Sunday morning in ‘El Raval’ one of Barcelona’s multi-ethnic neighborhoods. The streets are filled with people from diverse cultures including Pakistanis and people from India. The low-cost housing and easy access to public transport makes this neighborhood an economical place for immigrants. We made our way to the Gurdwara through one of the narrow backstreets near the ‘Las Ramblas’, Barcelona’s most famous street.
People were very friendly as we entered the Gurdwara. After washing our hands and removing our shoes and socks we entered the main hall. It was very quiet that morning as no music was played and no one chanted from the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. We sat down in one of the corners and counted about 20 devotees -mainly younger men praying silently. Several younger men entered the hall and prostrated in front of the Guru Grand Sahib before sitting down along the walls on the soft sand- colored carpet that covered the entire hall. About 20 minutes or so later- during which I quietly prayed for those I could see that God would reveal himself and for all those that would come later that day – we moved to the ‘langar hall’ where already a good number of other Sikhs sat on the floor and enjoyed a free meal. We joined the group and were able to talk to some of the Sikhs who have now made their home in Barcelona.
The visit to ‘El Raval’ and the Gurdwara was just one of many stops during our 10 day research trip to Spain that Suneel from South Asian Concern and I undertook. Our objectives where to visit the three cities Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona with their high concentration of South Asians, identifying which ethnic South Asian communities live in Spain and researching what religions they follow. We also hoped to find and connect with local and South Asian Christians and churches with the hope of future collaboration and future outreach amongst these groups.
The history of South Asians in Spain started with Indians from the Sindhi community in the Canary Islands and the Spanish enclaves in northern Africa. It occurred in phases over decades and started at the end of the 19th century. In the late 1970s, a new flow of immigrants in search of job opportunities moved to other regions of central and southern Spain. Recently, other important settlements have emerged with a concentration of ethnic businesses in boroughs like ‘El Raval’ in Barcelona and ‘Lavapies’ in Madrid. Because of the economic crisis and reduced work opportunities in the other sectors, many South Asians in the big cities have now entered the tourist sector. Others have started restaurants, small kiosks, travel agencies or other small-scale businesses.
Today South Asians in Spain are heterogenic and number over 160 000. It was fascinating to learn that the South Asian community in the year 2000 was still quite small with about 15 000 and that today more than 50 000 people follow the Hindu religion. We visited Sindhi people in their homes and had the opportunity to learn from followers of the ‘Radha Soami’ group in Valencia that has a more philosophical approach to life and Hinduism (they have 4 centers in Spain). We sat with a ‘Granthi’ and heard stories about the group that meets in an old warehouse in an industrial area of Madrid. Today there are about 22 Gurdwaras in Spain with more then 21 000 Sikhs.
Spain has quite some unique Hindu groups that I have not encountered in other European countries so far. We got introduced to the ‘Saihira Ram Vishwas Asociación’ (Sindhi Mandir &Hindu Cultural Center) in Barcelona. The devotees follow a mix of Hinduism, Sufism and Sikhism and to the ‘Sant Nirankari Mission’ (Universal Brotherhood) which is a spiritual movement to unite mankind for the good of humanity. It’s a philosophical offshoot of Hinduism/Sikhism without idols or set prayer times.
Our trip was not just finding out about South Asians and their religion but we also wanted to connect with believers and churches from these groups. God surprised us as when we met unexpectedly a Nepali missionary who has planted a church in Madrid. We met wonderful brothers and sisters who have a vision to reach out to people from India and Pakistan in the neighborhood of ‘El Raval’. The international Baptist church of Barcelona supports outreach towards these groups. In spite of some of these surprises there are still many opportunities for outreach in Spain. In all of these cities the Sikhs seem to be one of the ‘forgotten groups’.
For many years after each trip questions came to my mind. Is it worth all the effort? Where are the laborers in the harvest for the many opportunities I had encountered? The only solution often seemed to pray to the Lord of the harvest who promised to send out laborers. It seems that God is now bringing laborers to Europe and that is a blessing. In the meantime I will continue to pray for the South Asians in Europe, research and write reports and hope that in the years to come we will see or hear of more engagement with Sikhs, Hindus and other South Asian communities in many of the European countries.
South Asian Concern, UK