London, UK: It is lunchtime at the Karamsar Gurdwara, where worshippers are tucking into the free food. But Sikhs are not the only ones enjoying meals. Religious leaders report that an increasing number of non-believers are visiting their place of worship to eat, treating them as food banks, while the effects of austerity and economic slump bite.
The Sikh Federation UK estimates that around 5,000 meals are now served to non-Sikhs by Britain’s 250 gurdwaras each week. They say the meals (langar) have been a lifeline for homeless people and overseas students swamped in debt.
Harmander Singh, who worships at the Karamsar Gurdwara in east London and is a spokesman for the Sikhs In England think tank, said: “More people are coming in frequently. Some are working in low-paid jobs, cannot afford lunch and come here to subsidise living costs.”
He said Sikhs welcomed anyone into the gurdwara as long as they were not drunk, removed their shoes and covered their head, adding that, “It’s not a free buffet, it’s a way of serving the community.” In the Karamsar Gurdwara’s dining area, most people sit on the floor while eating. The food is made round the clock by volunteers and funded by donations. In Sikhism, only vegetarian food is served in the gurdwara, so the cuisine includes dal (lentils), roti, vegetables, curd and sweets.
Foodbanks fed nearly 3.47 lakh people in the UK last year, according to the Trussell Trust. Gurdwaras cannot help that many people, but the service is welcomed.
Among the 6,000 visitors a week lunching at the Karamsar Gurdwara was a group of overseas medical students.
One student from China, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “My friend brought me here. I found it very welcoming and peaceful. People were very friendly. They are taking care of me. I like the variety of the food. I haven’t seen this before I came to England. People seem to be very nice.”
Another student from India, a Catholic, said: “For the past 10 days, we have come here regularly. They have a welcoming attitude. People don’t discriminate. I was surprised to see a mini Punjab here. The food is like home-cooked.”
Amrick Singh Ubhi of the Nishkam Centre in Birmingham and vice-chair of the Council of Sikh Gurdwaras, explained how their local community group did outreach work for people worried about visiting a place of worship.
“The Birmingham Community Support Network has been set up to deal with the increase in demand, especially as a result of the welfare reforms. We have to realise that while we see our respective places of worship as a sanctuary, not all people will. We see that people of other faiths or none do mix, but there is always that apprehension of ‘the other’ and until we break down those barriers and start working together, that will remain so,” Ubhi said.