Sukhwinder Kaur was planning her first trip back to India in ten years, to see her elder sister who is in a coma after suffering a stroke. But she says her bigger family here also needs her at a time when their homes are burning.
In just seven days since the New Year’s Eve, 35-year-old Sukhwinder Kaur has cooked thousands of meals for bushfire victims of East Gippsland.
“Initially, we had up to a hundred people coming to our food van but in the last three-four days, there are many more people who have been evacuated from their homes are coming to have a meal. So, these days, we are preparing up to a thousand meals every day,” Ms Kaur told SBS Punjabi.
“The day starts at about 5 am and I am cooking until 11 in night. There’s a lot of work that is done between a small team of four people in the kitchen. And I have my room right next to the kitchen where I sleep,” she says.
Ms Kaur has taken leave from her job at Australia Post and has been camping at Bairnsdale Oval since the night of 30th December where the authorities have created temporary relief shelters for the evacuees.
Before she joined a team of Sikh Volunteers Australia – a Melbourne-based not-for-profit – to head to serve free vegetarian meals to bushfire victims, Ms Kaur was actually all set to take her first trip back to her hometown in India in ten years.
But the worst bushfires disaster in Australia that has burnt over five million hectares, devouring 1,400 homes and killing nearly half a billion animals, changed that.
“I wanted to go to India to see my elder sister who is in a coma after she had a stroke. But then this happened and I realised my first duty is towards the community here where I have lived for so long. If I had left the people here during such a difficult time, I don’t think I could call myself a good human being,” she said.
“This is my family too and I have a responsibility towards it. I just can’t go while my family is suffering,” Ms Kaur says.
Ms Kaur says she feels “incredibly lucky” to be able to do what she does.
“A lot of people say they liked the food, or 'it was delicious'. I ‘m thankful to God that I have been given an opportunity to serve the community. I feel particularly happy when I see that no food is wasted and all of it is used up in the community.”
Manpreet Singh of Sikh Volunteers Australia says Ms Kaur is a great influence, not just for other volunteers, but the entire community.
“It’s her selfless service and self-effacing nature that’s inspiring everyone to do their best without expecting anything in return,” he says.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews also praised the volunteers, calling them “legends”.
Ms Singh says they are getting a lot of love and help from the locals.
“They know why we are here and everyone wants to do their bit. This morning I went to the supermarket to buy some items. They knew we were doing it for people and the manager said ‘no, I’ll pay for it,” he told SBS Punjabi.
“This is love and caring for one another that makes us who we are.”
Click on the player at the top to listen to the interview with Sukhwinder Kaur in Punjabi.