She was the ticket to a better life
Before Amandeep Dhillon's short life ended in her murder, she was caught between a new family in the GTA she barely knew and one back in India
Jan 31, 2009 04:30 AM
Hours before she flew to Toronto on May 3, 2006, Amandeep Kaur Dhillon sat in her room chatting with Pawandeep Benipal her sister, best friend and confidante. She told her younger sibling to take care of their parents and to study hard.
Outside, neighbours and friends gathered. When it came time to leave for the airport everyone was teary, but Amandeep kept smiling, laughing and cracking jokes. “She was so excited she was going to Canada to join her husband,” said Pawandeep.
When she saw her next, Amandeep was lying in a casket, a long gash running down one side of her face and smaller knife wounds on her forehead.
Amandeep, 22, was found stabbed to death at a grocery store in Mississauga on New Year's Day.
Her father-in-law, Kamikar Singh Dhillon, 47, is charged with first-degree murder.
Amandeep's family has been left grieving with few answers. The slaying has also shaken the South Asian community and again raised concerns about the lack of social support for immigrant women, particularly young brides who leave their home and family behind, to live with another family they hardly know.
Some endure a life of isolation and extreme hardship, with the hope their own family which has invested heavily in dowry money will one day join them in Canada.
SHE WAS her family's ticket to Canada.
Amandeep had turned 18 in 2005 and was studying at a college in northern India, when her parents, Kulwant Kaur and Avtar Singh Benipal, told her a family in Toronto was keen to marry their son, Gurinder Singh Dhillon, to her.
Everything happened in a matter of a few weeks: two men and a woman common friends came to meet her one evening in October. They asked a few questions, took some photographs and left a photo of the young man, a beefy 26-year-old with a boyish face. The next day, they phoned to say the wedding should take place on Nov. 11.
Amandeep's family was thrilled. No one had met the boy or his parents, or asked any questions, but it didn't matter. He lived in Canada. An arranged marriage to someone living in North America was seen as a step to prosperity not only for the bride but eventually her family too.
Iqbal Singh Benipal, a friend of the family who lives in Brampton, said when the groom is from Canada or the United States, “Not many people care to even meet the guy before the wedding. It happens all the time in Punjab.”
In this case, the boy's relatives had assured Amandeep's family she would be happy.
The family didn't argue when dowry was settled at roughly $54,000, an excessive amount but seen as an investment in their own future. This was in addition to $15,000 the family spent on a lavish three-day wedding that was attended by more than 600 guests.
A month after the wedding, Amandeep's parents were asked by her in-laws to send an extra $2,500 to Canada or her immigration papers would not be filed. Her father, Avtar, pawned his wife's jewellery and sent the money.
For Avtar, a farmer who grows mostly rice and wheat on nearly 5 hectares of land, a small-sized holding in Punjab, it was a lot of money. He sold some land, borrowed from family and friends and mortgaged his house. “It was very tough but we didn't mind,” said Avtar. “We just wanted Aman to be happy.”
Dowries were outlawed in India in 1961 but it is common for the groom's side to seek a dowry and for the bride's side to provide one. The dowry cash and gifts is meant to smooth their daughter's move into the new home.
Though rarely talked about in Punjab, it is understood that when a son or daughter marries and moves to North America or England, they will apply for their family to join them. Amandeep was expected to do the same for her parents, her sisters Pawandeep, 20 and Jasvir, 16, and brother Rajvir, 12. When she flew to Canada in May 2006 to join her husband, her family was already counting the days until they would follow.
THE FIRST couple of months that Amandeep was in Canada, she lived with her husband and father-in-law in a basement apartment in Malton. Within two weeks, she was working in a factory in Brampton.
At first, she met people from her village at their homes or the Sikh temple. Slowly all changed. Her phone calls to India became irregular and when she was invited, along with her husband and father-in-law, for a get-together she made excuses. When she did leave the house, she was always with her father-in-law or husband, say her extended family in Brampton.
“She was here for more than two years and I met her only about five or six times,” said Kirandeep Basran, a cousin who lives in Brampton.”She came to my house twice and barely stayed for 10 minutes each time.”
Basran says whenever someone called Amandeep, her father-in-law or husband either picked up the extension or switched on the speakerphone. “I started to worry about her and so I called up her husband one day,” said Basran. “He abused me, screamed and told me never to call again.”
This was early 2007 and Amandeep was about eight months pregnant. A few days later, Amandeep phoned her cousin and asked her not to phone or visit.
“I didn't want to aggravate things for her,” said Basran, who next met Amandeep when her son, Manmohan Singh, was born on March 1, 2007. “Even when I went to see Aman and her son, the father-in-law hovered around.” Basran asked him if she could take Aman and the baby for a few days but “he refused.”
In India, Amandeep's family was thrilled she had a baby boy and seemed to be settling into her new life. In the weeks after the birth, Amandeep spoke to her parents only about her son.
“After the baby was born, she looked and sounded happy for some time,” said Karamjeet Benipal, Iqbal's wife. The family is from the same village as Amandeep's.
But ten months later, in January 2008, the baby was sent to India to be brought up by his paternal grandmother. Two weeks after that, however, the baby was sent to Amandeep's parents.
Amandeep never saw him again.
Soon after, Amandeep started working at an Indian grocery store run by her father-in-law on Airport Rd. in Malton.
Neighbours at the family's Brandon Gate Dr. home in Malton say Amandeep and her father-in-law left for work as early as 7 a.m. every day. The owner of a pizza store in the plaza, Anil Dhodi, recalled a “very hardworking” Amandeep serving customers or cleaning and stocking shelves.
Another woman, a regular at the Malton store, told the Star how Amandeep spoke fondly of her family and had tears in her eyes whenever she talked about her son.
At the store, Amandeep listened to music and talked to customers, but when left alone would hurriedly call Basran or her sister in India.
In mid-March, Amandeep phoned her family in Punjab her voice full of excitement and told her father their immigration papers had been filed.
“That's what her father-in-law told her,” said Iqbal.
BALDEV MUTTA knows the stories of immigrant women all too well.
The executive director of the Punjabi Community Health Centre in Brampton says hundreds of young Punjabi brides arrive in Canada every year. Many have arranged marriages. “They don't know anyone, don't have any support system and battle pressures most people can't even imagine exist,” he said.
In the Punjabi culture, men are raised to be dominant while women are expected to be subservient. “The level of thinking of men in the Punjabi community leaves a lot to be desired,” said Mutta, a Punjabi himself. Mutta, who runs programs at four Sikh temples in Brampton, Rexdale, Malton and Oakville, and hosts a radio show, wishes he had been able to reach Amandeep.
Some women are so isolated that they are not allowed to have any communication even with their parents, said Kripa Sekhar, executive director of the South Asian Women's Centre on Lansdowne Ave. in Toronto. “There are times when we get emails or phone calls from a woman's family saying they haven't heard from her ever since she came to Canada, can we check on her,” says Sekhar.
In some cases women, bruised and beaten, have been locked up in their homes, not allowed to make or receive any calls. “It's a problem women face everywhere, but what is unique among South Asians is that we don't acknowledge it or want to talk about it.”
BASRAN RECALLS getting a call from Amandeep in January 2008.
“Amandeep was sobbing on the phone,” the cousin recalls. “She was hysterical. She said `my parents have spent so much money on me … I have to get them here first.' She believed everything would be okay once they got here.”
On Dec. 15, 2008, Basran stopped by the store on her way to Pearson airport. She was flying to India and wanted to know if Amandeep had any message for her parents.
“Aman had tears in her eyes. She just told me to give her son a big hug from her.”
Weeks before, Amandeep had also called Pawandeep. The sisters cried on the phone. They spoke again two weeks before Amandeep died and there were more tears.
“She said we (the family) would be soon joining her and everything would be fine then. She didn't want to jeopardize our chances of getting to Canada.”
PAWANDEEP, FLANKED by her parents, is sitting in the spacious living room of a north Brampton home owned by members of their extended family. The three arrived in Toronto on Jan. 9, the night before Amandeep's funeral. It has been a tough few weeks.
First, a Peel Region police officer called to break the news about Amandeep's death. Then police told her father sponsorship papers for the family had never been filed.
Police won't comment on the case.
The family waited for two days to get a travel visa for Canada. Hours after they arrived, they drove to the funeral home to view their daughter's battered body.
Avtar spoke to his daughter a day before she was killed. It was his birthday on Dec. 31. He had turned 46. “She wished me happy birthday and said she hoped my next birthday would be celebrated in Canada,” he said, shaking his head.
He looks tired and distraught. His wife, Kulwant, sits next to him, tears streaming down her face, her shoulders sagging.
“I think we were numb after we heard about Aman. That everything was based on lies … sunk in much later,” says Pawandeep.
“We hope Aman didn't know about it when she died. It's what she lived for.” Before Peel police called, the family says they received a strange call from Amandeep's mother-in-law in India. Harjinder Kaur Cheema warned them they would get a call from the police `but don't get worried … ' That's what she told me,” says Avtar.
Amandeep's husband called them 30 hours after she had died, says Pawandeep. They've barely spoken to him since they arrived. The husband, his sister, and other relatives, who attended and paid for the funeral, declined to speak to the Star.
What's to say? asks Iqbal, the friend with whom Amandeep's parents are now staying. “Amandeep's gone. We want to see what happens with the father-in-law now.”
The day after the funeral, people stream in to Iqbal's home to mourn. Everyone is heartbroken.
Iqbal's wife, Karamjit, says she called the funeral home before the ceremony, wanting to bathe and dress Amandeep according to Sikh tradition. She was told there were too many wounds on her body.
Amandeep's mother, Kulwant, is inconsolable as she hears this.
Bobby Benipal, another family friend, wonders if he or others in the community could have done something. “She was from my village (in India). I feel like I've let her down.”
Pawandeep holds a framed photo of her sister. In the photo, Amandeep is wearing a pink salwar-kameez, a Punjabi dress. “She dreamed of a better life for herself and her family. All she wanted was to live happily with her husband and son like any other woman.”
Amandeep's parents don't know what they will do next. They haven't even started thinking of their mounting debts or the future of their three children. All they know is that they don't want to stay in Canada for long.
“I just want my daughter's ashes,” says Kulwant. “I don't want to stay long in the country where my daughter was killed.”
Amandeep Kaur Dhillon, seated centre, seen on her wedding day, Nov. 11, 2005 with her husband, Gurinder Singh Dhillon, also seated, father-in-law Kamikar Singh Dhillon and mother-in-law Harjinder Kaur Cheema. Kamikar is charged with first-degree murder in Amandeep's death on Jan. 1, 2009.)
Interactive map: GTA homicides
View an interactive map of homicides in the Greater Toronto Area since 2005.