen that is open to everyone, signifying the Sikhism precept of universal equality. And every Sikh temple is designed with entrances on four sides of the building: a practical and symbolic representation of Sikhism’s openness to all.

Gill says the Sikh principles of ethical living compelled him to help Laibar Singh. He says that the gurdwara will support Singh as long as it possibly can. Last week, the temple received more than $4,000 in donations for the man.

Canadian officials said that they do not plan to forcibly remove Singh from the temple’s premises. “Although there are no laws that prevent Canadian officials from entering a place of worship, historically they have not done so,” said Faith St. John, a spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency.

Singh entered the country with a forged passport in 2003 and applied for refugee status. He alleged that in India he was falsely connected to a Sikh separatist movement and he would be arrested if he were to return. In numerous administrative justice hearings, Canadian officials found his fears unfounded and turned down his request.

During the trials and appeals, Singh suffered a paralysing aneurysm, which confined him to a hospital and a long-term healthcare facility. Singh later made an appeal to remain in Canada on humanitarian grounds, but that too was rejected.

Singh’s only chance at attaining legal status remains with Immigration Minister Diane Finley, who has the authority to overrule the deportation order on compassionate grounds. Meanwhile the Canadian public continues to debate Singh’s case.

Harjinder Thind is the news director and talk show host at Red-FM, a radio station that serves the South Asian and other visible minority communities in Surrey, Abbotsford’s larger neighboring city. Thind says that his listeners are torn.

“A lot of people said that he should be kicked out right away. They say that he cheated the system,” said Thind. Singh’s detractors argue that he entered the country illegally and has avoided officials for years. They add that his four children in India have some obligation to help him and that he could be treated there if he were able to collect the funds. Canadian taxpayers have paid over $400,000 for Singh’s medical bills.

Meanwhile his supporters say he is in no condition to travel back to India and that his deteriorating health merits the country’s compassion. “Other people say, regardless, we will take care of him,” said Thind.

“He is more like an economic refugee,” said Thind. “He wanted a better life. India comparatively is not as developed and financially prosperous as Canada. People will try anything to get here. Canada is heaven.”

A Sikh man at the Gurdwara Kalgidhar Darbar Sahib Society next to a protest sign. (Photo by Tania Leah Haas)

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