SMS, the SOS helpline for Indians

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The seeds for the Sankat Mochan Kendra were planted in the year 2000 when an unexpected tragedy befell a member of Melbourne’s Indian community. A young mother died shortly after giving birth to twins, leaving her husband to raise them alone.

“He didn’t know what to do with these children. At the time they also didn’t know what services were available,” says Sunila Shrivastava, one of the founders of the Kendra.

Mrs Shrivastava knew only too well the difficulties of living in a land far away from family to lend a hand. She first moved to Australia with her husband Arvind in 1973 when the White Australia policy was in place and local Indians were few and far between.

“When I came here I had too many changes in my life,” she says. “I had an arranged marriage, so I went to a new family. Then I came to Australia. It was a culture shock for me,” she says. An assistant professor in India with a PhD in physics, Mrs Shrivastava struggled to get used to the Australian way of life and find a job—on top of that, she became pregnant.

“At the time there were only very few people here from Indian families. But I was fortunate enough to find a few,” she says. “They were the ones who actually taught me how to live in Australia and how to get used to Aussie life,” she adds.

In 2000, when Mrs Shrivastava saw a fellow Indian in need of help, his arms full with two new babies, she didn’t hesitate to reach out. “We went there and we helped him out and then his mother also came from India,” she says. “From that particular incident we thought that there is a need for these type of social services,” she adds.

Mrs Shrivastava and her friends formed a support group that years later evolved into Sankat Mochan Samiti (SMS), a not-for-profit, spiritual and social welfare organisation. Its mission—to provide physical, spiritual and moral assistance to individuals, family and community in critical need. The spiritual side of SMS was Hindu, but the welfare side welcomed people of all faiths, as well as non-believers.

SMS burst into public life in August 2008 with a mass recitation of parts of the sacred Hindu religious text Ramayana in Melbourne. “We were very fortunate because my husband Arvind is a very good singer and musician, and he said that he could help us out with doing that particular recitation. So the first recitation was done in a very big way,” Mrs Shrivastava says. The event struck a chord with the community and SMS settling into a routine of holding three different recitations a year.

In 2011 SMS was faced with another aching tragedy that has since become a major focus of the organisation’s social welfare efforts. In that year, 11 Indian families were shattered by murder-suicides in Melbourne.

Having supported many families struggling with domestic violence, SMS took it upon themselves to help pick up the pieces of the community and bind them back together. Leaders from the major faiths, including Hindu, Muslim and Christian were invited to a mass prayer. “They did their prayers for the peace, for the victims. And they also discussed the problems of what is happening [in the community],” Mrs Shrivastava says. “I mean, 11 suicide murders in one year—there is a huge problem in the Indian community.”

The following year, SMS ran a domestic violence awareness and prevention program with In Touch, a Victorian domestic violence service. The group has now received a grant to run the same activities in the City of Greater Dandenong and is working with Relationships Victoria to help provide support for victims.

Mrs Shrivastava says raising awareness about the dangers of family violence is one of SMS’s most crucial goals. “Some people think that there is no problem, it is part of our life. But we say no, it’s not part of your life, you don’t have to suffer,” she says. SMS supported roughly 30 families suffering with domestic violence over the past two years. “People are even coming from parts that don’t have anywhere [people think they can go for help], like Canberra. Somehow or other they know about SMS committee and then they contact us and then we try to help them,” she says.

For all the years it has been quietly supporting Indians in Australia, SMS has been operating out of peoples’ homes. Mrs Shrivastava says the need for someplace else was obvious. “For six years we operated in what used to be known as the virtual SMS Kendra,” she jokes. “Most of the time the social welfare, and cultural and all other activities, people they don’t want to go to somebody’s home and do things like that. They want a separate, independent place. So this was our dream.”

Housed in a former warehouse on North Huntingdale road, south of Melbourne, the Sankat Mochan Kendra, the fruition of the Shrivastava’s dream, is finally ready to be inaugurated on 15 June. The 80-square-metre structure houses a temple to worship Shri Ram Darbar, Hanuman Ji, Durga Mata, Shiva Ling, GaneshJi and Navagraha, plus Shri Shirdi Sai Baba’s Murti and other idols to encourage visitors of different faiths. A separate office in the warehouse will be used for social services and SMS’s third function: educating and fostering understanding about different Indian cultures. The first meeting in the Kendra saw SMS committee members sitting on the floor—too excited to wait until the warehouse was properly refurbished and chairs had arrived.

Mr Shrivastava hopes the Kendra will become a hub not just for spirituality and social services, but ideas to help the community. “Let us see how people take it. We have a very dedicated following of a lot of people in that group [SMS, which currently has about 500 member families] and once we get this particular place formed, then once they start getting together I think that it will provide the stimulus and also the generation and regeneration of ideas, so that new things may evolve out of this.”

If the Kendra proves successful, Mr Shrivastava, who sits on Victoria Police’s multi-faith and cultural advisory committees, says there are plans to open more around Melbourne.

SMS’s driving purpose today echoes the Shrivastavas’ initial struggles finding their feet in Australia more than 40 years ago. “Back in India, or wherever your native place is, you have a very good infrastructure of your own family members, parents, brothers and sisters, and when you encounter things of challenge they are there to support you,” Mr Shrivastava said. “When people are in a new environment they don’t know how to cope with a situation. In stressful situations and things like that there is a lot of suffering that they go through, and the culmination of that can be quite disastrous. We’re trying to create a confidence within the Indian community, of the newly arrived, or who are already settled here, that they have got a family away from home here who are there to listen,” she says.

The new Kendra will be inaugurated on 15 June at: 1289 A, North Huntingdale road, (walking distance from Huntingdale railway station and Monash University Bus Stop). Hindu rituals will be performed from 9am to around 2pm. The temple will be open for devotees on Tuesday evenings, and on Sat and Sundays for pujas and meditational chanting.

Those seeking family support can contact: sankatmochansamiti@gmail.com

Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Australian Magazine)

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