By Brendan Rees
A group of Casey Sikh volunteers – who served thousands of free meals to bush fire affected communities – say they are grateful for the “tremendous love” they received.
Undeterred by the raging fires and smoke, the volunteers of Sikh Volunteers Australia – a not-for-profit organisation based in Devon Meadows – drove more than 700 kilometres to a relief centre set up at the Bairnsdale football oval on 30 December.
They arrived at 1.30am and began handing out hot vegetarian meals and unloading their van packed with extra food supplies.
For the next 16 days the volunteers prepared breakfast at 4.30am and ‘lunch’ at 8am, serving up to 1000 people a day who had been forced to live in temporary shelters.
Sikh Volunteers Australia vice-president Manpreet Singh said they saw it as their duty to help other Australians and follow the Sikh principles which had taught them to recognise the whole human race as one and deep respect for people.
He said they received the call for help after being contacted by the Bairnsdale neighbourhood Centre – which also assisted with accommodation and extra cooking facilities.
“We slept in the cars and decided to stay there,” Mr Singh said.
“Every day we were cooking 50 kilograms of rice … even the lunch we were serving the 800 to 900 people.
“People started to like the food and more people were coming to the relief centre.”
Mr Singh said he saw emotional scenes during his 16-day visit. He recalled a time when a woman aged about 25 “did not say anything; just hugged the volunteers and started to cry.”
Premier Daniel Andrews visited the group where he shook hands and thanked each volunteer.
Mr Andrews tweeted: “There’s a saying that in a crisis, we should look for the helpers.”
“These legends from Sikh Volunteers Australia drove up to Bairnsdale from Melbourne on Monday – and they’ve been serving free, hot meals ever since.”
“People helping people. That’s what Victoria is all about,” he said.
The volunteers have since arrived back to Casey and have paid tribute to the people of Bairnsdale on the Sikh Volunteers Australia group Facebook page.
“During these last 16 days it feels like we have made an unbreakable bond, an unexplainable connection with the people of East Gippsland and the place feels like home,” the post said.
“We had received tremendous love, affections, gratitude and appreciation from all over the world and specially from local people of Bairnsdale,” it read.
On Saturday 18 January, the Bruthen community has invited the Sikh volunteers for a barbeque to say thanks.
The food van usually provides freshly cooked vegetarian food to the people facing tough times in the City of Casey two nights a week.