Active Citizenship Award for a man who sees beyond himself

By Indira Laisram
Gurjinder Singh

Gurjinder Singh’s ambitions seem quite modest. He came to Adelaide in 2009 and all he wanted to do was work hard and lead a comfortable life. By his own telling, the initial days in Australia for him and his wife were full of hardships and, later, when the opportunity came, he found himself helping those in similar predicament. Last week when Gurjinder got a call from the Lord Mayor’s office, he wondered if anyone had complained about him, he says with a laugh. Turns out, he was just about to be handed a prestigious award for his service to the community.

On 18 January at a special function at the Government House in Adelaide, Gurjinder was one of the recipients of the Australia Day Award for Active Citizenship. Although a memorable event in his life, he recalls how nervous he was amid a 200-odd ‘well-dressed’ crowd and having to give a small speech prepared by his ten-year old son, who was more excited than him. “My English is not very good,” he admits humbly.

Gurjinder was recognised for his outstanding work during the coronavirus. Like all good citizens, his response to the virus, when it broke out early last year, was to help young students and those without jobs. Fortunately for him, he had the wherewithal. His restaurant Chahat, which closed dining by end February-March following government regulations, was put to good use by him and his staff cooking meals for those badly hit by the pandemic.

He put up a small notice outside his restaurant and on Facebook stating his doors were opened till 11 pm for anyone to come and collect food for free. He began by cooking 100 meals a day but within few days, he was doing 150 and then it went on to 300-plus meals.

“It got a bit difficult for me because preparing 300 meals everyday is not a small task in terms of both resources and labour,” says Gurjinder.

But by then Gurjinder had managed to inspire many members of the local and Indian community who started coming forward to lend a help in his endeavour. “People were donating grocery items including rice, lentils, noodles, etc. The community got fully involved. My staff and I got down to cooking,” he says.

On top of that, the Sikh Support Australia, an organisation based in Melbourne, joined Gurjinder in his coronavirus relief work. “Its representative Daljeet Singh and his volunteers came to support us fully with packing and delivering food and grocery supplies to all the emergency services and others. We had a full team, and a very good one at that,” he says.

For more than three months, Gurjinder managed to address real material needs of people in need of help. “We made packets of grocery supplies with one week’s supply and told people they could either collect or have them delivered depending on the situation. The idea was to ensure nobody slept hungry,” he reflects.

Interestingly, when a few repatriation flights arrived from India in Adelaide, Gurjinder and the Sikh Support Australia vounteers also delivered lunch boxes to those quarantined. “Some people said they are in five-star hotel and they don’t need food, but you have children and the elderly for whom one community meal would have helped a lot.”

Gurjinder did not discover this sense of connection with people and charity work during the pandemic. The 42-year-old restaurateur had always had an inclination towards philanthropy from the time he started his business in 2013. “I would put tea outside the restaurant during the winters and cold lassi during the summer season for any passer-by to enjoy. It was mostly the taxi drivers who derived utmost pleasure out of it,” he says, adding, “When COVID-19 broke out, obviously we couldn’t leave these things outside.”

Originally from Gurdaspur, Punjab, Gurjinder was a diesel mechanic and a part-time farmer when he decided to come to Australia with his wife who had enrolled to study hospitality here leaving behind their one-year-old son. He would join them a year later. “We went through really hard times like everyone else at the beginning.”

It was only for a while that they saw the struggle when a serious spinal work injury made Gurjinder bedridden for a few months. “When you are new, you work many hours, it was a tough job. Doctors put me under permanent disability and for someone who has worked all my life, I felt very sad, I didn’t like the idea of going to Centrelink.”

However, Gurjinder says he never got depressed, instead focussed on finding a solution to the problems and became more expansive about the power of fighting back. Once he started slowly getting back on his feet, albeit slowly, a friend suggested that he start a tiffin business catering to students.

He liked the idea so with the help of his wife, who was at the same time working elsewhere, he started the business. He went on to acquire certification in food safety rules and other regulations and when the business progressed, he was advised to take up a shop which he did and started Chahat Indian Restaurant at West Richmond in 2013. There has been no looking back since.

If anything, Gurjinder is a witness to his lived experience of struggle and, therefore, working hard is second nature. “If you’ve seen hardship, you take a lesson from that and you try and help others as much as you can. That’s in my being.”

Indeed, the Australia Day Award for Active Citizenship is the most felicitous way to acknowledge Gurjinder’s selfless work.

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