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Sikhs in Italy

by SEEMA SIROHI

 

The Italian hills of Colli Albani stand guard in the distance and the one road nearby leads to Rome.

Inside the small farm shed, a picture of Guru Nanak looks kindly down from three walls out of four, competing with the bric-a-brac cramming the room's beds, one book-shelf, suitcases in line and stacks of DVDs. The adjacent kitchen, which converts to another bedroom at night, has rudimentary cooking utensils, a rickety table, a huge plastic barrel of atta and two refrigerators. A neat row of clothes pegs carries the burden of entire wardrobes.

Harjit Singh, who came to Italy two years ago from India, is making cha for the Punjabi workforce on this lush farm south of Rome.

Tajinder Singh, barely 18, and who landed here just five days earlier after paying an agent Rs 8 lakh, helps with the chores. He doesn't have a job yet, but he has shelter, thanks to his village brethren.

"Everyone comes here to earn money; I too decided to come", he says, smiling shyly. But tears well up when he talks about his family. It's still too raw: the departure, the journey, the touts, the alien languages along the long route of illegal migration.

The two rooms are home to eleven men from Punjab, some legal, others illegal, but all bound by a common will to survive with few resources and many insecurities.

Goldy Singh trundles back after a 14-hour workday, having secured delicate green bean tendrils with ropes and sticks. He opens a drink, shaking mud off his rubber boots and exchanges pleasantries with Satinder, a man of many trades and skills.

Satinder, who connects Italian farmers with the Punjabis, owns two shops in Italy, exports Murano glass to Mumbai, drops names and goes to the West Indies for the World Cup, is one of the few regular links between the isolated workers and the world. The cellphone is another.

There is comfort in brotherhood, as men from the villages of Punjab come together in far-flung communities across Italy, a new favourite destination of immigrants.

More than 50,000 of them, mostly Sikhs, are spread across towns such as Reggio Emilia, Casina, Bergamo and Brescia, a far cry from Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur or Ludhiana, labouring with quiet determination and doing jobs the Italians are unavailable for or unwilling to do. Some make as little as 500 euros a month, exploited by crafty employers. Those who become legal can make up to 1,500 euros.

Last week, at a cultural evening organised in Rome by a Punjabi who's now an official with an Italian workers' union, singers belted out ribald songs before a meal of chicken curry and naan.

A prosperous-looking Balbir Singh sat in the audience with his wife and son, recounting how he came 18 years ago after paying an agent Rs 17,000 for a tourist visa. Today the price is anywhere between Rs 6 and 10 lakh.

"I didn't know where or what Italy was, but I hoped to find work", Balbir said, fiddling with his fancy cellphone sporting a Guru Nanak screensaver. Work he did find, first in a circus as a driver, then as a labourer and electrician. Today, he owns a factory making grilles for windows.

The Sikhs are also making wine and cheese. Up in the northern Emilia Romagna region, home to the famed Parma ham, the Punjabi worker, with his intuitive farm skills, has added another "P" to the big two: prosciutto and parmesan. They are curing tonnes of meat into prosciutto and turning gallons of milk into parmesan cheese, a sprinkling of which is essential over pasta. They have reportedly even improved the process.

But come Sunday, and a mini-Punjab sprouts in the twenty-two gurdwaras across Italy, with shabad kirtans and langar, providing an anchor to the thousands of Sikhs who long for the sounds and smells of home.

In the very same communities,  in April this year, Vaisakhi was celebrated with abandon and large processions ... a bit of Punjab, with an Italian flavour!

[Courtesy: Outlook India]

Conversation about this article

1: Amardeep Kaur (The Netherlands), June 16, 2007, 2:14 AM.

Nice article. Are there really 22 Gurdwaras in Italy?

2: Gurvinder Singh (U.K.), June 21, 2007, 4:02 PM.

This is a nice article but it's really a shame that people are paying money to agents to come to Western countries. We should discourage it as illegal immigration is not a good practice for any country.

3: Jasmeet Kaur (Delhi, India), June 22, 2007, 3:41 AM.

While Sikhs are immigrating to and flourishing in other parts of the world, Punjab is being neglected. It is important that, at the very least, you look back and give to the land of your Gurus. Otherwise, it too - or whatever is left of it to date - will be lost.

4: Tejinder Pal Singh (U.S.A.), June 22, 2007, 8:48 AM.

I understand that illegal immigration is very bad, but for a person from a farmer's family in the Third World, it has become very hard to survive on agriculture. Moreover, they cannot dream of meeting even their most basic needs. So people, who are enterprising and willing to take risks, feel they have no other choice.

5: Harpreet Singh Hunjan (Vancouver, Canada), June 22, 2007, 10:37 AM.

A good article. "Punjabian di shaan vakhri ..." - "Punjabis have a glory of their own!", as they flourish in every corner of the globe.

6: Jaspal Virdee (Brampton, Canada), June 22, 2007, 11:39 AM.

It would be nice to see more stories and pictures of our communities out there ... and, if possible, of the gurdwaras as well.

7: Gurcharan Singh Kulim (London, England), June 23, 2007, 6:34 PM.

There are more than 28 Gurdwaras now in Italy, with a Sikh population nearing the 70,000: the second highest in any European country, after Britain. The Italian Sikhs have pushed Sikhs in Germany to third place, where there are about 24 Gurdwaras,and about 40,000 Sikhs.

8: Saurabh (Bangalore, India), June 23, 2007, 11:18 PM.

This is really informative. I have been thinking about moving to U.S., U.K. or Canada. But now, Italy suddenly appears intersting :-)

9: Bikram Singh (Malaysia), June 23, 2007, 11:47 PM.

"Jithe jaye bahe mera satguru, so thaan suhava ram raaje" ... it's all guru-di-kirpa, guys and gals. The journey is difficult, paved with thorns and bushes, but the rewards are sweet. Sikhs, wherever they are, have always lived royally. Raaj karega Khalsa!

10: J. Makar (U.S.A.), June 24, 2007, 7:16 AM.

A moving and inspiring article. While we serve humanity at large and work for the common good, it is important that we also help other Sikhs in need, wherever they are. It is in the fulfillment of that duty that there lies our strength and fortitude. That is how we have survived and flourished under impossible circumstances.

11: Jagjit Singh (Hong Kong), June 24, 2007, 8:43 AM.

I enjoyed reading about yet another Sikh frontier - Italy!

12: Munjal Iqbal (Singapore), June 25, 2007, 4:59 AM.

The Sikh community should provide services across the diaspora, whereby newcomers can be properly introduced to local language, culture, and other needs. I admire the courage and adventurous spirit of so many Sikhs who risk so much to migrate to faraway lands.

13: Hardeep Singh (Amritsar, India), June 25, 2007, 8:52 AM.

Proud to hear about our Sikh brothers and sisters who survive and thrive wherever they go.

14: Manvinderpreet Ghotra (New York, U.S.A.), June 25, 2007, 10:41 AM.

This is a very nice article. But I do want to register my displeasure over illegal immigration to any country.

15: Harvinder Pal Singh (India), June 26, 2007, 12:03 AM.

Great article.

16: Surinder Singh (London, U.K.), June 26, 2007, 11:26 AM.

I salute those hard-working Punjabis in their determination to prosper despite facing untold obstacles. May Waheguru bless them all.

17: Jas (New York, U.S.A.), June 26, 2007, 6:10 PM.

Mom and pop farmers in Punjab are becoming less and less profitable. The very idea of making it a success at farming and using one's surplus income to acquire additional land, has become a near-impossible dream. The price of land in Punjab (even in rural areas) has climbed at such a ridiculous rate that local folks can't afford the land. Foreigners who leverage the dollar/pound vs. rupees conversion are the only ones buying land right now. Some serious thought needs to be given by the decision-makers to this problem, because it is actually happening in the context of a decrease in the local population numbers.

18: Hari Singh Khalsa (Esapañola, New Mexico, U.S.A.), June 27, 2007, 5:00 PM.

I'm surprised no one has raised the issue of these people making wine. While I think we should be proud of Sikhs for prospering in new lands, we should not condone their getting involved in the production of alchohol. Also, if we have any sense of being a true global community, then we really ought to get together and improve the situation in Punjab so that no one feels compelled to leave under illegal/dangerous situations.

19: Dr.Charanjt Singh Gumtala (Troy, U.S.A.), June 28, 2007, 7:20 AM.

Good news for the Sikh community vis-a-vis the hard work they do to overcome the hardships. It is heartening to see how Sikhs continue to build gurdwaras wherever they settle down. Yet, it is surprising to note the large number of gurdwaras in such a small country. However, I wish to add that I feel Sikhs should avoid illegal immigration, as it defames our commmunity. Secondly, they should also keep alive the rich Sikh traditions in these new homelands.

20: Gurpreet Singh (U.S.A.), June 28, 2007, 10:18 AM.

Great to see that the spirit is high in the face of every adversity. Keep it up. GurFateh.

21: Harminder Kaur (New York, U.S.A.), June 28, 2007, 2:11 PM.

Herein lies the promise of "Raj Karega Khalsa" - Sikhs are a true global community.

22: Harinder Singh (Bari, Italy), July 23, 2007, 8:25 AM.

Good article.

23: Harinder (Mohali, Punjab, India), August 31, 2007, 2:43 PM.

Spreading goodwill and our qualities of hard work and sharing ...

24: Supinder Singh (Leicester, U.K.), September 05, 2007, 5:40 PM.

Sikhs are a credit to humanity and our seva will be enjoyed by the world. I am so glad and proud that our community is doing well in Italy.

25: Edith (Germany), November 04, 2007, 2:27 PM.

I would like to get in contact with Goldy Singh, 27.5.1983. We lost contact. Will he please telephone?

26: G.Kaur (Australia), January 03, 2008, 10:52 PM.

I'm totally against illegal immigration. It's a total disgrace to those who migrate through proper channels.

27: Harsimranjit Singh (India), February 05, 2008, 4:21 AM.

I want to be in touch with some farmers from Punjab in Italy. So, please contact me at my email: hrsimrn_bnec@yahoo.com

28: Swarn Singh Kahlon (Chandigarh, India), February 26, 2008, 10:42 AM.

Great coverage. I propose to visit Italy in June to meet with Sikhs there. Please see my website www.sikhglobalvillage.com. I need contacts, addresses, emails of Sikhs in Italy to fix appointments before coming to Italy.

29: Balbir Suropadda (Singapore), July 10, 2008, 5:08 AM.

Great article. Need some contacts of Sikhs in Italy. God knows, maybe will be able to drop by to visit the Gurdwaras there.

30: Hardeep Modi (London, England), September 02, 2008, 6:43 AM.

I am visiting Italy and I am finding it difficult to locate a gurdwara in Rome. Could anyone please help me?

31: Bikram Bakshi (Paris, France), October 22, 2008, 1:15 PM.

Wonderful article. I hope people around the world become more accustomed to the Sikh religion and its traditions.

32: Manish Sharma (Singapore), April 08, 2009, 10:50 PM.

I am a South Indian Hindu, but in my heart I feel that Sikhs are like my brothers of whom I am very proud. Well done!

33: J.P. Sharma (Jaipur, India), September 22, 2009, 8:30 AM.

Good article. I am searching for Gurcharan Singh and Harinder Kaur (nursing profession) who have had no contact with me in the last ten years. I am told they are probably living in Verona ...

34: Jasvir Singh (Ludhiana, Punjab), March 15, 2010, 2:50 AM.

Yeh sun kar accha lagta hai jab dusri country me itne Sikh aur gurdware hain.

35: Raj (Canada), August 01, 2010, 10:56 PM.

They are doing good work. Keep it up.

36: I.K. (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), September 28, 2010, 9:01 AM.

Sikhs have the responsibility to protect the interests of all races and religions. Proud to be a Sikh!

37: Kulbeer Singh Badal (India), December 14, 2010, 4:41 AM.

Good work! One day I was in class and our teacher said to us: "See these Sikhs are living everywhere and standing up for their rights. They are even living in those places where Christians are in full majority!"

38: Shreesh  (India), March 03, 2011, 6:42 AM.

Live like a Sikh! This is the greatest achievement of the journey called life ...

39: Venu (India), October 02, 2011, 4:02 AM.

It's a good religion.

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