British Columbia

Sikh and Hindu adherents take refuge in Kabul gurdwara as Taliban takeover creates uncertainty

The World Sikh Organization is appealing to the Canadian government to create a special program to bring Sikh and Hindu refugees over from Afghanistan quickly, as concern mounts for their safety.

World Sikh Organization pushes to get Sikh and Hindu people out of Afghanistan as soon as possible

Afghan people desperate to leave climb onto a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport in Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

Sikhs and Hindu people in Afghanistan have taken refuge in a gurdwara in Kabul, out of concern for their safety now that the Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan's capital city. 

Guntaas Kaur, a lawyer and vice president of the B.C. chapter of the World Sikh Organization, says Taliban representatives met with the group in the gurdwara and told them they could stay in Afghanistan. However, they were told they must remain on the gurdwara premises.

At the same meeting, Taliban members confiscated weapons and other items it considered "suspicious."

"They're facing uncertainty in an unpredictable country at the moment, given what we don't know about how the Taliban plan to rule going forward ... they are fearing for their lives," Kaur told CBC's Gloria Macarenko.

Kaur estimates about 270 Sikh and 50 Hindu adherents are currently awaiting assistance in the gurdwara.

The Hindu presence in Afghanistan dates back thousands of years. Sikhs also have a long history in Afghanistan dating back to the 1500s. At their height, Kaur said there were about 250,000 Sikhs in the country. Now, she said there are 300.

"Under Taliban rule … [Sikhs] were required to identify themselves when outside the home, their homes were identified by yellow flags, which was a mark of an infidel or a non-believer," Kaur said.

Taliban fighters display their flag as they patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press)

"Women were required to wear burqas when outside the home or niqab, and many didn't leave the home, married young, didn't attend the schools in any kind of formal capacity."

"They were either threatened with forcible conversion and told to convert, otherwise, their lives are at stake, so a life of fear if nothing else."

As recently as last year, Sikh and Hindu practitioners in Afghanistan were the target of attacks within their gurdwaras during worship services.

'Be ready to die'

Shamsher Singh came to Canada as a refugee in 2019. He said living as a Sikh in Afghanistan under Taliban rule is extremely difficult.

"Children weren't allowed to go to school. Women were forced to wear a burqa. Our parents and elders, they had to wear a yellow square on their pockets to tell people not to talk to them," he told CBC in Punjabi.

"Some people, they would throw tomatoes at us and we would try and defend ourselves. They would say 'you're infidels.' If we wanted to sell our ancestral land, they would say 'this is an Islamic country, you have no rights here.' Taliban asked us to pay them religion tax. It was the same Taliban that is taking over now. They told us either you convert to Islam or be ready to die."

Because of those conditions, he left the country. 

Appeal to federal government

The World Sikh Organization is working to help Sikh and Hindu people flee the country.

Kaur said they've been appealing to the Canadian government to create a special program to bring these refugees over quickly, similar to a program used to help Syrian refugees.

Guntaas Kaur is a lawyer and the vice president of the B.C. chapter of the World Sikh Organization. (Submitted by Guntaas Kaur)

Part of the reason people have taken shelter in the gurdwara, Kaur said, is it's relatively close to the airport and makes for an easier escape in the event a plane can take them out of Afghanistan. 

WATCH | Afghans desperate to escape the country after the Taliban takeover are crowding around the airport in Kabul:

Afghans descend on Canadian embassy, seeking to escape Taliban rule

9 months ago
Duration 4:39
Afghans desperate to escape the country after the Taliban takeover are crowding around the airport in Kabul. They're also arriving at the Canadian embassy, begging for safe passage after hearing that Canada plans to help resettle 20,000 Afghans.

Kaur said she hopes the government can move quickly. 

"[Canada] represents not just hope and a sense of safety, but a sense of the ability to prosper as families and as a people but also as contributing members of a society." 

"They want to see a future somewhere, and I think Canada is the place that they see it."

LISTEN | A refugee and an advocate explain the impact of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan on Sikh and Hindu practioners:

Guntaas Kaur speaks with Gloria Macarenko about families at-risk in the renewed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

With files from The Early Edition

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