Neon snowflakes and twinkling fairy lights hang all over the Oxford Street in central London. Hundreds of tourists throng Harrods and Selfridges, which call out to those passing by with their Christmas-themed window displays.
London is decked up for Christmas and how! Not for nothing is this city referred to as a mini-world. And there are good reasons for London city's Christmas celebrations being hailed as possibly the best in the world. Having been a resident of this city for nearly two years and having travelled widely in Europe, it is quite evident to me that no other city dresses itself up better for Christmas.
With the Winter Wonderland and the Christmas markets in full splendour and all holiday lights switched on, London is the place to be this time of the year.
While families, friends and their loved ones are flooding London streets looking for Christmas gifts and soaking in the festive atmosphere, these very same streets also depict another deeply disturbing story – hundreds of homeless people who face the prospect of hunger on a bitterly cold 25 December. For most of these unfortunate street-dwellers, Christmas is a time when they feel even more desolate and unwanted.
But hope for them comes in the form of SWAT, the Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team, which organises a Christmas street party for these homeless people every year, apart from serving up to 1,200 free meals a week.
The volunteers of this organisation give poor street dwellers an opportunity to celebrate Christmas like other, more fortunate Londoners. Santa hats, crackers, chocolates, blankets, scarves, socks, gloves and other such essentials are distributed so that they are able to cope up with the freezing cold weather. The unique thing is that even though SWAT is a Sikh organisation, it has volunteers from different faiths.
John Davidson, nearly 55, wearing a blue jacket and a co-ordinated winter beanie, has been homeless for over two years now. He tells me how he awaits the SWAT Christmas party every year.
“Do you know what SWAT does for us,” he asks, and goes on to explain their good work. I tell him that I know about SWAT the organisation, but I am pleasantly surprised to hear about their Christmas street parties for the less fortunate ones and the fact that they serve food for free to the needy. "Most importantly, they love us," John adds. He then takes me to The Strand – the spot where the SWAT team has been serving free hot meals, three days a week for the last seven years.
For over 200 homeless people lined up this cold Christmas night, hot curry, vegetable cutlets, spring rolls, mince pies, cakes and fruity punch is a real Christmas feast.
The men, women and children dressed in SWAT jackets – some getting ready to serve the meal, some setting up the DJ corner and others just helping around – are a sight to behold! Born and raised in a Sikh family, this is a moment that makes my heart swell with pride as it reminds me of the time when as children, we were taught that Seva or selfless service is our religious duty. Watching the teachings of the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, being shared and demonstrated by these volunteers leaves my eyes misty.
We are a large family now, we know most of them. They could be refugees, asylum seekers or local people suffering from a particular illness, facing a personal problem, divorce or unemployment. For us, they are equal and in need of hope and succour.Harj, a member of SWAT
He introduced me to a man named Michael, who told me that he used to come to the Strand every week when he was homeless. Michael has purchased a house now and is doing well for himself. So while he may not come here for free food any longer, he pays a visit often to catch up with his “friends” from SWAT.
It a heart-warming feeling to see people from different backgrounds in London engaged in such a noble cause, thereby making Christmas something to look forward to even for the underprivileged.
But it isn't always a smooth ride for the team and volunteers. There have been instances of crowd misbehaviour and violence even during such charitable events. One such incident occurred when I was there along with nearly 300 others. A tall, well-dressed man, carrying a torn back-pack and reeking of alcohol, opened a bottle of champagne at the spot where people had queued up to get food and their Christmas presents. The alert volunteers handled the situation well without use of force and calmed him down before things could turn ugly. I asked Harj about the security arrangements at the event, to which he replied:
These are people with mental heath issues or some other personal problems. We don’t want to involve cops in this. We have our volunteers who take care of the security, and most of the times these things are resolved over a simple conversation. Our volunteers are formally trained to handle such situations.Harj, SWAT member
This entire sequence of events for me reminds me of the stories of Sikhism that my parents would tell me when I was younger. I recall a hymn 'De Shiva var mohe eh-hey shubh karman te kabhun na taro', meaning "O power of Akaal (God), grant me this blessing that I may never shirk from doing good deeds." There I was, watching a live demonstration of that very hymn.
The party is coming to a close and John and his friends are looking at their Christmas presents – the sleeping bags, blankets, chocolates and other essentials. I walk up to him and ask, "Do you know what SWAT is or anything about the Sikh religion?" John instantly replies, "Oh yeah, they are very nice people". But do you know what their religion is, I ask him.
John smiles and says:
I don’t know what their religion is, just as they don’t know mine. They are my friends and they love me. That means the most to me. Oh, but I do know one more thing – they say ‘Waheguru’ a lot.John, a guest at the SWAT party
I hug John, wish him luck and turn back to walk towards the train station. My eyes moist and heart full of joy, I can feel something within me has changed. The people I have met today, John and the members of the SWAT team, have given me a Christmas gift I shall cherish for the rest of my life.
(Ishleen Kaur is currently a freelance Broadcast journalist who contributes regularly to BBC, London and was earlier a Principal Correspondent/Anchor with CNBC in Mumbai. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)