Saturday, November 27, 2010

Painful Pakistani Plight

The distance between Mumbai, India and Karachi, Pakistan is about 550 miles; maybe less than an hour’s flying time. But because these two sister countries born from the same clot are estranged, there is but one flight a week between them, PAI. I would stand a better chance winning a Lotto jackpot than secure a seat in this flight and I don’t want to be in Pakistan for a week anyway. So I fly to Dubai instead and then onwards to Karachi, which takes 10 hours instead.

Karachi, surprisingly, has changed from my last visit here, changed for the better, I mean. I am out of the airport terminal in less than ten minutes, the streets are relatively clean, traffic reasonably well behaved and air breathable. There is tight security everywhere however, with heavily armed police at virtually all street corners. The Embassy Inn Hotel driver tells me a massive bomb had exploded outside the Sheraton Hotel about a week ago and hence the heightened alert. He shrugs when I ask him how secure Embassy Inn is; this could mean anything; disquiet sets in on me. Experience in Afghanistan warns me a hotel is probably the worst place to stay in terms of safety in these regions.

All goes fine however and all my meetings go well; I am off to Islamabad the next day for a tour of flood affected Punjab region. Saleem Abedi of Husseini Foundation is waiting for me outside the terminal and we are off Kot Addu, our first stop. It takes us a good eight hours of steady driving to get there; we reach well past dark so can see nothing. After salaat and a delicious meal of spicy teetar (partridge) curry and hot naan, I fall blissfully asleep. Our host, Syed Sajjad Hussein Kazmi, is one of those individuals that our community is blessed to have. Dedicated, tireless and self sacrificing, he and his family have put in everything they possess and more into the relief efforts for the flood victims. He apprises us of the relief efforts, from food to medical to housing. There are 19 homes either complete on under construction at Kot Adu; 40 will be constructed here sponsored by donors of CAI.

The water has receded or completely vanished since my last trip here in September. Although it is gratifying to see the progress so far, it is still heart wrenching to meet the victims. Many are still in shock and unbelief at the devastation that befell them, some have shaken it off and looking ahead and few that are totally devastated by the enormity of it all, especially the elderly. Everybody asks us about warm clothes and blankets; an old man, hardy able to walk unaided, wails that he is freezing at night; and for us to help. I try and calm him down, assure I’ll try my best to get them warmth as soon as possible.

We travel all day; from Kot Adu to Basti Shah Walli to Laiyah to Basti Shadoo Khan and Basti Morani, inspecting CAI initiated housing reconstruction projects, ending up in back in Islamabad at about 1AM the next day. It is a grueling, energy sapping trek but I have little choice as I must be back in Mumbai by Friday as other commitments wait. We are drowned with pleas for homes from those that still wait funding and always for blankets. CAI has received funding for 350 homes from our target of 1,000; let’s see where we end up. CAI has also pledged 2,000 high quality blankets sourced from Multan. These will be distributed no later than December 15, insha’Allah.

The departure entrance at Benazir Bhutto International Airport next morning resembles a zoo with mayhem prevalent; nobody knows (or cares) what is going on and I get no directions from loitering officials. It takes me over an hour just to get inside the terminal, scared silly I will miss my flight. Not to worry; although Emirates is on time and wants to depart, Air Traffic Control insists a tarrying PIA flight to Istanbul gets priority status. So we wait and wait and wait…

CAI is still short funds for both the housing and blanket drives for the flood victims. These are hapless people who have suffered unimaginable grief and lost everything they owned. Please consider investing in their future at $500 a home and $15 a blanket. The new home is made of reused bricks and materials; labor provided by victims.

Please click here for photos from my recent trip for photos from my recent trip.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Mother of 24 children.

Sirsi is some 240 miles east of New Delhi, in Uttar Pradesh, about six hour drive. An impoverished community where basic education is a challenge for most, CAI supports the Bahman School just outside Sirsi town. CIA began with construction of 7 classrooms, laboratories and will soon embark on construction of additional 7 classrooms to enable students who sit under stairs and in corridors the proper environment to learn and prosper.

CAI has also constructed a beautiful and sturdy boy’s orphanage, Zahra Boys Home, nearby; 24 orphan presently live and flourish here with a decent education and a fighting chance for a better life. This orphanage will eventually cater for 50 boys, insha'Allah.

I meet Aarifa Khatoon at the orphanage during my recent visit there. A motherly figure, Aarifa is the manager of the boys. I observe her operate and can only marvel at what she does. On her feet almost 24 hours, Aarifa Khatoon balances the task efficiently, nimbly. I decide to talk to her, find out what makes her so good at being a mother of 24 children.

Here then, is Aarifa’s story in her own words:

I was born in Sirsi, child of very poor parents who had eleven children in all; I have six sisters and four brothers. Daily survival was a struggle so the easiest solution for my parents was to marry me off at age fifteen. She looks at me in astonishment when I ask her if she went to school, then laughs at the absurdity of my question. In a period of five years, I had three children, one slightly deformed boy and two girls. I was a widow by age 20, my husband died of illness we could not afford to cure at age 35 and my hardships went from awful to unbearable. She weeps then at the memories but quickly recovers. I worked continuously rolling bedis for which I got paid Rs.50 per day (about US$1.10). It was hard, very hard raising 3 children on Rs.50 per day; you realize how difficult that is Saheb? I remain silent as I have nothing meaningful to say. I then did the next best thing; I married off my daughters at the same age I married. Classical poverty cycle pattern amongst the poor and destitute.

I heard about a vacancy at the Bahman School about three years ago and was hired as a cleaner; life improved where I could at least take care of my challenged son. My fortunes changed again when this orphanage was built and I got a chance to work at what I do best, be a mother. Now I am a mother to 24 children. They are good children, hungry for love and affection but even more eager for any opportunity to excel. Sure they give me a hard time sometimes, whose children don’t? But they listen to me when I reason with them and guide them.

My day never really ends. I wake up real early and wake the kids for prayers after which time all hell breaks loose. While they brush their teeth, take a bath, iron clothes, make their beds and fight each other, I am busy preparing breakfast, listening to their many needs and trying to pay referee. I check them out before they head out to school, make sure they have ironed their clothes properly, ties knotted right, shoes shined glossy black and hair neatly oiled and combed. I relax a bit when they leave before I head home to tend to my sons needs. I am back before they return so that dinner is good and ready for them. I make sure they behave afterwards; playing, reading or going for extra tuition. My energy levels are maxed out by the time they are tucked in bed. I get to sleep about midnight.

I ask her how she would feel it if the boys go from 24 to 50 as planned. She thinks for a moment, smiles. Well, I’ll be a mother of 50 then, no?

As told to me on the morning of November 01, 2010 at Zahra Boys Home, Sirsi, UP, India.

Click here for picture of Aarifa and orphans / orphanage.

Dear President Obama, welcome to Mumbai:

Dear Mr. President:

Wow, you are coming to Mumbai today! Welcome, Sirjee, most welcome. You know what; I was so thrilled when you won the elections. Man, I never in my wildest dreams ever imagined a Black American with a Muslim sounding name preside over the most powerful country in the world. I know, I know, you are a Christian, I heard you saying this enough time during your campaign gigs around the country. Still, with a name like Baraak Hussien Obama, wow, isn't it something? Perhaps there is hope for my daughter, Maaha Zainab Yusufali, now 10 in about 25 years? She has an interesting background resembling yours somewhat, born in the USA from African and Indian parentage. HE does work in ways most mysterious, no?

I would love to meet and welcome Michele and you to my house in this host city of mine but I have about the same chance of that happening as a ban on honking and fireworks in this city. Now, you may be shielded from wrecking your ears from endless, addictive honking in this country what with you in an armored vehicle but please hold on to Michele real close when you retire for the day. It is Diwali here and firecracker blasts that go off at night would put the bombing of Bagdad to shame. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate; a little. So do not worry if you hear loud bangs that make you jump out of your skin or Michele scream in terror. I wonder how they are going to insulate you from the smells, however? Mumbai, at least here in Versova where I live, throws up a terrible pong when the wind changes direction in the evenings, but this is common all over the city, I am told. Ah, well, perhaps the armored vehicle and sealed hotel rooms at the Taj will take care of that.

Why would I want you to visit my home, you ask? Well, you are my President for one so I am being polite but it is the subsequest publicity I fancy. Can you imagine?! Your visit will be the key that opens so many doors in this city! Bollywood? Also, I want to share some secrets with you, secrets CIA and FBI cannot or will not tell you. You see, not everybody is excited as I am with your visit here. Apart from Government officials and the media going gaga over the official visit, I have yet to meet a single Mumbaite who is even a bit thrilled. My driver, who is a staunch conservative Muslim made a sour face when I mentioned that you are coming, but said nothing. The watchman at the gate of my housing complex gave me a puzzled look and asked, 'what's that?'

'It's a person,' I said, 'the President of USA'.

'Really?' said he, 'interesting', and promptly lost interest.

These few individuals were indifferent, but thousands other are disgusted if not livid, I assure you. I thought visits by heads of countries were intended to bring goodwill and friendship but this is not the case here in Mumbai, Sirjee. I went to buy some fresh fish yesterday and the Koli women selling me the seafood had some choice powerful, colorful words for you that I feel embarrassed to pen here.

Here are some of the people aggrieved by your visit:

Thousands of drivers; there is a virtual security clampdown in and around the airport all the way to Colaba where you and your entourage have taken over the Taj and neighborhood hotels.

There is no taxi service in and around the airport and the hotels; you cannot imagine Mumbai without taxis, Sirjee. It is like New York without the Yellow Cabs.

This is Diwali and Guajarati New Year season, when small time traders make most of their yearly profits. All these traders along your official route have been ordered shut for two days.

No fresh fish in Mumbai. That's right, the Sassoon berthing docks where fresh catch of the day arrive have been sealed for three days; its chicken, mutton or veggies, Bwana. Did you retain some Kiswahili words from your Dad? Bwana is Mister if you didn't.

The Chief Minister of Maharashtra is pissed off because your schedulers did not allow a private meet; so are several other states Chief Ministers.

Aditya Thackery is even more upset for not been invited with his schoolmates to meet you. You do not want to mess around with the Thackery's in Mumbai; you can read about them on Google.

So you see, Mr. President, I have yet to meet anybody real happy with your visit. I am sure Government officials will give you a great time, together with the Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis, those that do not drive a taxi for a living or earn from selling fish or saris or shoes. You will dine grandly (mind that curry though, known to clear sinuses from both ends) but never anything from the streets, you do not want to end up with the Delhi Belly. Oops, I forgot, the foods vendors have been chased off from your route, never mind.

Anyway, I just wanted to share these secrets with you, my President. Again, Michele and you are most welcome to visit my home. It is modest by USA standards but very comfortable middle class Indian home. You will be very proud to see how a US citizen family lives in Mumbai. I for one am genuinely happy you have come; but then I have not been inconvenienced in the least; I can eat chicken or mutton anytime. Most welcome.

PS: Try and come in the morning, the winds shifts after about 4PM and I do not have facilities like the Taj or your armored vehicle.

PS again: If you come, please don't mind Maaha Zainab's acquired Indian habit of wagging her head every time she agrees with you. I am sure she'll be adequately Americanized by the time she becomes the Democratic Party's candidate for your current job.

Yusuf Yusufali
Mumbai, India