Scattered and Erased: Unpacking the Displacement of Sikhs from Punjab
Jasminder Singh traveled to Poland at the height of the Ukraine conflict to meet with Sikh refugees fleeing the war, document their stories, and provide direct aid.
The mass displacement of our people is history unfolding in front of us. Looking around and listening to stories from family, friends and community activists, it is apparent that Panjab’s naujawan (young people) are scrambling to escape from their own homeland at an unprecedented scale. From the refugee camps in Moria, Greece, to the streets of Kyiv, Ukraine during a full scale invasion, fleeing Panjab for a better life has become the new normal. Understanding that the odds of survival are stacked against them, I’ve been consumed with the question: why are our people scrambling to find a new home in foreign lands, often at the cost of their very life? This gnawing question is what gave birth to the Sikh Displacement Project in March 2022.
For decades, Ukraine was a hotspot for many Panjabi-Sikhs who looked to migrate and journey further west. But having escaped brutal conditions in India linked to the ongoing Sikh Genocide, they were once again to be caught up in another regional conflict thousands of kilometers away – alone, with no representation or sense of a community that could support them in the face of such despair.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, showing up for those in our community in need felt as if it were a personal responsibility, especially after witnessing the world step over black and brown bodies fleeing to safety as they were rejected and abused on multiple fronts. I remember struggling with a sense of urgency to assist in any way I could, no matter the financial cost or emotional burden this would place on my shoulders.
Someone had to do something different. I couldn’t shake the urge that I had to be on the ground to at least document these stories and attempt to provide direct aid in any way I could. A few days after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia had commenced and people began to flee, I sat through sleepless nights and this nagging urge to show up for those members of our community that had been abandoned for decades – in a meaningful way, to honour their struggle, pain, and celebrate who they are as people.
It wasn't enough for me to donate money to aid organizations on the ground handing out food, or hear them explain what they were doing and how they were helping. The solution to this larger problem wasn't charity; it was solidarity.
I felt like there was only one thing I needed to do: drop everything, and just go.
That’s when I decided the only way to make an impact would be to be there in person and just start talking to people, wherever I could find them. After quitting my job, I took out several loans from my banks and other lenders–as much money as I could gather–and got myself a one way ticket heading to Warsaw, Poland. With the support of a team of friends from 3 different continents advising me on my journey, we developed the Sikh Displacement Project. I was able to travel through over 9 different cities in Europe where Panjabi Sikh migrants were settled, or transitioning through.
Part of my motivation were the tenets of sovereignty in Sikhi itself, how they kept resurfacing in my thoughts, and how it’s not as simple as proclaiming oneself as free – sovereignty requires sacrifice and determination. Throughout Sikh ithihaas, the lives of countless shaheeds are a pressing reminder of how important and vital it is to take action, whether pursuing justice or putting your faith into practice by challenging tyrannical systems that replicate violence and oppression.
I grew up with stories of family members that took on arduous journeys to reach as far as the US and Canada, most of them trying to make it through Europe – it wasn’t until I arrived in Poland it really hit me: thousands upon thousands of apne (our people) took those numerous paths like other refugees from various regions, but were nothing more than ghosts in our collective understanding of “the community”. Wandering through these hellscapes with no support, it feels as though entire villages of Panjabi-Sikhs now find themselves trapped in refugee camps, border detention centers, and dead along these perilous migrant routes.
On my first day in Warsaw, Poland, I sat with refugees coming from Ukraine at the main Gurdwara – with a little notebook in my pocket. The goal for the first day was to take in the surroundings at the Gurdwara, even helping with cooking the day's Langar. I was building a deeper connection to my own relationship with Sikhi, as well as the people relying on the seva. The sense of community was the first thing you felt when you walked into the Gurughar.
Almost immediately, I was flooded with images and stories that left me shocked, angry, and confused: people who had traversed hundreds of kilometers by foot in the dead of night, leaving injured friends behind in frigid forests, relying on smugglers to transport them to countries they’ve never heard of; entire train carts filled with unaccompanied children, and an array of people that looked just like me pleading with racist border guards to let them through to safety.
Despite the building being well overcapacity and supplies dwindling, the air had a sense of chardi kala – there was tenderness among everyone present. It was still bitterly cold outside, and people often shared their sweaters and jackets with one another. The running joke was to call out to one another based on who owned the jacket you were wearing, someone named “Valantine” and “Bubboo” seemed to own the most popular jackets.
The Gurdwara in Warsaw was a small building, tucked away in a gray neighborhood. The only colour on the street was the nishaan sahib, a bright orange beam and a blue khanda fluttering in the cold and gray sky. Walking into it, I was immediately hit with the gravity of the situation: hundreds of refugees had already passed through these gates, many more were staying there, huddled around each other on mattresses strewn everywhere in the building.
There were 13 Panjabi-Sikh refugees from Ukraine staying there for an extended period of time, while many more filtered in and out, on their way to other countries in Europe. Even a small family of Ukrainians were among those relying on the Gurdwara for food and shelter. There was also a Sikh man from Uttrakhand who came to Poland through an agency on the promise of work, but had been abandoned by his agency on arrival — a painful reminder of the cruelty and exploitation people still suffer ‘back home’.
That’s where I met Manjeet Singh*. He was injured, and flinched whenever there was a loud noise or the sound of a descending airplane roared overhead.
Manjeet had just gotten to the Gurdwara two days before I did. His arm was wrapped in a bandage that looked fresh and his eyes were sunken in. After spending a few minutes talking about a football match people were watching on their phone nearby, Manjeet asked me if I could help him by calling his wife in Ukraine so he could let his family know he was safe.
Manjeet had been on a train for 3 days–normally a 17-hour ride from eastern Ukraine to the border with Poland, but was delayed due to heavy bombardment and shelling along the way.
He was married to a local Ukrainian woman in eastern Ukraine and had a 6-year old child with her. His village was small and he lived with his elderly in-laws in their family home.
During the first stages of the war, Manjeet described how the entire night sky was lit up with flashes from the distance – and suddenly one morning, his small village was being shelled heavily. Rumors spread in the village that either Russian soldiers or paranoid militias were going door-to-door and detaining foreigners. That’s when Manjeet’s in-laws urged him to flee to Poland; reassuring him they would be fine as they can speak both Russian and Ukrainian, and have white skin.
He had left with the clothes on his back, a dead cellphone, two photographs of his wife and infant son, and a barely legible ID card that had his name spelled out in Ukrainian.
Manjeet had left Panjab in the late 90's amidst the devastating Sikh Genocide and anti-Sikh policies that continue to strangle the region. While interviewing Manjeet and helping him keep in touch with his family in Ukraine, we were eventually able to reunite him with his wife and son in Warsaw, Poland. However his In-laws refused to leave, and decided to stay back in their village in Ukraine.
“I had forgotten Panjab for many years. The only memory I had was complete anarchy and widespread police violence in the 1990’s. It felt like Panjab would stay that way forever, and many boys like me decided to leave for Europe around the same time.” Manjeet stuttered a lot at first, telling me he couldn’t stop shaking and stuttering ever since the shelling first hit his village in Ukraine.
Manjeet was one of 29 Panjabi Sikhs I met in Europe. They were all from different parts of Panjab, but had entered mainland Europe via Ukraine or Romania at various times during the last 3 decades.
Sitting in a dimly lit room where they slept, wrapped up in big kambals (blankets), we sipped warm cha while some of the refugees and migrants began to share my phone number with their friends in various parts of Europe. Some having left Ukraine weeks before the war escalated into a full scale invasion by Russia.
Providing direct aid for the migrants also became important relatively quickly, as people like Manjeet had no one to rely on or any resources available to them. As I mentioned earlier above, the solution to their problems wasn’t charity, and showing solidarity meant I had a responsibility to share whatever funds I had gathered with them. Each person I met and interviewed had a complex array of issues and struggles that required personalized care and attention, something aid organizations simply are not equipped to do. I had basically stumbled into the role of giving out aid, this included finding and paying for their housing, giving cash for groceries and medicine, helping them understand their complex immigration status, travel to and from various cities, and connecting them with local organizations for ongoing support once we parted.
I wanted to explore how these refugees were able to make such an arduous journey and what their experiences were like on their perilous routes through Europe and the Americas. Some had horrific stories of their journeys, many struggled with trauma and mental health issues – feeling isolated in pockets throughout Europe and essentially left alone to figure out their new beginnings. But there was more to each and every person: hopes and dreams, broken homes and people struggling to start anew. As a journalist and storyteller, I was committed to unpacking who each and every person really was, and I felt a sense of duty to these people to tell their stories in detail rather than just producing 2-3 minute hit pieces exploiting their pain.
While they were individuals on many different paths, they were Panjab. A Panjab that had been decimated by genocide committed by the Indian state, a Panjab that still held onto its Sikhi even when forced abroad. Each person I spoke to echoed gurbani and held onto a legacy carved out through shaheedi and prem for our Guru.
There was a keen desire to be heard, and it was an immense blessing and privilege to be able to create a safe space for these people in such a desperate state. We must understand that many of them are still struggling with issues like depression and PTSD caused by violence and trauma they faced during their journeys and detentions.
My journey and the work of the Sikh Displacement Project are about more than one person's story. This is about Panjab itself. It's about every single person in Panjab who feels left behind in their own homeland or forced to escape–and the role the rest of us must play to support them. It's about the violence that is being replicated on our real world borders, and how we can intervene. As we reflect on this new reality of state-orchestrated displacement, we are confronted with a choice: do we sit idle and continue to erase these refugees from our conception of “the community” or do we manifest the values of Sikh sovereignty and gareeb di rakhiya, jarvanay di bhakhiya (protection of the weak, destruction of the tyrants)?
Throughout my journey, the principles of Sikh sovereignty remained at the forefront of my mind–how does a sovereign Sikh panth navigate the borderlands of today’s exclusionary states and practically challenge oppressive structures of exploitation, displacement, and genocide?
There is no disagreement that all refugees deserve support and solidarity, and that starts by taking action. For me, it was quitting my job and taking financial risks in order to meet with people and be there to practice deg, teg, fateh. Meetings with refugees usually begin the same way: they are not sure why you want to hear their stories. The uncertainty lasts until the second they start talking. Then, it quickly turns into a flow of words and emotions that cannot be stopped.
One of the most beautiful parts was when migrants would express the relief they felt from simply being heard by someone. They no longer felt like ghosts, crashing into the world, ignored and stepped over even by their own community. It was incredible to see how migrants, who had become invisible and ignored by their own communities, were so openly grateful for being heard. And it was not just gratitude – it was relief.
While this journey took me to various parts of Europe and North America over 4-months, it feels as if this is still just the beginning–having barely scratched the surface, I know there are thousands of us scattered across the globe. Tethered together through generational memories of a homeland – a lotus bruised by a century of colonialism and its aftermath. The longing to triumph over the tyranny that plagues Panjab today was echoed by people I met even in the worst of circumstances.
Hope is still on the horizon for Panjab.
-Jasminder Singh Sidhu | @DisplacedSikhs | email@example.com