How Jeety, a prominent Indian businessman, is giving back and what motivates him to do it
The day was April 8, 2020, and the Liberian government had just announced a total lockdown of the country to control the coronavirus pandemic. The lockdown, which placed strict limitations public gatherings, had shut down the feeding initiative by Upjit Singh Sachdeva, a businessman and India’s Honorary Consul General to Liberia.
The feeding program, which he started in 2017 in Vai Town, Monrovia, now benefited about 1,000 people who were served hot cooked meals daily.
And as he sat in his office, Mr. Sachdeva, popularly known as “Jeety”, who through the feeding program had built an unlikely bond with the vulnerable men and women who partake of the cooked meals, began to feel sad that the project was being interrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I love them and felt hurt that I was going to stop interacting with them,” he recalls. “I needed to do something, but was struggling to come up with a concise idea on what to do.”
Two weeks later, while on his way to his office in Vai Town, something happened that triggered an idea that would be his next move: he saw two older people fighting for a single plate of rice — an unusual experience that pushed him to act fast and find solutions to the hunger problem exacerbated by the lockdown among the poor and vulnerable in Monrovia.
For a moment, Jeety sat in his office with sadness on his face and regret for not doing something earlier to have prevented the situation he saw. In his office, determined to find a solution, he picked up his phone and called a few government officials requesting their permission to resume his food distribution program.
On the phone, the officials listened to his plea but warned that he ensured that all COVID-19 health protocols are followed. The approval allowed him to expend his feeding initiative from Vai Town to other sections of Monrovia. From his office, he sketched his daily distribution plan, materials, the budget and workforce need for execution.
It was a historic and unprecedented plan that expanded the feeding program to about 3,000 to 3,500 vulnerable people, including frontline workers daily across the nation’s capital Monrovia and its environs everyday, during the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic. The feeding went on for 106 days during heat of the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, circumstances like this pandemic are terrible things, but what defines us is not what happens to us, but how we react to it, especially helping those in need. I could not just sit by and pretend as if to say there is no tomorrow or nothing happens when something happens,” he said, tugging on the sleeves to help his staff to prepare the meals.
Jeety, the Indian national whose action, is inspired by his philosophy of “Don’t give to get; Give to inspire,” ended up serving, along with his team, 306,538 hot cooked meals during lockdown over the 106 days.
“He is a representation of what it means to have money and be caring to the people that matter the most,” said beneficiaries of the feeding program. “He is down-to-earth and not a problem. We shake hands and laugh together but, because of COVID 19, we have to limit that. He is open to listen to everyone’s stories and help where he can.”
Jeety’s benevolent gesture is a statement meant to awaken Liberians to embrace the vulnerable people in society instead of neglecting them. And it comes at a time when the nation’s vulnerable population is increasing amid dire economic straits intensified by the Coronavirus pandemic.
No doubt, this is a reality that an unlikely stranger is creating attention about – an entrenched and complex issue in Liberia.
While Jeety intends to solve hunger and homelessness among the country’s poor and vulnerable populations, he may not have a magic solution to such a complex problem that needs all stakeholders’ on deck.
But he has succeeded in creating a substantial awareness on the issue through his charitable gestures — the daily feeding of vulnerable populations including the elderly, and helping others in need of medical attention.
His actions, it is hoped, might sooner or later result in an attitudinal shift that would lead to a nationwide movement, in which others would strive to identify with the poor and vulnerable.
However, he seems not to care for his status as a friend of the poor and vulnerable, but his ambition to help people who need help since he is blessed – and to reiterate through his gesture that there is a crisis at hand that needs everyone’s attention and involvement.
Though others might be speaking the language of hope to these people, Jeety sees the need to go from preaching to practice, showing Liberians that their fellow citizens are suffering, dying, and need urgent help, most especially the elderly who have no one to care for them.
“When you are rich or well off and every day you see your fellow citizens, most especially elderly persons on the street begging for food, and you decide not to help, you lack passion for humanity. Not everyone can be rich, so those who can should help others who are in need. This way, we create a better society, one that looks up to everyone regardless of conditions. But this is not the case in this country; however, we are proud that we have Jeety here standing by us,” one of the beneficiaries added.
For these vulnerable and poor people, it is their hope that the kind gesture of Jeety can be emulated by others, especially their fellow Liberians, as there are many others across the country that need similar help. Not just pittance assistance, but to also have a social movement that pressures policymakers to think about the less fortunate, since leaders most often respond to pressure from the people.
Helping the Homeless
Although Jeety is focused on solving the hunger issue among the poor and vulnerable, the living conditions of the most vulnerable also caught his attention as he set his sights on finding a solution to the problem among older folks.
“These people are human beings and need help. So I remain committed to finding solutions to homelessness among the elderly in Liberia. Their living conditions continue to strike me and I feel I am under obligation to find a solution for them to leave the harshest environments where they currently reside,” he said.
Despite the potentially huge price tag that comes with such ambition, Jeety, in his quiet way, is unfazed about it. Rather, he spends time working out modalities to find shelter for these homeless people.
It is a vision that came after he rescued a former classroom teacher who lost his wife and daughter in a motor accident. The beneficiary, Mr. John Daweh, before being taken off the street, was most often seen in rags, begging for handouts or food from passersby and its environs, and usually slept in the streets, exposed to the rain and scorching sun.
Daweh, who now lives opposite Jeety in the diplomatic enclave of Mamba Point, said he lost his private-school teaching job, which rendered him unable to pay his rent and was evicted from his home.
Upon hearing such terrible news, Daweh’s wife and daughter boarded a taxi from Harper, Maryland County to Monrovia to rescue the 73-year-old teacher. Unfortunately, they both died in a tragic motor accident while en route to Monrovia, compounding his impecunious condition.
“I was sleeping in the streets for two years and Jeety took me in and brought me here. My condition was too bad and he looked at me and said his people should carry me for treatment. During my period of homelessness, my only source of the meal was the hot cooked food provided by Jeety. I feel very good about sleeping in a good house now. Now, I am healthy and I thank God for him, because food can always be surplus on me since I came here”, Daweh explained.
Relationship with Liberia
Born in Jalandhar City, Punjab, a state in northern India, Jeety’s connection to Liberia began in a very unusual way. He was captured by a fascinating story told by one of his cousins who did business in the West African country. The cousin invited him to visit Liberia, which Jeety did and never looked back.
At the time, Jeety was more than half-way through his law school sojourn, but there was something about the Liberia story that caused him to drop everything and follow his cousin. So, in 1987, he and his cousin left India for Liberia.
“Liberia is my home and home away from home,” Jeety says proudly. “And even when I die outside of this country, I will prefer to be brought back here to be cremated. I love the land and its people. The people of this land have embraced me and been kind and good to me, so the best thing to do is to reciprocate that same love and kindness.”
Even though Jeety is passionate about seeking the welfare of the poor, he was born into “a well-off family and did not struggle for anything”. His relationship with Liberia, since landing on its shores has been rewarding through his business investments and seems not to be bothered as to whether he becomes a citizen or not.
As one of the country’s leading and veteran entrepreneurs, he has created jobs for hundreds of Liberians through his Jeety Trading Corporation and has summoned the courage, through his humanitarian gestures, to send a message to policymakers and other influential Liberians about the dangers of inequality, which exacerbates the rate of poverty and crime in the country.
He may not be a traditional advocate, but by individually taking on a responsibility singlehandedly and working on modalities to expand it across the country, he is informing Liberians and his peers that acts of generosity do not only need to be shown during the festive season.
“People are in need and when we have, we need to share it. Times might be hard but, one way or the other, we can help in solving this problem of homelessness and hunger among the country’s poor. I come from a place of Sikh religion, and I have been taught that whenever you have something, it is always good to share.
“I don’t have to be a citizen of Liberia before I feel that I am a Liberian, but the kindness and love of the people have made me feel more than a Liberian. It is for this reason I have invested everything I have earned in this country and don’t intend to have a single property or investment elsewhere,” he added. “I have children here and love the country regardless of whether I am a citizen or not. The issue about citizenship does not bother me, but my quest to make the country and the lives of its people better.”
Jeety, since becoming the Indian Honorary Consulate in 1997, has worked hard to increase the bilateral relationship between the two countries, which he says has been rewarding for Liberia. Some of the benefits to the country include buses, medical supplies and scholarships for Liberian students to study in India. India’s contribution to Liberia during the COVID-19 pandemic, apart from medical supplies, saw the provision of US$2 million cash for the 14 Military Hospital.
Currently, the feeding program, which started in 2017 continues with distribution around Monrovia and its environs, touching the lives of at least 1,000 people daily. On Christmas Day this year, more than 2,500 vulnerable people were fed hot meals along with cake.