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Shaken Maritime Sikh community helps settle international students

·4 min read
Dr. Simardeep Hundal leads the Maritime Sikh Society, as well as owning and operating four dental clinics in Nova Scotia.  (Simardeep Hundal - image credit)
Dr. Simardeep Hundal leads the Maritime Sikh Society, as well as owning and operating four dental clinics in Nova Scotia. (Simardeep Hundal - image credit)

After the shocking death of one of its young members two weeks ago, a shaken Maritime Sikh community is helping international students settle into life in Canada.

Dr. Simardeep Hundal, a leader in the community, said the recent homicide of Prabhjot Singh Katri in Truro, N.S., has increased the already high stress levels the young newcomers face, so others are rallying to ease their burden.

"It has affected the whole society," she said. "Not just the Sikh community, but lots of Canadians. A lot of people are very supportive, very nice and they came out.

"I think there are more good people, more positive people in the world, but most of the time they decide to stay quiet."

Hundal is a dentist.

She owns and operates four TranscenDental clinics in Dartmouth, Bridgewater and Musquodoboit Harbour. She also leads the Maritime Sikh Society and posted a request for help on social media.

"People want to help," she said. "What we are planning is to get some individuals who want to help. At least they can talk to the students, the new immigrants, give them some guidance, reassurance, point them in the right direction."

Sikhs began arriving in the Maritimes in the 1960s, she said, and slowly grew to about 200 families when she arrived in 2009. An influx of international students has greatly increased the number of Sikhs in the Maritimes.

"It has grown exponentially in the last three or four years. It's much more visible now," she said. "We are happy that it is growing, but there are also challenges with significant growth."

Gareth Hampshire/CBC
Gareth Hampshire/CBC

She said many of the students left Punjab, India in search of a better life in Canada. Far from family and friends, many live with an awful loneliness and struggle to get a foothold in their new home.

"There are a lot of challenges. Right now, if you want me to point out one single challenge, it's accommodation," she said.

She routinely hears from students who can't find a place to live, or who are sharing cramped quarters with several other students. Finding work can also be a challenge and students soon realize how much more things cost in Canada compared to India.

"I've seen quite a few cases where students are suffering from really severe depression and anxiety, stress," she said.

'I'm proud to say this is my homeland now'

Kamalpreet Kaur
Kamalpreet Kaur

Kamy Kaur moved to Nova Scotia in 2017. She said she searched online and found a lot of positive things about studying and living in Nova Scotia, which she soon started calling "my wonderful Nova Scotia."

"I am proud to say that this is my homeland now," she said. "It was challenging, with expected and unexpected situations in the beginning."

She first moved to Cape Breton to study public health. She landed on a late flight to Sydney and made her way to the university accommodation she had booked before departing.

She got to campus around 2 a.m., exhausted from 35 hours of travel and ready to crash — but she was told she had to go find a hotel until she was assigned a room.

"Accommodation is a huge problem for students," she said.

But she overcame those hard early days and with the support of friends and staff at the college is settling into her life in Nova Scotia. She moved to Halifax two years ago.

"My four years' journey in Nova Scotia made me fit enough for facing rough times, since I dealt with homesickness, accommodation issues, job insecurity, a new environment with new rules for me, companionship issues," she said.

Celebrating 'good human values'

Hundal said that's what the Maritime Sikh Society hopes to do for this year's group of international students. Many of the young people were deeply disturbed by Katri's death and feel vulnerable, she said.

Some fear it was a hate crime. Police are investigating it as a homicide, but have said little about the crime.

Simardeep Hundal
Simardeep Hundal

"If you ask me, I'm holding my breath to hear that," she said. "We are human, so bias is part of being human. We are all biased in one way or another. I consider racism is the worst kind of bias: you are being biased against somebody just based on appearance."

She understands better than most the agony Katri's family is enduring.

In 2013, her only son, Angad Hundal, died in a road accident. He was 18.

It utterly changed her life and led her to start a charity in his name. They will hand out this year's scholarships on Wednesday — her son's birthday.

They select students who have "good human values," she said, not just strong academic performance.

Her own tragedy also led her to deepen her artist side and help others live with grief.

"We can all learn to live together by respecting each other, by enjoying the differences and respecting the differences. It has stirred a lot of thinking, a lot of emotion in my mind. I feel like I should be doing more in creating a bridge," she said.

"I'm passionate about doing whatever I do. I think we should do the right thing in every aspect."

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