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Young Sikhs eager to do more relief work

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    Special to The Bee

    A member of the Jakara Korps, made up of Sikh youths from California, works to clean a Mississippi home in this undated handout photo. The group, which included volunteers from the San Joaquin Valley, holds a youth conference each year in Fresno.
    Special to The Bee

    By Vanessa Colón / The Fresno Bee

    A group of Sikh youths in the San Joaquin Valley plans to return to Mississippi in the spring to remove more debris and work on more homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

    A total of 17 Sikhs, most of them from the Valley, arrived home Dec. 25 after spending about a week in Biloxi, Miss., where they slept in tents at night and helped tear down houses during the day. Many of them reached the Gulf Coast via flights to New Orleans, where they rented three minivans and drove to Biloxi.

    "A lot of people want to go back in spring break. Everyone is interested," said 26-year-old Deep Singh of Fresno. "They are in dire need of volunteers. It's not in the public's attention anymore."

    Singh and others made the trip as part of a new program among Sikhs called Jakara Korps, a project associated with an annual cultural youth conference in Fresno. The program is designed to help Sikh youths serve their country and educate other communities about Sikhs.

    The Sikh religion, a monotheistic faith, was founded by Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469 in what is now Pakistan. The religion is based on the teachings of 10 gurus. Baptized Sikhs wear specific items and adhere to moral and grooming standards referred to as the five kakars. These include the kara, a steel bracelet, and kesha, which refers to maintaining long hair.

    Singh, a graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles, said they worked on four houses from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. They completed four homes in four days during their stay in Biloxi from Dec. 19 to Dec. 24. They met students from Indiana University and other volunteers through Grassroots Volunteer Network in Biloxi. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided the volunteers with meals and tents in the middle of a soccer field.

    The team looked at the destruction on the Gulf Coast. They saw parking garages thrown onto the streets and remnants of casinos. They read graffiti on houses warning people that if they tried to "loot" a resident's belongings, the resident would "shoot" in exchange.

    "The devastation was so complete, it appeared to the participants that they were in New Delhi instead in the United States," Singh said.

    Each morning, they got up early for a Southern breakfast of grits, eggs and sausage. They then picked up shovels, crowbars and hammers provided by other volunteers. Twenty-three-year-old Vikrum Fagooraof Fresno gutted homes fouled with black mold between the drywall and insulation. They tore houses down to their foundations.

    They wore breathing masks that cover the nose and mouth. Jesse Brar, 19, said when he took off his mask, he could feel an irritation in the lungs. Some of the volunteers they saw wore "Darth Vader-like" masks.

    "We all went at it. Some had too much fun with the crowbar," Brar said.

    Jakara Korps members from the San Joaquin Valley who went to Mississippi in December hope to return this spring to help clear the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
    Jakara Korps members from the San Joaquin Valley who went to Mississippi in December hope to return this spring to help clear the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
    Special to The Bee

    Fagoora said: "Everyone was trying to finish the task and then help out [the others]."

    Singh said the owners of the homes thanked them for their work. They gutted a house owned by a Vietnamese immigrant who spoke little English. They then worked on another house owned by a family who now lived in a trailer in front of the home. The volunteers came across belongings in the home such as photos and other mementos.

    Singh said other volunteers were amazed by their work: "They were extremely impressed with us," he said. "They called us the Cali crew."

    The reporter can be reached at or(559) 441-6313.

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