Two Sikh teenage girls who were born and raised in Afghanistan are enjoying freedoms in Canada that most Canadians their age take for granted — and as a Taliban crackdown on women’s rights continues to restrict opportunities for those still in that country.
“I can go outside, I can talk with my friends and meet them somewhere, I can go to school,” 13-year-old Chandar Kaur Khalsa told Global News.
The Grade 8 student from Afghanistan’s Helmand province moved to B.C. in 2019 with her brothers and parents. She said she wants to become a chef and loves to go shopping, noting how it’s a very different experience in Afghanistan, where she could hardly leave her home.
“My father and my brother, they would go outside and call us and show us what we can buy and we say to them what we want to buy,” she said.
For 15-year-old Chaspal Kaur Khalsa, who was also born in Helmand, being able to experience such freedoms is a more recent shift. She came to Canada in the spring of 2022. The Grade 10 student lives in B.C., works at a local restaurant, and hopes to become a nurse.
“My mother tells me, ‘You are very lucky you live in Canada,’ and, ‘You have a very bright future in Canada,'” she said.
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Sikhs in Afghanistan have faced decades of oppression, with the majority fleeing the country seeking religious freedom.
Hamreet Bains, a B.C. resident, travelled to India in 2015 and spent months helping Sikh families, including the Khalsas, who had fled Afghanistan and became refugees awaiting resettlement to Canada.
“We have letters the Taliban sent them to either convert to Islam or accept death,” Bains said of the oppression facing Sikhs in Afghanistan.
Picking up families at the airport, bringing them to the United Nations office to register as refugees, trying to find temporary housing and education are all things that need to be done to help those trying to resettle — along with finding healthcare.
“All the kids were malnourished, and each family’s needs were different,” Bains said.
Bains sprung into this service after being inspired by former Alberta Cabinet Minister Manmeet Bhullar.
“I was only a small part of something so big,” Bains said.
In 2015, Bhullar learned the plight of persecuted Hindu and Sikh families in Afghanistan, who had tried for years to come to Canada. Bhullar worked tirelessly to help them through his passion for selfless service, a pillar of his Sikh faith called seva.
“He treated them like family and said, ‘If I have to give everything I have for these families, I will. We have to try everything,'” Bains said.
But Bhullar would never see the impact of his efforts. Just six months after starting the work in 2015, he died in a vehicle collision, while he was trying to help a driver in distress.
“Seva, or selfless service, was his passion and he lived by that,” Bains said.
She said that just a few days after losing his son, Bhullar’s father continued the work in his name. A short time later, the family helped establish a foundation in his name.
Since then, the group has worked with several partners, including the Canadian government, to help resettle 220 Afghans in Canada, according to Manmeet’s sister, Tarjinder Kaur Bhullar.
“It’s a foundation I wish we never had to start,” she said.
She said the Manmeet Singh Bhullar Foundation is now helping another 270 people be sponsored through a government-assisted program as it prepares to resettle a third group of about 300 Afghans in need.
“I think one of the most eye-opening pieces of this is the privilege that every single one of us has being Canadian,” Bhullar said, adding after the sudden death of her brother, another lesson became clear.
“We are all one life event away from a totally different life. Privilege is a powerful thing, it’s also a fleeting thing. You have it today, you may not have it tomorrow. I always remind myself, that once we had it all,” she said.
Bhullar said that her brother would always encourage those he helped to pay it forward and that she hopes in the case of the hundreds of Afghans being supported in his memory, they will carry on the acts of seva.
“It’s the next generation of people that hopefully will see they have a life here in Canada because someone halfway around the world started to think, how can we help them?”
Chandar and Chaspal both said they want to find a way to help other young girls.
“My message for other girls: if you want anything, then you can do anything,” Chaspal said.