Mr. Surendra Handa coordinates one of BC CRN’s newest Community Response Networks (CRNs) located in Surrey, BC, which is home to the country’s second-largest percentage of South Asian Canadians.
In addition to being the coordinator for the APNI (South Asian) CRN, he is a dedicated family man, a pedagogue, a retired business owner, a leader in the community, a man of faith, and an advocate for South Asian seniors and newcomers.
He celebrated his 80th birthday recently, but his wide smile and youthful energy say otherwise. His calendar has so many meetings and social events that most millennials would be challenged to keep up with the pace of his schedule.
Surendra is the embodiment of the immigrant narrative. His story is one of starting over in the face of 1980’s bureaucracy, racism, and discrimination to secure a better future for his children and grandchildren.
We are very pleased and honoured to introduce you to Surendra as our volunteer of the month.
From India to Africa
Surendra’s affinity for language likely came from his globetrotting as a young man. He first came to India as a refugee child with his parents when Surendra was six years old, fleeing East Punjab (now considered Pakistan) after the partition in 1947. After earning a diploma in technology, he completed a two-year apprenticeship that led him to an opportunity to work at Bharat Heavy Electricals India Ltd. located in Bhopal, a city located in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradeshat, where he worked for five years. After that, Surendra was offered a job as a senior technology instructor at the Regional College of Education, also in Bhopal, to train several classes of up-and-coming secondary school technology teachers.
Teaching then took him to Zanzibar, in Tanzania in 1971 at the age of 30 to teach at the Government Technical College, where he stayed for five years. This would be followed by several opportunities to work in management roles in technical organizations in Nairobi, Kenya located 780 km away. In 1974, through an arranged marriage, he met and married his wife Sanyogita. Sanyogita was the head of the local university’s biology department. Nairobi was home for the Handas and their children for 12 years.
It was in Africa that Surendra and his family learned about the rest of the world.
“My colleagues came from all over America, India, and Europe. We were all called ex-pats,” he explains. “We became, and still are, very good friends. We have visited each other’s home countries many times.”
Surendra’s Indian upbringing and tenure in Africa also meant he picked up more than a few languages. In addition to English, Surendra speaks Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, and Swahili.
Out of Africa and into Canada
As ex-patriates, Surendra and his family were ineligible to collect government benefits in Africa. Job security was not guaranteed. Children of expatriates were also barred from attending the country’s universities, eliminating any opportunity to pursue advanced education.
This did not work for the Handa family, especially when both parents were able to study and work at the post-secondary level. (Mrs. Handa also holds two Master’s degrees.)
On the advice of his brother-in-law, who had already immigrated to Canada, the Handas decided to follow suit and migrated to Canada through the federal government’s immigration points system.
They arrived in Edmonton, AB in October 1988. “It was the first time we saw snow,” he says.
Navigating the “Canadian Way”
“When you arrive as an immigrant, you are on your own,” Surendra explains. “My brother-in-law helped us transition to living in Edmonton. We were able to live with him for two months, and then we rented our own place.”
Surendra also had to find work.
“Our education and professional qualifications were not recognized. They told us we had to take courses to ‘upgrade’,” he shares. “With young children, my wife and I had to ask ourselves whether our education or their education was the priority. We had to focus on the children’s education.”
Job hunting in 1988 Edmonton as a newcomer was not easy.
“There were no jobs for us,” Surendra recalls. “People would look us up and down, ask us if we speak English. I almost went back to Africa. My brother-in-law told me to be patient and to try something new.”
A newspaper advertisement for a six-week training course caught Surendra’s eyes. “It was for Mac’s Convenience Stores,” says Surendra. “They were looking for store managers and franchise owners.”
The training included a written exam and interview. Surendra scored top marks in all areas and was ranked first out of 24 applicants. Mac’s Convenience Stores offered him both options: he could either be a store manager for one of Edmonton’s most profitable locations or become a franchise owner, which would allow him to run a store however he wanted.
Surendra chose the latter.
Learning the Business of a 24-Hour Convenience Store
“I had never run a business before and I had to learn,” he says. “I learned how to run a convenience store through Mac’s.”
It took Surendra two years to learn the in’s and out’s of operating a successful 24-hour convenience store.
“We worked from six in the morning to 11 at night and hired people to do the graveyard shift. Sometimes they would not show up or they would call in sick and I would have to keep working through the night. The store had to stay open” he says. “There were also no cameras in the store, so there was lots of theft. We were paid $4,500 a month at the time, and we had to pay wages and benefits to all employees and deduct the cost of any stolen goods from that amount.”
Running an all-hour store was a great challenge. Edmonton winters made the challenge even more so.
“After some time, though, we were fed up with the cold,” he says.
After two years in Edmonton, the family decided it was time to move to Surrey. “A close friend, one of our next-door neighbours from Nairobi, invited us to visit them in Surrey,” he says. “We visited, and then decided to stay.”
“In Nairobi, Kenya, and in Bangalore, India, there is no extreme winter and there is no extreme summer,” he explains. “It’s mild all year…like in Surrey!”
Supporting South Asian Seniors
Surendra continued with the convenience store business establishing a store in Port Moody in 1992, followed by a store in Burnaby. After Mrs. Handa suffered a heart attack in 2005, he and Sanyogita sold the business and retired in 2008.
Today, the Handa children are grown. One of Surendra’s daughters runs her own business. His other daughter has worked for a large, multinational corporation for 15 years. His son is a CPA and executive for a BC mining company. The Handas have one grandchild, a grandson, who is studying cybersecurity.
“I thank God that my children are successful,” he says, hands raised. “I am happy we are in different times.”
Since retiring, Surendra has faithfully visited his local temple three times a week. A social butterfly, he quickly connected with other seniors, meeting them after services to talk and play cards. The initial group was 17 strong, growing to 50 a year later, and then to 75 the year after that.
On his own, Surendra started a seniors’ centre out of the temple. (“I am the seniors’ centre!”) Today, there are over 100 South Asian seniors who socialize and learn together. In July 2021, Surendra’s “seniors’ centre” also officially became the APNI (South Asian) CRN after being approached by Jas Cheema, BC CRN Regional Mentor – Surrey, South Surrey, White Rock, Langley. (Read more about the APNI South Asian CRN and Jas in this edition.)
Seeing the World Again
Travel is a favourite past-time of the seniors’ group and of Surendra.
“I traveled a lot for my work. I visited family in India. My wife and I also traveled together with our ex-patriate friends from Zanzibar,” he explains. “We’ve been to the Caribbean, Mexico, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, South America, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Dubai, Singapour, four times to Europe…I have a passion to visit new places and make new friends.”
Surendra shares his love for travel by organizing several local and international trips for the community’s South Asian seniors.
In 2010, Surendra organized an Alaskan cruise for 17 seniors. In 2011, Surendra and 68 other seniors traveled to Hawaii together, exploring the five islands in 20 days.
As of today, Surendra and his groups have seen most of the Vancouver Lower Mainland’s tourist attractions, going as far as Hope, and have traveled to over 30 countries abroad, including New Zealand and Australia.
“Every year, the seniors ask me where we will be going next. They say ‘Mr. Handa, when is the cruise?’,” he laughs. “I say: ‘Just wait. Good times are coming!”
Why Surendra is Our Exceptional Volunteer of the Month
Jas Cheema, BC CRN Regional Mentor – Surrey, South Surrey, White Rock, Langley says: “Mr. Handa is full of humility and a man of faith who lives the teachings of “seva”, serving his brothers and sisters unconditionally. He has been lighting the path for many South Asian seniors, educating them about various programs and services, and showing them that the latter years of one’s life is to be lived, to be enjoyed, and not wasted just waiting for that last breath. We appreciate all you do, Mr. Handa, to support others. I look forward to working with you to ensure that our elders remain safe and supported.”
(Header photo: Surendra with his family and friends. Source: S. Handa)