526.The Man in Blue – Afghan Sikhs in Belgium

Last year we had a scare both in the Netherlands and Belgium when Afghan Sikh refugees were ordered to return to their country. There is now no more talk about returning to Afghanistan, but that does not mean that there are no more problems.

We have a growing Afghan Sikh community in Belgium and many of them live in the Antwerpen area. In the ‘ethnic minority’ neighbourhoods of Antwerpen you find more and more shops run by Afghan Sikhs.

But there are Afghan Sikhs who’s application for asylum have been rejected, who get no or little government support, and whose future is uncertain. I have studied a few of the files, and although I am not a lawyer I think that I understand what is ‘wrong’ with these families from the legal point of view.

Many Afghan refugees do not travel directly from Afghanistan to Europe, but often go via Pakistan, India or Russia. In India there is little risk of being sent back to Afghanistan, but the Afghan Sikhs usually do not get any kind of resident status.

Thus frustrated by the lack of progress in their case and their lack of opportunity to start a business or to get a real job, they decide to go to Europe, North America or even to Australia or New Zealand.

Many European countries use any excuse to reject refugee status applications, the refugees know that their case has been weakened by a stay in Pakistan, India or Russia and think to improve their chances by making up stories.

The authorities in charge of refugees do not have detailed knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan. The position of religious minorities (Christians, Hindus, Shia Muslims, Sikhs) and of women in that country is not improving.

The security situation is not good either, not even in the Kabul area. It is far from easy for Afghan Sikhs to go back to their traditional shops in the bazárs of Afghan cities like Kabul, Jalalabad, Gardez, Ghazni or Kandahar.

Many of the Sikhs in Kabul and in other Afghan cities live on the Gurdwara premises due to lack of housing, many rely on irregular handouts from various sources.

This is the situation: I think I understand why European governments refuse refugee status to some of the Afghan Sikhs. But I also understand that sending members of religious minorities back to Afghanistan is not an option.

Sending people to Pakistan, India or even Russia is not a valid option either. The Russians usually send the refugees straight back to where they came from, and in Pakistan and India most Afghan refugees will not get any secure status, and therefore will not be able to build a future for themselves and their children.

Please Belgian and other European governments, show compassion !

524.The Man in Blue – Turban problems in Belgium

Many have written and spoken about France and its laïcité policy and the resulting ban on the wearing of religious symbols in schools. Not many people seem to know that there are similar problems in Belgium.

The anti-discrimination laws in the UK are based on EU directives, but in Belgium the interpretation of these directives is ‘creative’. Here the excuse for discrimination is neutrality. To give an example: as part of a neutrality policy religious symbols are banned for all those who work for the city of Antwerp.

Of course the neutrality principle also applies in the UK: whether you work for a local council, a police force, a supermarket or whether you are a judge, those wearing a turban should not show any preference for people of their own tradition.

This is how creative Belgium works: a store employed a lady who wore a híjáb, and she was dismissed because of it. The lady took her employer to court and won her case. Since then store has adopted a neutrality policy which makes it legal to discriminate people who chose to wear religious signs.

Trying to explain that neutrality is in behaviour rather than in the presence of religious signs seems to be a waste of breath.

The situation in primary and secondary education is pathetic. The community schools in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium have adopted a neutrality policy and from 01/09/2013 new students are not allowed to wear hijábs, turbans or patkas.

Many of the Catholic schools have an anti head-cover policy, which was meant to stop pupils wearing hats or caps in schools. This is now also used to ban the wearing of híjáb, turban or patka. Although these religious symbols also ‘cover the head’ they clearly do not belong to the same category as caps and hats.

Although both in the community schools and in the Catholic schools we have found good people who are against discrimination of people who wear religious symbols, they are powerless to stop the widespread islamophobia/xenophobia that seems to be at the root of the problem.

We have been campaigning together with other groups asking schools to allow people to wear their religious symbols under the condition that all students fully take part in the school curriculum.

Many of the Moroccan and Turkish Muslims in Belgium are villagers like many of the Sikhs that live here. They are natural conservatives who do not like their girls to go swimming or take part in school excursions. This is less of a problem amongst the Sikhs, but some Sikh girls in secondary schools also opt out of the swimming lessons.

There is one little light shining in our darkness: those that want to wear a turban or a patka on their ID cards or passports can do so if they produce a letter from their Gurdwara stating that they are part of the Sikh community.

The Man in Blue – ‘Sikhí Works’ YouTube Video

I am Harjinder Singh, also known as ‘The Man in Blue’.

I am a Sikh, I am from the Netherlands, my biological age is 65 and I became an amritdhari Sikh on 14 July 1996.

I am a ‘white’ Sikh but I do not follow the yogi. I have been to many all-night kirtans but I am not with AKJ. I took amrit in Mehta Chowk in the Damdami Taksal Gurdwara, but I am not a Taksali.

The Guru instructed us before he passed away to follow Guru Granth and Guru Panth. I have been trying to practice this in my daily life since 1996.

I am not a saint, I am only human and make mistakes.

The YouTube video to which you find a link below is called ‘Sikhí works’. The meaning is simple : Those who follow the way of life as described by the Guru Granth Sahib will, as Guru promises, overcome ‘dukh’ (pain) and find ‘sukh’ (peace).

The interview was recorded in the Sangat TV studio in Southall and Pritpal Singh (‘The Dutch Sikh’ YouTube Channel) interviewed me.