Celebrating International Women's Week
Jasvir Kaur: A Life Well Lived
<small>Interview conducted by Gurmeet Kaur</small>
<small>Interview conducted by Gurmeet Kaur</small>
<!-- <small>March 11th, 2010</small>-->She is not a woman of complicated words, just simple actions.
I came across Jasvir Kaur towards the end of 2004, on a trip to Chicago where I was invited to speak at the IFCAPS (Institute for Conflict and Peace Studies) Conference - on the topic of Sikh women and their place in society today.
I had never spoken on a Sikh topic before and was a panthic newbie. There are not very many Sikh women who were then into research and public speaking. The few that were, were unavailable. Somebody pointed to me and my obvious reaction was - "I have never done this before".
My eleven year old challenged me: "You make me stand and speak at the gurdwara. It's your turn. You help me with my speeches; surely you must know something about Sikhi! "
I put in several hours of research, wrote my first paper on Sikhi and there I was, with my little helper to run the slide show.
When I was received by the conference hosts - amritdhari, dastaar-wearing bibis whose panthic resumes were longer than my paper, I was apprehensive to say the least ... I, who couldn't even recite the Japji without making mistakes.
I was wrong. Their gracious acceptance won me over: no judgments whatsoever. We all learned from each other, shared our journeys and passion for the panth. Laughed together, confronted the men who questioned equality and rued over the state of affairs ... sipping cha ... bonding ... till dawn.
When I left Chicago, I knew that our paths would cross again. But had no idea how soon!
As I got back, South-East Asia was devastated by the biggest tragedy of the century, the tsunami.
"United Sikhs" had smelled my "I'll-do-it" attitude and before I knew it, I was helping coordinate their first humanitarian mission. In recruiting volunteers, my Chicago connections came in handy and Jasvir, along with other Chicago friends, were en route to Mission Thailand.
Five years later....
Jasvir has recently come back from a two week stint in Haiti.
Even in the fewest of words, her stories always move me, as have her purity, consistency and willingness to serve.
Life for a disaster relief volunteer in the field is tough; especially for a woman. But she had always been ready to do what was asked of her. Never complaining of lacking creature comforts or about the chaos and anarchy that surrounds you. Always thankful with ‘shukkar' for the opportunity to serve and for the life lessons learnt.
It feels as if she goes to the disaster zones to feed her longing ... she readily admits that. She does not claim it to be her seva. She refers to it as a symbiotic phenomenon whereby she receives as much, if not more.
I felt strongly that I needed to share this hidden gem with our readers.
I had some cajoling to do, since Jasvir's idea is to do it quietly. I convinced her that, if speaking about her inspires others (especially Sikh women) to break out their shells and gives them a sense of confidence, it is worth it.
Besides, we all have something to learn from her humility.
This International Woman's week, I am honored to bring you Jasvir Kaur Singh ... in her own words.
Jasvir, what can you tell us about yourself?
I am a pharmacist. I moved to Chicago from Punjab in 1980 in my elementary school years. My free time is spent doing yoga, listening to music (Punjabi folk, classical Indian, Sufi, R & B, etc.). I also love biking, hiking, running and spoiling my nieces.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
A helpful, genuine and dedicated GurSikh.
Why does the seva concept of Sikhi appeal to you the most? It is a positive way to impact your own life as well as the life of others. Because humans are co-dependent on one another, it forms a brother/ sisterhood despite man-made biases and boundaries.
How did you get involved with volunteerism in the field of humanitarian aid?
After graduating from pharmacy school, I felt fortunate to be educated and thankful to the Guru for blessing me with Sikhi. I felt it was my duty to now empower others that may not have the same opportunities as I have had. I went to India for a year to volunteer.
A lesson I learnt was that to blindly give my donations to an organization is irresponsible. I was able to see first hand where the sangat's money was going and it wasn't to the orphan children, widowed mothers and the poor, as promised in speeches at gurdwara fundraisers.
From then on, I made a promise to myself that along with giving monetary donations (daswandh), I would also give my time in helping others. So, the journey began.
What are your personal ruminations from these trips?
The tsunami experience was interesting; I learned that people have different definitions of seva. It is difficult to find people who give selflessly without want of fame and glory.
My most recent trip to Haiti taught me how little I appreciate my life and good fortune. This impoverished nation with a country of now homeless people taught me that genuine happiness and wealth lies in strong faith in God and simplicity in life.
Although the Haitian patients lie in the hospital beds with no home to go after being released, mothers with their children would throw their hands up and sing praises of God for being alive. I saw no anger or resentment, just praises and acceptance of God's Will. Even though their day to day needs were not met, they stood resilient.
The respect we were given when we went to a poor village by the pastor of the community is unforgettable.
What areas were you able to contribute in?
The medical field - helping doctors cleaning wounds and applying medication. Also helped organize and set up pharmacies with the medicinal donations sent from around the world.
What are the Haitians in most need of in the short term and long term? What can Sikhs provide?
They still need the basics - food, water, medical help. Long term, they need housing, health and hygiene, medical care, but most of all, education.
The Sikh community can provide both short and long term needs. We are doing an excellent job with langar seva and in the medical field already. I believe long term is imperative for them to rise above their impoverished state of being that was there even before the quake hit.
What would you ideally like to see in Haiti or other disaster sites we go to - that can become a model for Sikh Disaster Relief Projects without being ad-hoc each time?
I recommend and wish that we adopt a village after the short term help at any place. We build a base station - a gurdwara, perhaps. This way Sikhs can continue sending volunteers for a long time to come and be partners with the locals in their overall development.
I learnt that we are talking about participating in building a hospital.
I think we have more to offer than just the medical community. We have teachers, engineers, IT personnel, athletes, etc. Doctors and medical personal are not the only ones that could and should participate as would be the case if we take on the hospital project.
Every seva is important and every sevadaar makes a difference. There are so many young and eager Haitians yearning for knowledge that has not been provided to them by their government. I met many that wanted me to teach them about medicine and pharmacy but unfortunately during the time of the disaster, I had to help the doctors and turn them down.
We have limited funds, we should use them wisely.
Have the Sikhs evolved in their humanitarian efforts ?
Sikhs have digressed, if we compare our times to that of Guru Sahib's missions and support of Bhai Ghanayia's passion for unbiased, selfless seva. However, we are starting to reconnect with our Guru because I see the numbers of volunteers increasing if I compare the tsunami period with the Haiti quake. I saw people of all ages, professions and backgrounds wanting to go beyond serving the Sikh community.
Did you pay for your trip? How did you manage the finances and time off from work.
'United Sikhs' paid for my trip. I had to use my personal time off (vacation time) to go and after much negotiation with my company they gave me a couple of unpaid days off.
What are the strengths of UNITED SIKHS' relief efforts ?
They embrace volunteers from so many places, age groups, etc. It is difficult to go to a disaster zone to volunteer without an organization because the well known humanitarian organizations are given preference in terms of facilities, access, etc. The 'United Sikhs'has made it's name and place and has given ordinary Sikhs, like myself, the opportunity and support to be at the forefront and take active part during times of disaster.
Where do you think they can improve?
Since the number of volunteers are growing, they should take the next steps to organize and provide better training so we are able to handle situations that may be chaotic during the times of disaster.
As a single woman - what were the challenges and rewards in each of the stints?
I don't let my personal situation control my passion and drive to do seva in disaster times.
Moments of epiphany that will accompany you lifelong?
The people of Haiti are simple and unforgettable souls. I'll remember them breaking out and singing songs of praise while in the hospital. The singing froze me and moved me to tears. I realized I do not have an unwavering faith in my Guru.
Their resilience and their faith has made an everlasting impression on my soul.
What inspires you towards Sikhi? Any challenges along the way?
By reading and understanding the Shabad Guru, I am inspired to not remain stagnant and to introspect each day. 'Banday khoj dil har roj". There are no challenges, just lessons to be learned through all life situations. The only challenge is to take the step towards the Guru.
What is your message to Sikhs out there?
No matter who you are or what you do, empower yourself physically through eating well and working out; mentally by educating yourself and facing the world head on; and spiritually through the Shabad Guru.
Jasvir, thank you for talking to us despite your reservations. I am sure you will inspire many hearts. One last question, if I may: I know you are looking for that special person in your life ... What kind of a person will be lucky to have you as your partner?
A compassionate, open-minded, respectful, spiritually uplifting person. One who stands up for what he believes in. It will be my good fortune to share this life's journey with such a man.
March 11, 2010
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