Sikh the Fair Land: Faiths o’ the Irish

Sixteen graduate students from Columbia University’s School of Journalism traveled to Ireland and found a country of many cultures and religions.

The Indian Christians in Galway

By Betwa Sharma and Zachary Goelman

The ground floor entrance of the Westwood House Hotel entices passers-by with rock music and drink specials. It is a popular haunt in Galway and people mill around the bar on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. But upstairs a different scene is unfolding.

A spiral staircase leads to a dark landing with a heavy door. The rock music from the floor below grows faint, soon getting drowned on the other side of the door by people singing about Jesus Christ. “Hallelujah, hallelujah, praise the lord,” they shout.

This is a congregation of Indian Christians from Kerala, a state in South India. They gather at the hotel every Sunday and pray in Malayalam, their regional language. Congregation members estimate that there are some 300 to 400 Indian Christians in Galway, and the number has been rising steadily these past few years. They come to Ireland to study, work and make a better life. Children of these immigrants learn Malayalam at home and Gaelic at school.

While a constellation of Irish churches of various Christian denominations exists in Galway, the Malayalam-speaking Indians prefer to pray together. Many of them don’t find the native Irish religious enough.

The Indian congregation is a Pentecostal service but welcomes Christians of all denominations.

Light bounces off the red carpets and walls giving the room where the faithful gather a robust glow. The prayer leader is a man named Shinil Matthew, 34. He is not a priest or a minister, but a lay leader.

A tall man, Matthew wears a checked shirt that stretches across his broad shoulders. His prominent nose and thick eyebrows give him an air of authority.

He stands facing the congregation and sets a vigorous pace for the two-hour service, singing aloud and keeping time by clapping and swaying from side to side. His eyes are closed and face wrinkled in concentration.

As the momentum builds, every person in the congregation rises up from the chairs singing and tapping their shoes to the lively beat.

The “hallelujahs” are the only words spoken in English. “We had to worship in our own language,” Matthew said, over a cup of tea after the service. And even if they do they prefer to pray in Malayalam.

Another congregant, John Mathew, 30, an immigrant from Kerala, sits in the front row with one hand raised, palm open. His oiled hair is sharply slicked back and his black moustache bounces up and down as he chants. At a verse which is particularly moving for him, he clenches his palm into a fist and punches the air with an accompanying “Hallelujah.”
The congregation started with a few friends gathering at Mathew’s house to pray. But the number of people from Kerala increased in the past few years. The house wasn’t big enough.

“We had all Christians, not just Pentecostals so everyone could not fit,” said Mathew speaking through a translator because he does not speak English.

Mathew, a Pentecostal, approached the Assembly of God, a loose order of Pentecostal churches that took the Indian congregation under their wing. The Assembly’s branch in Galway, called the Discovery Church, is led by Pastor Paul Cullen, and also rents space in the Westwood House Hotel.

“Many Indians come to our regular Sunday services, but some of the men felt that they couldn’t participate because of the language barrier,” said Cullen, 34.

The women generally speak English, something required of those who work as nurses in the Galway University Hospital.

Many Indian nurses, mostly women, have been recruited by the university hospital, which provides them with work visas. In many cases, their husbands follow and find simple jobs, or take courses at the university.

Many Malayalam-speaking Christians living here say that in Ireland religion doesn’t enjoy the same primacy of place it does in India, and say that the power of faith flows more vibrantly in their small congregation than in the Irish Catholic cathedrals.

Alice Ninin, 28, nurse by training, says she “came here for better opportunities.” Ninin, who belongs to the Mar Thorma Church, feels that the Christians in Ireland, particularly among the younger generation, are not religious. “In India, the churches are packed,” she said.  “The young people here prefer going to pubs.” Many others at the congregation echo her sentiment.

Next door to the prayer room, the children of the congregants are playing. Irin Sajupaula, 9, and Silin Verghese, 8, hunch over sheets of white paper drawing with colored crayons thicker than their fingers.

These children have lived in Galway since their parents left India over a year and a half ago. Sajupaula can converse in Malayalam, Hindi, English, and began learning Irish Gaelic this year in school.

“Ban is white,” she said, holding up the white crayon, and displaying her acquisition of Gaelic. “And dearg is red. Bandearg is pink.”

Sam Verghese, 27, is a Pentecostal who moved here 10 months ago to be with his wife, who is a nurse. He believes that Christians of all denominations can pray together because “Jesus is same for everyone.”

Rajesh Verghese, 38, a salesman, is a Roman Catholic. He said that even in a Pentecostal service he maintains his Catholic identity. “There is nothing wrong with singing and praying, Catholics can do that,” he said.


The Cavan Mongolia Connection

By Rachel King

Jampa Ling, the residential Buddhist retreat center in County Cavan in the heart of Ireland, aims to spread Buddhist tradition and culture through chanting and meditation, but it also has a strong commitment to re-establish Buddhism in Mongolia and help the country’s impoverished citizens.

Jampa Ling is fulfilling its charitable mission through scarves, slippers and handbags that it imports from Mongolia and then sells to high-end boutiques in Ireland and now in America through a micro-finance project called Made in Mongolia (MIM). Through the program, impoverished single mothers are being given the opportunity to make a living to support their children’s education.

“What we started doing was training women in something that gave them a job and a sense of their own value as well,” said the Venerable Tenin Choeden, a Buddhist and native Irishwoman, also referred to as Ani La, “Ani” meaning “nun” and “La” as a distinction of honor. Additional aid is being given through the partnership to provide assistance with health, food, and heating.

Pat McCarthy, an Irish designer and a student of Venerable Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk and the spiritual leader at Jampa Ling, volunteered to make the trek to Mongolia and assist the workers. For two weeks, he worked with the women on altering the designs to make them more colorful and desirable to Western customers. When Pat returned to Ireland, Ani La said, he determined there was a basis for a business, but the products would have to be high-quality, and a high return was required from initial orders.
McCarthy assembled a team of volunteers to design leaflets and packaging, while he sent associates to Mongolia to manage the production.

After the women produced some samples, he made a sales pitch to Avoca, a high-end clothing and home-décor boutique in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
With a fair-trade ethos, the sales pitch was a huge success. Shipping to four stores in Dublin and one store in Belfast in October 2007, the demand was so great that the Mongolian women needed more time to complete the handmade orders.

“We had to ask them to reduce the order from 500 to 300,” said Desmond Gough, the grounds manager at Jampa Ling, “and they sold out. It was phenomenal.”
This past year, it was determined that the center was too small to accommodate the workers and their growing demand for more products, thus an additional Buddhist-sponsored center is being scouted to expand the business.

The Irish Buddhist center’s efforts got off the ground in 1995 when Rinpoche made his first pilgrimage to Mongolia. With permission from the Dalai Lama, he continues to visit and work on bringing Buddhism back to the northern Asian country.

Since the breakup of the Communist Soviet Union in 1991, Mongolia, a traditionally Buddhist nation, has been experiencing a difficult transition to democracy. As many families have moved to Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, there has been a sharp increase in the poverty level, as many are unable to find work.

Thanks to the efforts of Rinpoche and his fellow Irish believers, a partnership, Asral Charity, was struck in 2001 between Mongolian and Irish Buddhists to support families and keep them together. A Buddhist center was opened in the capital city along with a number of philanthropic projects sourced there.

“When Rinpoche opened the center, he recognized people needed work, because when the Communists moved out of Mongolia, the infrastructure completely broke down,” Gough said while standing in the main house of the three-building Buddhist center next to the center’s gift shop, displaying a variety of goods produced by the Mongolian women.
Typical winter temperatures in Mongolia fall below 22 degrees Fahrenheit, threatening the lives of many, especially those in severe poverty. Most households are run by single mothers, who are some of the poorest citizens in their society. Most women work to prevent their children from being sent to orphanages or ending up on the street.

“We identified families where the woman was the main breadwinner,” Gough continued, “The children of those women were in danger of being street children, dropping out of school.”

All funding for Rinpoche’s projects in Mongolia comes from Ireland, Ani La noted.

MIM is opening the sales market to the United States, with the first American order at Moonjar in Seattle, Wash.

“We’re delighted,” Ani La said of the American market expansion. “The more orders we can get, the more work we can provide for the women in Mongolia.”


Belfast’s Hindu Temple

By Sharon  Udasin

The aroma of Indian spices fills the old Protestant church on Clifton Street, now transformed into a Hindu temple. Images of Indian gods and goddesses have supplanted those of Jesus Christ, but the house of worship remains intact, a stable fixture on the borderline between Northern Irish tensions.

The temple, Laxmi Narayana Mandir, is located at 86 Clifton St. in Belfast, directly on the midline that separates Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, according to its residents. Indian rugs and portraits of Hindu deities hang side-by-side with Christian stained glass and other remnants of the former church. An anomaly in this predominantly Christian city, the Hindu temple belongs on neither side of the religious feud and seems like a refuge for peace amidst conflict.

Above the temple sanctuary and up the winding stairs to the building’s second floor, Gopi Sharma, the temple’s priest, lives with his wife and two teenage children. He speaks minimal English and called for his daughter when I arrived.

Wrapped in a cream-colored blanket over pajama sweatpants, the 16-year-old girl introduced herself as Poonam Sharma. Her long shiny black hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she wore a simply studded ring in her nose. Sharma was home enjoying her Easter break on this Thursday morning, relaxing in the family’s living quarters and relishing her day off.

The building was an active Protestant church 25 years ago, as conflicts raged on between the Catholic and Protestant populations of the city, Sharma explained. Amidst the turmoil, a Hindu priest purchased the building approximately 19 years ago, inadvertently neutralizing a place of former conflict.

“The people didn’t want this to go to a Catholic or Protestant, so they sold it to a Hindu,” Sharma said.

The original priest presided over and lived in the converted temple for 10 years, after which a second priest took over for the next five. Following these two leaders, Sharma’s father arrived as priest four years ago, leaving a Hindu temple in Kenya.

“I’ve actually got a mixture of Indian, African and Belfast,” Sharma said, chuckling at her positively unique accent. Initially, she wanted to move back to Africa, but after beginning school in Belfast, Sharma became better acquainted with the city.

“It took another year to settle down,” she said. “A quarter of me still feels that I’m different from everyone.”

After she finishes high school and college, Sharma hopes to become a psychologist.

“More than half are nurses or in the medical businesses,” she said, pointing to the popularity of medicine among Indians.

As she walked downstairs to the temple itself, Sharma explained that visitors must leave their shoes outside its glass doors.  Inside the sanctuary, plush red carpet lines the floor, and matching velveteen drapes clothe the large-scale dioramas, encasing a series of sparkling deities in emerald green garb. In the center compartment sits the largest pair of statues, the two adopted as the temple’s central deities – Narayana, another name for the god Vishnu, and his consort Lakshmi.

Adjacent to the sanctuary is a huge hall for Hawan, a monthly prayer service that now brings 50 to 60 worshippers, in a congregation that began quite small. “Not a single person used to come to the temple when it first started,” Sharma said.

Gradually, however, Hindu residents began to trickle in for festivals, Sharma explained, and now over 800 people from Northern Ireland come to the temple for Diwali, the Hindu “Festival of Light,” typically celebrated in October. Indians travel from as far as London to celebrate Diwali at Laxmi Naranaya, where they sing and dance in the huge upstairs auditorium, next to the family’s living area.

“That’s the only time we come together to celebrate a function,” Sharma said. Despite having a temple of their own, Belfast Hindus do not always take advantage of the building’s unique cultural opportunities.

“People have been living here for 30 years and they forget their culture,” Sharma said.

Many of Sharma’s Indian friends have been in the country for decades and have assimilated to the culture, including 26-year-old Natasha, who declined to provide her last name.

“You could pretty much call us Irish by now,” confirmed Natasha, whose family has been living in the United Kingdom for four generations. “I’m on a British passport, but if you asked me what I am I would classify myself as Northern Irish.”

With little diversity in a largely Christian society, assimilation is convenient and comfortable.

“I go to a Protestant school,” Sharma said. “All I get here is Protestant, Catholic, Protestant, Catholic.” Interestingly, however, she observed that each contingent of her Christian friends is afraid to enter the opposite group’s territory. Meanwhile, Sharma has both Catholic and Protestant friends, but neither sect will speak to the other.
Sharma can recognize the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant by the way they speak.

“Catholics would speak in a different way,” she said. “Protestants are more rough and tough.”

And though Sharma continues to study Hindu culture and take classical Indian dance classes, she is becoming more and more Northern Irish – so much so that she has decided she wants to stay there, where she is a minority within a sea of white faces. She has no intention of moving to India or even to London, where Hindus live in densely packed neighborhoods.

“I’m just not used to seeing so many Indians,” she said.


Baghdad in Dublin

By Betwa Sharma and Zachary Goelman

On Good Friday almost one thousand Dubliners face Mecca and touch their foreheads to the carpeted floor. Released from their jobs for the Easter holiday, hundreds of Muslims flocked to the palatial Islamic Cultural Center in Clonskeagh, County Dublin, for their own weekly Friday prayer.

Tareq Sammaree, 58, is a frequent visitor to the Sunni mosque. A former Baghdad University professor who sought asylum in Ireland after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Sammaree is a long-time Ba’ath party member and remembers Saddam Hussein fondly.

“He made some mistakes, but he was a good man,” says Sammaree.

But other Iraqis in Ireland feel differently.

A fifteen-minute walk away from the grand Sunni mosque stands the Ahlul Beyt Islamic Center, the only Shi’ite house of worship in Ireland, where Ahmed Ali, 38, prays.

Ahlul ran away from Iraq to escape Saddam Hussein’s persecution of the Shi’ites. “The day he was executed was the happiest day of my life,” he says.

The legacy of the former dictator is but one issue that divides Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites. Even in Dublin, far removed from the bloody fighting in the streets of Baghdad and Karbala, sectarian identities flare up.

The Muslim community in Ireland is fast-growing, with official estimates of roughly 40,000 adherents. Iraqi refugees  from the violence in their home country are the latest to join this community. Although they leave behind them the physical violence, they bring with them many of their sectarian prejudices.

Discord between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Dublin heightened after the invasion of Iraq. The bloody tales of torture, suicide bombings and execution squads employed by both groups have strained relations in Dublin.

Imam Dr. Ali Saleh is the leader of the Shia mosque. Born in the Iraqi city of Najaf, he lived for a while in Saudi Arabia, close to the border with Iraq. He came to Dublin in 1985, and remembers a time when relations between the two groups were cordial.

“The Sunnis used to come down to the Shia mosque all the time,” he says; “they don’t anymore.”

The Shi’ite Muslims say that tensions began after the U.S. invasion, when Shi’ites gained power in Iraq.

Dr. Hameed Albdri, 28, an Iraqi Sunni by birth, said he used to visit the Shia mosque.

“I used to visit with my friend, but my friend was asked not to bring me back again,” Albdri says. He’s lived in Ireland for six years, and saw the change after the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent explosion of sectarian violence.

Ahmed Ali, who came to Dublin from Mosul in 1999, remembers a time when it was easy to crack a Shia-Sunni joke. But no longer. “They cannot handle it anymore,” he says.
Tareq Sammaree sees little humor in the current situation. The former Baghdad University professor lost everything when Saddam Hussein fell and the Ba’ath party lost power. Shi’ite paramilitaries kidnapped him and his son and tortured him for more than a year. He was released, but his son is still missing. He fled the country, seeking asylum in Dublin.
Fatima Mussam, 16, a Sunni who came from Mosul, Iraq, to Dublin in 2002, blames the sectarian violence in Iraq on the Shi’ites. Fatima says that she had Shi’ite ‘acquaintances’ in school, but they were not her friends. “I won’t deliberately be rude to them but I don’t like them,” she says. Mussam, whose family left Mosul because her family anticipated the war, blames the sectarian violence in Iraq on the Shi’ites. “They started it,” she says.  She is also contemptuous of the Shi’ite faith. “It is going against Islam,” she says.

The small Shi’ite community in Dublin fears that the sectarian divisions are exacerbated by Fatima’s conviction, shared by some Sunnis, that the Shi’ite are not true Muslims.
Zahra Rahim, 47, is a Shi’ite from Hilla, near the city of Babylon in Iraq.  Her son, Jafar, 15, attended Muslim National School, a primary school under Sunni management.
Rahim says her son has been called ‘kafir,’ which means unbeliever, by Sunni students and occasionally been taunted when the Shi’ites suffer in the ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq.
“Who teaches them this?” Rahim asks. “It is not the teachers. The children get this understanding from their parents.”

“Sectarian feelings are inherent,” says Imam Saleh. “Whether it is Catholics and Protestants or Shi’ites and Sunnis. We are living between people who have suffered from sectarian violence. We should learn from them.”


Sikh the Fair Land

By Jamie McGee

Harpreet Singh moved to Ireland from India three weeks after 9-11 and looked for work in Dublin without success for two months. About 30 applications later, he still had no prospects. He knew the turban on his head and his long beard, both identifications of his Sikh faith, were not helping his chances. Meanwhile, people on the streets often shouted “bin Laden” and sometimes threw bottles at him. He went to the barber and cut the hair that he had grown 17 years since birth, and shaved his beard, abandoning one of the core duties of Sikhism.

“It was very hard,” he said. “I cry on that day.”

Shortly after, Singh was hired at a merchandising cash-and -carry shop, but he felt empty inside, he said. A year later, after growing more connected to the Sikh community in Dublin and to his Sikh beliefs, he decided to once again wear the turban and grow out his hair. No sooner than he returned to the faith, the abuses on the street began again. A day after the 2005 London bombings a group of men attacked him as he was leaving a grocery store and he was stabbed in the hand.

Singh, now 25, is not alone in handling frequent discrimination in a country that has only recently been introduced to Sikhism through an increasing number of Sikh immigrants. The National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism in Dublin reports about 1,200 Sikhs in Ireland, although Sikhs there estimate the number is closer to 3,000, a population that has grown extensively in the last five or six years because of economic and academic opportunity. Most of the Sikhs in Ireland live in Dublin and a majority of them are students of business or technology who hope to take their skills back to Punjab one day or find jobs in Ireland. While acceptance is growing and more people are learning about Sikhism, the faith is still often wrongly associated with terrorism and Islam. Negative stereotypes still thrive, and some Sikhs choose to stop wearing the turban

“They throw bottles, it happens many times,” said Gurmeet Singh, 26. “Now it is better than before. If people do know about Sikhs, they are respectful.”

Sikhism developed in northern India in the 15th century and has more than 25 million followers worldwide. The faith denounces blind ritual and emphasizes equality among all mankind and devotion to one god. Sikhs follow the teaching of 10 gurus and are taught to be both saints and soldiers, using the sword only when others cannot defend themselves.

On a recent morning at Dublin’s only Gurdwara, or Sikh temple, a group of men explained they have all learned to ignore such comments and incidents, knowing that it stems from ignorance more than anything else and that anger does not solve their problems. To find work they learn which sectors are accepting of the turban and which ones to avoid. The restaurant sector, which depends on tourism, is especially difficult to penetrate, they said.

“We ignore abuses,” said Jasbir Singh Puri, a surgeon who immigrated to Dublin 20 years ago. “You end up in a brawl. We are peace-loving people.”

Puri, who has a grey beard, said children often ask him if he is Aladdin, or where is his magic carpet, and he will happily explain his turban and his faith to them. “They ask me are you a genie?” If they ask if he is a Taliban member, however, he takes offense, he said. “I’ll resent that. But I will not blame the child. I blame the parents.”

While the Sikhs interviewed could laugh and joke about some of the abuses they endured from other citizens, they were less tolerant of the government’s rejection of the turban in the Army and in the police force, known as the An Garda Síochána. To be excluded from military and police because of their turban is counter to their religion, the men said.

Last August, a Sikh training to serve in the Garda was told to give up his turban if he wanted to begin work, a turban ban that drew criticism from Sikh organizations worldwide. A spokesman for the An Garda Síochána said that the turban was a breach of the Garda’s uniform and that the Garda was not advocating one religious belief over another, nor being racist.

Puri, however, said that the Sikhs should be able to integrate without giving up the turban.

“The turban is like a crown. We cannot take it off. If the Garda is not allowing a person to do community service, it’s a violation of a fundamental right of equal employment.”
But there are several Sikhs who have decided that they must remove the turban to survive in their new country. Such choices are not unique to Ireland, as Sikhs in the United States and even India have also abandoned the turban for employment, athletics or comfort. While some Sikhs do not look down on those who abandon the turban and understand the struggle, they say that abandoning the turban means that you are no longer a full Sikh.

Harpreet Singh said he did not tell his parents, who are farmers in Punjab, that he had stopped wearing a turban. Seven years later, he is still apologetic about his decision to cut his hair.

“This is new country, this is new people,” he said, explaining the loneliness and uncertainty he felt when he moved to Ireland to pursue a degree in information technology. “I come after 9-11. People look at you in a different way. They say things very rudely.”

Singh lived with his cousins at the time and said he felt shame when he returned from the barber. “I go home, have a shower. I was upset for a few days,” he said. “They were thinking he left his faith. I disappointed myself as well. That’s why I came back.”

Cutting his hair made him reflect more on his faith and he began visiting the Dublin temple, formally known as the Guru Nanak Gurdwara. He learned more about Sikhism and realized that the discrimination he faced with a turban was a small struggle in comparison to the Sikhs who lived before him. “If you see our history, our past Sikhs gave their life for our faith.”

The Gurdwara welcomed him back as a full Sikh when he chose to grow his hair out again and wrap it in a turban each morning. “I feel good,” he said. “Everybody says it is very good to come back.”

When a group of men came after him with a knife after the London bombings, Singh was shaken. He had raised his hand to protect himself, otherwise the man who attacked him would have stabbed his face, he said. He contemplated moving home, but felt at ease again after a few days. This time, however, he was not questioning his choice to wear a turban.  “I am more strong,” he said.

Now Singh works at a home equipment store and is in school for his second degree, this time in business. “If I go back I have good knowledge in international market,” he said.
The Sikh men discussing their experiences in Ireland said despite the discrimination they feel, there are signs that acceptance is growing.  Singh and about 40 other men from the Gurdwara recently danced and marched in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin, an invitation Puri described as a great honor. The men at the Gurdwara also formed a soccer team that played in a recent Against Racism tournament, in which teams from different religious and ethnic groups play one another. Events such as these have made them feel more connected and increase awareness and understanding of their faith, but they are skeptical that the climate of discrimination will change any time soon. Puri said it is a piece of the Sikh history that will carry far into the future.

“We will always be fighting against injustice,” he said.


This article originally appeared in the June / July 2008 issue of Irish America.

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