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Recently a small group from Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences were privileged to be able to visit the Nishkam in Handsworth, Birmingham at the invitation of DPhil student Shuranjeet Takhar, who is closely involved with the work of the organisation. The Nishkam is an outstanding example of a ‘system-wide’ approach to strengthening communities through an interfaith initiative.

A group of colleagues from NDPCHS infront of the Nishkam temple

During our visit, we saw the Gurdwara (place of worship), health centre, civic association and primary school which together make up the Nishkam community centre. The initiative began in the 1960s when many Sikhs migrated to Handsworth, where there were a lot of factories. However, although there was employment, there was a lack of community and so a small group of people developed and opened the Gurdwara in 1977 as a way of bringing Sikhs together and providing support. This huge, beautiful building offered, and still does today, hundreds of free meals every day, as well as a place to come and pray, be with others and be part of something. All the meals are prepared, served and cleared by volunteers, with no rota, just an understanding that people will turn up to help out and play their part. This is a multi-faith organisation with a Sikh ethos of Nishkam – meaning ‘selfless service’.

The civic association next door provides a range of services including language and IT lessons, apprenticeships, access to a lawyer, debt advice. These aim to enable people to be able to help themselves, the rationale being that the funding for these services is ‘flimsy’, to use the words of the centre’s director, Ajit Singh, who took time out to come and speak to us. Again, many of the staff here are volunteers and the services are open to anyone – indeed 90% of people accessing it are not Sikh.

Next, we went to the health centre which is housed in what was previously an old textiles factory. In this area of Birmingham, there are significant healthcare inequalities, and Handsworth’s GPs have approximately 900 more patients per GP than the national average. The health centre has developed a primary care offering to try to address this need with volunteer GPs available at weekends; a pharmacy led by newly qualified and student pharmacists that includes services such as safe needle exchange; a counsellor funded by Nishkam providing free sessions; and ‘pay what you can’ dentistry staffed by volunteers giving time at the weekend.

Finally, we visited the Ofsted rated ‘outstanding’ primary school over the road. We met the Director of Primary Education, Debbie Westwood, and Headteacher, Gurpreet Kaur, whose justified pride in their school was clearly visible. We were told that the school’s excellent reputation is pushing up house prices in the area, such is the desire to get a place there.

Everyone who visited felt quite blown away by the philosophy of Nishkam and what it is delivering. As well as the places we visited, they also set up a timber yard in the 1980s to provide jobs, and since then have also taken on some local shops which they run.

Leaders in the Nishkam were very reflexive about the role of a faith-based network in a deprived community, even when most of the people in that area don’t share the same faith. One asked “what does faith bring to the table?” which he partly answered himself, saying it is to do with values, and why all this matters. The world’s largest religions are based on similar core values, and hence a community network linking different faiths provides a really strong, values-based community resilience.

photo of Trish Greenhalgh and Shuranjeet Takhar from the roof of the temple overlooking Handsworth

 Observations from Professor Trish Greenhalgh:

  • Although the Nishkam is very successful, they are struggling to evaluate the work they do, and demonstrating that this ‘faith based social enterprise’ is effective. They have been piloting the use of a survey instrument (EQ5D) but some rich case studies might be better able to capture the complex way in which faith-based support ‘works’.
  • They are looking for research partners and we’re planning to start working together towards the next NIHR call for community organisation-led research, hopefully also with other faith-based groups.

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