Three large burners are on the floor, men squatting next to them drop handfuls of chopped vegetables bound by a chickpea flour batter into sizzling pots of oil, while a row of women slap and roll balls of naan dough to be fried on a barbeque.
These are the members of the Albury-Wodonga Sikh Sangat, or congregation, at their Gurdwara (place of worship). They’re preparing Langar – a free meal to worshippers and anyone else who stops by.
During the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, the food production went into overdrive, with the Sangat cooking up to 200 meals a day to give to local charities.
This Sangat began with a handful of families 15 years ago. One of its original members, Supreet Arora, who migrated from India in 2007, says it’s now bursting at the seams.
“In 2011-12 the government opened visas for students to come to this area to get their permanent residency, so they have to live here for three years, so many people came and then the community just blasted I would say, just blasted,” she said.
An estimated 1,500 Sikhs live in the vicinity of the Albury-Wodonga Gurdwara. The religion is still considered a minority faith in Australia, but since 2011 has been the fastest-growing, predominantly due to migration.
People arriving from overseas on skilled work regional visas are required to stay in regional Australia for several years and are then free to move to a capital city.
But the president of the Albury Wodonga Sikh Organisation, Gurminder Singh, says once people experience life in the border region, many choose to stay.
“If you live here for several years I don’t think someone would make a plan to go back somewhere because after that we consider we are a local, ” Mr Singh said.
Members of the Sikh community serving Langar at the Albury Gurdwara. Source: SBS/Abby Dinham
He’s lived in Albury since migrating from India in 2007. Back then, he says there were four or five Sikh families, but long beards and turbans were still a novelty in the twin cities.
“When we go to the shopping centre, they look at us like ‘who are these guys?’ During that time, we were passing through the street, some young bloke a bit drunk he come to me, says: ‘Hi [Osama bin] Laden, how are you?’”
Now he says the wider community has a much greater understanding.
How a Sikh community grew in this Australian region and set about helping others
The burgeoning number of Sikhs along the Victorian-New South Wales border is also placing the region on the migration map.
Ms Arora says in the past those applying for a visa from India would only know the names of capital cities, now she says Albury-Wodonga is a place they recognise.
“Before that people just knew about big cities, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, but now [Albury-Wodonga] is on Indian community radar, this is a name they recognise.”
But as this Gurdwara welcomes more members, they’ve fast outgrown the space they’ve been renting for a temple for the past eight years, which during COVID-19 required the Sangat to worship in shifts.
Secretary of the Albury Wodonga Sikh Organisation, Gurpreet Singh, says often during COVID-19 restrictions they were forced to ask worshippers to move along to make way for others.
“These are the constraints we have to follow because we don’t have a big hall, everyone is understanding,” Mr Singh says.
The Sangat is now planning to establish a new permanent community-owned Gurdwara on the border region, large enough to ensure no one is ever turned away.
The Albury Wodonga Sikh Organisation raised enough money to purchase a block of land in neighbouring Thurgoona – now it needs the finances to build it.
Gurpreet Singh says the pandemic has delayed fundraising and building efforts.
“I’m very much confident if this COVID thing hadn’t happened we would already have the funds to build the whole construction.”
The current rental property can accommodate around 80 members of the local Sikh community but it’s hoped the new facility will accommodate up to 400, and importantly establish a new spiritual home for Sikhs in regional Australia.
Shabnampreet Kaur moved to Albury from Melbourne three years ago. She says having a permanent temple would be a big step.
“It’s really a big milestone for our Sikh community because most Sikh temples are in bigger cities like Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra – we didn’t have established temple here.”
The new temple is specially designed to aid in the continuation of the charity work that thrust the Sikh community into the spotlight during the Black Summer bushfires.
Sikh volunteers were involved in the bushfire clean up, cooked meals for relief organisations and firefighters.
Gurminder Singh says as soon as the emergencies happened, the Sikh community sprang into action.
“We started cooking food every day, we cooked around 150-200 meals, we start distributing to local charities.”
Gurpreet Singh says it’s hoped that with a larger facility they can do even more.
He says the charitable efforts of Sikhs during state and national emergencies has helped forge better relations and greater understanding between the community and wider Australia.
“COVID and the bushfires I call an icebreaker between both the communities because before everyone was busy with their own thing it has helped us intermingle with them and share our thoughts.”
The new Gurdwara is designed to further intercultural understanding, with plans for a massive increase in the Sangat’s charity work.
The new building will have an industrial-sized kitchen to provide more meals for the hungry, it will have bedrooms to provide shelter to those in need and large halls to accommodate emergency services in future disasters.
Gurminder Singh says the plan aligns with the simple principle of the Sikh religion.
“Whatever you can do for a human for humanity, do. We do a lot of things for ourselves, if we can do something for the community there is nothing better than that.”
They’re hoping to raise the money to start building works in early 2022 and make a permanent home in the community they live to serve.