Family-run charity Fateh Care brings free access to food, medical care, and more to hundreds of Vancouver Island residents
The family sets aside income and time to feed neighbours—just as they were fed when they arrived in Calgary in the dead of winter
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A record-breaking heatwave this July drove many Victorians to take shelter from the sun—but not Harjas Singh Popli. Throughout the five days, Harjas drove around answering calls and messages from people in need of food, medicine, and other services he provides through Fateh Care, a grassroots charity he and his family created in May.
Dr. Navneet Kaur Popli, an assistant teaching professor in engineering at UVic and Harjas’ wife, said that the heatwave was unlike anything the family had experienced since moving to Canada in March 2020. It was also more brutal than they’d experienced in their previous home in India, where they were used to air conditioning.
“I asked him, ‘It's been five hours and it's a heatwave, you may fall ill. Come back, you have not eaten anything,’” she said, recalling one day during the heatwave. “And he said ‘No, there are three more families to help—only then will I come home.”
It was in this moment, Navneet said, sitting at home with her two sons and worrying about Harjas’ health, that she realized how dedicated their family had become to Fateh Care.
Since Fateh Care launched in May, Harjas estimates they have helped over 200 families with free deliveries of food, rides to medical appointments, purchase medical supplies, help with tech support, and more. Across Greater Victoria and even occasionally as far as Nanaimo, Harjas and his family take their family car to respond to daily calls for support.
When I reached out to speak with the Popli family for this story, they invited me to spend an evening with them in their home for dinner. Who were these people, I wondered, who would invite a stranger over for dinner in the midst of a pandemic?
As I settled on to the sofa in the family’s bright Saanich home, Harjas tells me that so far, nearly all of the funding for Fateh Care has come out of the family’s savings.
According to Sikh tradition, the family saves 10% of each of their salaries to give away to charity—but with the money they’re putting towards Fateh Care (a name which comes from the Sikh word for conquer), they say they’ve gone beyond that and are using their personal savings to supplement the cost. Within the first three months, the total expenses of Fateh Care have totaled more than $8,000.
Both of the Popli’s sons—Mansahaj, in Grade 12, and Manarap, in Grade 8—have been involved in the charity, often making delivery runs or mowing lawns for neighbours, from whom they refuse to accept payment.
“They always help those in need, they never turn down a request for help. They do so much more than just the mobile food bank and will even help people do household chores or yard work,” said Ashley Lewis, a community member who has witnessed firsthand the impact of Fateh Care and supports their work.
“I am so grateful and thankful for this family and the work that they do in our community.”
Sat across the dinner table among the Popli family, as they offer me more food than I could possibly eat, I found it hard to imagine them as people who ever needed help themselves. But, as Harjas tells me before we dig in, the work they’re doing now through Fateh Care has been possible because of the community support they received in their time of need when they first came to Canada a year and a half ago.
Two days after they moved from India to Calgary in March 2020, the country went into a total lockdown. Outside, it was -35 degrees, a brutal surprise from the 40-degree weather they’d left behind in Delhi. They had no jobs, no car, and nobody they knew.
What followed was a difficult few months—until, one day, their doorbell rang. On the front step sat a bag stuffed with groceries and household essentials, courtesy of a local immagration support group.
“We did not even know who the people helping us were, they were doing so selflessly,” Navneet said.
This gesture stayed with them, and when their family members in India struggled with COVID-19 this spring, Navneet and Harjas decided to pay it forward by helping as many people as they could around them.
“We said, let's help people here, so that God will see us then he will make sure that our folks are safe,” Harjas said.
During the family’s weekly grocery shopping, Harjas will load up a cart just for Fateh Care supplies. To ensure he’s able to respond to people’s requests as fast as possible, he always keeps well-stocked boxes of nonperishable food in the truck of his car, along with a deep freezer in the garage full of meat and perishable goods. All around their house are lush bushes and spouts of vegetables, many of which will inevitably find their way into Fateh Care deliveries in the weeks to come.
Between the calls, emails, and tags from Facebook community support groups, Fateh Care always has people looking for their help.
One of the people Fateh Care has helped, Jeff Brand, said they have provided him with a level of accessibility and support that local food banks haven’t.
“It’s a struggle to afford to eat each month being on disability and having dietary issues that food banks don't help with,” he said. “[Then] Fateh offered their help… a very kind fellow came to my door, it was helpful and appreciated.”
For many of Fateh Care’s supporters, this is the key reason the charity has struck home for them: its focus on bringing help to people wherever they are, and however they need it.
“There are so many people in town who are in dire situations. One of the big problems I've seen is that many people in need haven't got transport, and people who are donating often don't either—I don't have a car,” said Lisa Kadonaga, who volunteers her time to help connect people with Fateh Care. “It's such a cool idea, having a food bank that can go to the clients.”
For Harjas, responding to these calls has become essentially a full-time job. He’s put the money from his Canadian Recovery Benefit checks towards keeping Fateh Care going.
“To recover myself, I'm helping people recover,” he told me.
Over the past three months, Fateh Care has accumulated a strong community of supporters—from people like Lewis who help connect them with people in need, to those at Thrifty Foods and other stores who help provide free food for the deliveries.
Jack Barker, a board member for Creatively United for the Planet and Together Victoria, has been working with Harjas to help make Fateh Care sustainable through applying for grants and fundraising in the community. Since partnering with Barker, Harjas has met with local MP Laurel Collins and Victoria City Councillor Sarah Potts about opportunities for Fateh Care to become sustainable.
This week, Fateh Care launched a GoFundMe page to allow for the charity to keep running at its current pace well into the future, as the charity’s funds are running low.
“There is no other mobile food bank in Canada that we know of, and yet we see such a need for it,” Barker said. “Covid has exacerbated the dire poverty many people find themselves in.”
In just three months, Fateh Care has grown beyond what the Popli family imagined. But now, Harjas has big dreams for the charity. Towards the end of my evening at their home, I asked what they’d like the future of Fateh Care to look like, five years down the road.
Three years from now, he said, he wants to have Fateh Care volunteers covering all of BC. In five years, he sees them expanding to Alberta, and within 10, all of Canada.
“I'll tell you why,” Harjas says, seeing the amazement on my face. “There are people who need help, but there is no help for them at all. They know how important it is for food to be free and right on [their] doorstep when they need it.”
To Harjas and his family, through delivering hundreds of bags of goods to others’ doorsteps, they feel proud to be paying forward the same service that once was a lifeline for them when first arriving in Canada. And they’ve discovered something else, too: with every delivery and connection they’ve made over the past three months, they’ve grown closer to the community they now call home.