Monday, June 17, 2013

Orphan Stories

Here are two stories on orphans that I have been flowing up lately. Both relate to Sakina Girls Home (SGH), an all-girl orphanage in Andheri, Mumbai, India which CAI supports. One is of two new applicants and other is a follow-up on two orphans who grew up, received a quality education and now, as adults, live away from SGH but still benefit from CAI scholarships. These stories will, perhaps, give you better appreciation on orphan care, something Allah (S) constantly cautions us about in His holy book.
Fatema’s story:

Sayeda Fatema Hussein (alias), a widowed mother of three girls and an infant boy, calls Aliakberbhai Ratansi, CAI’s India representative and requests placement for two daughters at SGH. SGH is already bursting at the seems, with sixty girls of varying ages crammed into a dubious, dingy, ramshackle three-bedroom apartment building located deep into a crowded, narrow, winding alley that two people cannot abreast walk. These orphans will insha’Allah move to better facilities, once their brand new digs are ready; but that will take another four years.
Sayeda Fatema’s application is one in hundreds such cases SGH is overwhelmed with every year so Aliakberbhai has to be very choosy who to give sanctuary and whom to deny, something most uncomfortable for any judicial human. Finances, food, clothing, health care, living space, educational opportunities (both Islamic and secular), emotional needs, discipline... The needs of orphans are complex and varied, akin to challenges of any household with kids, multiplied several folds for orphanages, so entry criteria must be and are stringent. Often, orphans that meet and pass rigorous requirements have to be turned down, a prospect too emotionally draining for me; Aliakberbhai however, has little choice.
So unschooled Fatema, a nervous wreck, arrives for an interview and scrutiny of her children. She is a diminutive figure, barely resembling a child herself, so you would be fooled to think she is an accompanying sibling. But she is twenty-seven years old, a mother of four already, three daughters and an infant son who her husband did not live to see; he died of a heart attack a few months before his son was born. Distraught, numbed and now destitute due to the tragedy, Fatema is partly supported by her father but finds herself overwhelmed by four kids and wants SGH, who she says is her last hope getting her kids a decent education and general care. She wants SGH to take care of two middle daughters while the eldest daughter and toddler will stay with her; she would toil to care and educate them.
The decision is a no-brainer, to me certainly, except SGH has no more space. What to do? CAI has a girl orphanage with space in Kargil but that would mean a cultural shock, extreme weather distress for the kids and the family would stay separated. Aliakberbhai relents and accepts the kids; space will have to be made, finances sourced. Here is Fatema with her two daughters.

The Khan Sisters
I have been following the progress of these two graduate girls from Sakina Girls Home for a number of years; they are already subject of an earlier Blog (read their story) and I will continue to document their progress until they complete their CAI supported scholarships, get married and become fully integrated, productive members of their community insha’Allah.
Both Saika and Shaheena Khan travel quite a ways in Mumbai’s inclement monsoon weather to meet with me at SGH, so they are understandably late and wet. Both sisters are doing exceedingly well in their education, well on their way to becoming IT engineering professionals.
Their success is mostly due to efforts they put in their education, true. Both sisters, due to their superior grades, qualify for part college concessions; CAI provides part scholarships and they bear the balance. But it is not easy. They travel early to college over an hour each way, by train, bus and walking; this can easily be two hours in Mumbai rains. Indian college education syllabus is one of the toughest worldwide, competitions brutal. Yet, they excel alhamd’Allah.
But this is also, I know, due to opportunities SGH afforded them in crucial developing and formative years. A safe and secure home, with instant access to water and power, three square meals a day, excellent schools, after school tuition, computer training, Quraan and madressa tuition, clothes, books...all combined to give them space to grow and excel. This is not something ordinary poor children can take for granted. CAI donors will insha’Allah continue supporting these girls until they graduate, with their promise, they too, will, in turn, use future personal resources in supporting SGH.
Here are Saika and Shaheena with me at SGH in Mumbai recently.

CAI donor funding built and now operate (either partly or whole) five orphanages in India and two in Afghanistan.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Land Of Bo E, Me And Rey

Monrovia Liberia, on the coast of West Africa is an exceedingly dreary city; dismay sets in at first sight. Murtaza Bhimani, my colleague, friend and CAI representative for Africa is with me; we are here for due diligence on a school project for poor Muslim children. It is a twelve-hour flight from Dar to Nairobi to Accra to Monrovia so my eyes smart from lack of sleep; we began at 2:30 AM. I must say Kenya Airline is mighty impressive with her on time schedule, better than Emirates economy seating and yummy Muslim meals.

Liberia is a country founded by ex-slaves from the United States. It is hard to believe this country attained independence over hundred years ago. Monrovia, the capital, is a nondescript eyesore. Apart from roads that are more reasonable than I have seen in other parts of Africa, Liberia seems years behind in progress or development. This country has gone through almost two decades of brutal and bloody conflict so I did not anticipate Dubai, but this is a downer. Circa four million Liberians are sixty percent Christian, twenty Muslims and balance local religions. Five percent of Muslims, some forty thousand, follow Ahle Tasshayyo madhab. Strangely, there is not a single Shia mosque in whole of Liberia, the Lebanese have built themselves a decent Husseiniyya.

Sheykh Askari, Mohammed Bah and Abulrehman Rogers, our guides are at the tiny, disordered, sweaty, smelly and crowded airport to greet us. We ride in Sheykh Askari’s hot, rickety Tata SUV an hour to the city; it is so hot and super humid, I am afraid I will leave embarrassing marks on the car seat with sweat drippings through my undies! The countryside is not unlike rural Tanzania, except looks poorer. Our Lebanese owned hotel is shabby but clean and we can be sure of being fed halal stuff.

After a concise briefing of our four-day agenda, we are left alone to retire for the night; we do just that since we are bushed out from our unholy two thirty AM start from Dar to Nairobi to Accra to Monrovia flight that takes fifteen hours. Just when slumber comes, our hosts, a group of Lebanese businessmen, come calling. There are about five thousand Lebanese in Liberia, old-timers, in various businesses, about sixty percent Shia; the Lebanese control Liberia’s commerce bloodline. Our hosts welcome us to Liberia and offer local logistics; they leave.

Next day is Sunday, the Lords day, of rest, literally. There can be no commerce on Sunday in Liberia, by law; violators are fined. So shops and restaurants are shuttered shut. Our guides take us around depressing Monrovia, places with names from southern United States abound. Liberians drive on the correct, right side of the road, they measure in pounds not kilos and gas is not petrol. Liberia has no power. Really. The entire country runs on diesel generators; I shudder to think of the total impact on her economy.

The UN has a major presence here, keeping the peace; they are everywhere. We see the Blue Berets everywhere, even female Indian soldiers. Indian businesses have a sizable presence as well, in grocery, drugstore and building material trade; storefront signs of Setty Brothers, Shanti and Choitirams dot almost all areas. Foreign embassies have choice locale placements, the US most prominent and formidable; I doubt if an ant can penetrate the fortress without serious consequences. Since there is very little we can do this day, we are left alone very early. After a very salty dinner of beef fried rice that rapidly elevates my hypertension, we retire early.

Monday dawns and I have second thoughts about the hotel. Although clean, it has very unstable power supply that plays havoc to the Internet service. Now, I can survive without a lot of Allah’s blessing, but not the Internet. Seeing my consternation, Sheykh Askary discretely calls out hosts and arranges a move to an upscale hotel; we will move there at the end of the day. The sheikh says we will be happy there, says the Internet connection is ver fi (more on this later). Our Lebanese hosts also offer us their air-conditioned SUV that makes moving around much easier.

Our first visit is to Jaffery Islamic English School run by Sheykh Askari and his group. The school is in a dilapidated building on a busy poor street, sandwiched betwixt two similar buildings; the converted apartment building has no lights. Children sit in dingy coop size rooms but the output is surprisingly remarkable; we are super impressed with their eagerness, intelligence and comprehension. Students jump to their feet with salawaat and recitation of dua e faraj; boy, what a delight. I ask six-year-old Zainab to solve a rather complex, for a six year old I think, multiplication problem; she takes less than five seconds to tap the blackboard three times and bingo, its done. Murtaza tries a more complex one; Zainab gives the problem the same contemptuous treatment. When we applaud her, she gives us a nonplused look of chill dudes, what is the big deal!?   

We then visit a land where Sheykh Askari’s team proposes to build a ten-classroom school in the outskirts of Monrovia; CAI will finance this project insha’Allah. A small mosque is also in the plans. Since it is past lunch, I am starved after salaat at a local mosque. When I eye a vendor with boiled eggs, my tummy rumbles in anticipation and request lunch of boiled eggs. Liberians speak what is supposed to be English but you’d be hard pressed to comprehend a word of it. They lop off the last few letters of most words and cocktail it with local accents and tones, making the language virtually incomprehensible. Sheykh Askari calls out U ha bo e and sal? Do you have boiled eggs and salt? Presto, we learn new English. We are hungry, so the bo e wi sal tastes delicious. When we check into the upgraded all chrome and glass and tile Royal Grand Hotel, I have an instant toothache when the receptionist quote the rate of US Dollars Three Hundred Fifty plus plus. Since it is booked and paid for by our Lebanese hosts, we cannot back out. It is a nice hotel with excellent Internet connection, bad and expensive food; no hotel room is worth paying so much.

We travel two hours to Bo Waterside towards the Sierra Leone border next day; Sheykh Askari’s hometown. He runs a rundown school in a shockingly ramshackle oven; I am eager to get out of the steamy classrooms. Children urinate openly, there is no water; teachers complain about the school structure and very limited limited resources. CAI has no funds for more schools but both Murtaza and I cannot take the miserable conditions. We sit with village elders after zohor and offer them a partnership proposal. CAI will provide them with materials to construct a small school if they contribute the labor; village elders eagerly accept. I am left with wrecking my brains how to raise the funds. We briefly cross into Sierra Leone without passports, using Sheykh Askari’s influence. I am pretty apprehensive; the last thing I want is to spend time in a local jail but it works. We inspect the land donated by village elders for the new school and return to Monrovia.

Where do we eat? There are no halal restaurants in Monrovia and all others cater for alcohol. We end up going to a local halal place deep into the city where we have some excellent me and rey (meat and rice). Murtaza is a bit wary of eating at this dingy place but hunger takes over and we eat to our fill. We meet with our Lebanese hosts later that night and finalize CAI commitments, logistics and safeguards for the two schools and a possible mosque. We return to Dar es Salaam next day, via Accra and Nairobi. Kenya Airways disappoints; it is delayed two plus hours out of Manrovia so we miss our connection in Nairobi; it takes nearly twenty-four hours to reach Dar.

Alhamd’Allah, I am bountifully blessed with escapades like this, where CAI and her donors make meaningful difference in poor children through education opportunities, so they can live decently, become honest and tolerant Muslims, with meaningful and productive lives insha’Allah. We do our part; may Allah (S) accept our small offerings for His pleasure.

You may want to view some photos of our trip to Liberia here.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Afghanistan Once Again – Part Two

...continued from Afghanistan Once Again - Part One:

Back to Nili airport and off to Yakawlang!

The unholy hour of 3:30 strikes again! Our alarm clock is none other than Yusufali himself. Somehow he is always first awake and manages to find a place between snoring heads to place a jaanamaaz! We take turns to do wudhu and only few can join him in jama’a. While some prepare breakfast, three of us head up a small hill next to the clinic for sunrise exercise; food tastes a lot better when the body actually needs it.

Later, it’s another two hours of wadi / rock bashing in Sher Hussain’s 4x4 van. The route is mostly uninhabited; we pass few children going to school initially, the rest of the way is boulders and we. Some rocks seem to tell tales, how eras of frigid and windy weather shaped them. I cannot help but wonder how this weather affects children here.

We reach Nili town, spend a few blissful minutes at an antiquated Internet café but are summoned to the airstrip in a huff – our chartered Pactec flight is running ahead of schedule. Off we go to Yawkawlang, to the third CAI operated clinic in Sacheck. The flight is an adrenaline-pumping treat; the pilot dives steep, then flies vertical about four feet above ground before lifting into a steep climb, turns around and makes a rather bumpy landing. This dramatic maneuver is to ensure there are no large rocks or animals on the rarely used landing strip.

Jamshed is there to drive us to the clinic in Sacheck. As we approach the clinic, we notice some retreating students; Jamshed explains they were expecting us earlier, some waiting at the clinic few hours to meet Yusufali but now returning home disappointed; its Zohur when we reach the clinic. A program ensues soon after salaat with thank you lectures, poems and loads of requests. Engineer Bashir takes the microphone and stresses the need to stabilize the situation in Sacheck for continuity of clinic services and other projects like this.

Dr. Zia Afzal, our resident doctor, says he daily sees around hundred patients despite the fact another NGO clinic is closer to Yakawlang town, some two hours away. This is because of superior quality and reliability of a doctor and medicines at CAI clinic. We learn doctor Zia (like Dr. Sardar of Uzmuk) has recently married and intends to settle in Australia in the near future; that means CAI is looking for three doctors – Dr. Asif has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders.

A staff meeting proceeds where various issues of the clinic are discussed. A very important point Yusufali emphasizes is funds to run this clinic are donated from regular hardworking Momineen – so the need to safeguard every every dime wisely, carefully, judicially. It is well received and I think the staff are left with renewed zeal.

Yusufali, Wasi and Basheer break away from the group and inspect construction of a new adjacent clinic building. Yusufali informs me all the work seen completed (in the photos) was achieved in just a month. The construction underway is the very first clinic built by CAI; all others operate in hired mud-houses.

Herat – the pearl of Khurasaan

We spend a most hospitable night at Jamshed’s residence in the village of Yawkawlang; enjoy the best dinner of the entire trip here. After another 3:30 morning climbing another hill, and bathing in a pubic hammam of Yawkawlang, we head back for the airstrip. Though it makes no geographic sense, we fly from Yawkawlang, to Kabul (eastward) and then to Heraat, the very west of Afghanistan (bordering Iran); it is a cost driven decision. Heraat is known as the cultural and educational center of the historic Khurasaan, the pearl of Khurasan.

The next morning (here fajr is at 3:00 am, but we are allowed some rest after salaat) we start with the first orphanage constructed by CAI six years ago; Imam Baqir (A) Trust of Kuwait manages it. There are some thirty orphans here; this number will dramatically increase once new admissions starts later. CAI sponsors English and computer tuition teachers plus daily milk.

Al Zahra Township is a set of hundred houses built by CAI for sadaat families; all but four are occupied. We grab the chance to enter one home to photograph the inside. Each house is nearly identical with a room, attached hammam, kitchen and hall. The toilet is outside in the veranda, following local custom. There is an empty plot of land next to it that is being considered for a masjid or an orphanage.

We spend the next hour trying to identify a piece of land nearby that is for sale. CAI is trying to locate one close to a good school so the girl orphans can walk to it. Since there are no official deeds to land in this part of Heraat (the outskirts) it is difficult to identify who owns what land.  Unfortunately, after much running around, we learn a plot for sale we like is not suitable, and quite a lot more expensive than initially thought; the idea is abandoned.

We proceed to Imam Baqir ul Uloom School where nine hundred students study here in two shifts. The school is the second of its kind run by a local Aalim and is yet to gain complete recognition by the authorities so it gets no financial support, unlike the first. Yusufali asks the manageress (Khanum Moosavi) what the school needs most urgently so CAI pledges a high quality computer for the administration office to manage the records of the students, print out study material for photocopying etc.

Our next stop is near a busy marketplace – a gigantic building which seems to be a part of Iran more than Heraat, with yellow brick walls and blue tiled calligraphy; it is Madrasah Ilmiyah Sadeqiya. Here we discuss more about the second Baqir ul Uloom school grim situation and Yusufali commits to paying six months rent. After praying in the largest congregation I see in Afghanistan, we meet twenty students who have been sponsored by CAI to study in Sadeqiya. These hail from Talibaan controlled Helmand Province, where minority religions are not free to practice their faith. CAI aim is to educate these in religious / secular subjects so they can return to Helmand and be catalysts for change. A series of question and answers follows between them and Yusufali with Bashir as the interpreter:

Yusufali: Are you happy here?
Nod of heads.
Yusufali: Do you want anything else here?
Now the heads move the other way – surprisingly they do not want anything more.
Agha Jibraeeli adds the students get everything that they need here – stay, food, drink, books and stationery.
Yusufali: Do you miss your parents?
A child: yes, but we prefer to study here. And we go home sometimes.

A teacher requests more CAI sponsored students. Yusufali suggests we should discuss after this current batch completes a year of studies. There are requests for water wells in Nauzad, Helmaand and a few more wells in another province near Helmaand; Wasi briskly takes notes of the requests. They ask how long it will take for Yusufali to make a decision; to my astonishment, Yusufali agrees to four wells immediately, more depending on funds; Wasi is not surprised.

Before we head to the airport for Kabul next morning, we make a quick trip to a bakery that is run by a recipient of CAI micro finance loan. It is doing very well and the loan is paid back on schedule. Yusufali makes a wish of the young gentleman – I want to see multiple branches of the bakery in various parts of Heraat, in Kabul and all over Afghanistan. These bakeries should then financially help CAI projects in Afghanistan.

Once out of Kabul Airport we head straight to the girls orphanage that is run by CAI in Shujaaee’s Corolla; the dilapidated orphanage hosts sixteen little angels. They school at Khatim un Nabieen School and will be studying English at the orphanage by a dedicated teacher soon. It is operated in a rented building that Yusufali is not happy with at all - the kitchen ceiling caved in last winter; even then, it is nowhere close to the standards of the Herat orphanage. Although the ceiling is repaired, there is possibility of other parts of the building giving way during the rains this year, so it is agreed another location be pursued and the orphanage relocated into before the rains. Within three years insha’Allah, funds permitting, a brand-new purpose orphanage is to be constructed.

While uncle Aliakbar and Yusufali proceed to Wasi’s residence to call it a day, Basheer, Shujaaee and I proceed to a slum area called Daste Barchi, just outside the main city. This is where tons of refugees settled during instability of Talibaan war. CAI has built a huge school here that is now run by the government. I cannot believe the numbers students it serves from thirty-six classrooms – nearly five thousand! Before you begin calculating the number of students per class, consider it runs in three shifts. The average of fifty-five is still too high; much more than we are accustomed to.

I also visit a CAI sponsored Hussainiya next to the school. It is an all-inclusive facility with a hall for ladies and gents on two separate floors, a ghusl-khaana with arrangements for ghusle mayyit, toilets, kitchen and a guard’s room. Since no function is planned today, I am limited to simply photographing the facility.

Later at night Yusufali treats us to the best kabab restaurant in town; (I recall this is our first meal outside as such; how we have been continuously hosted by one person or the other) all people who have little in common with us except they respect CAI for what she is doing for Afghans. It is definitely not an individual effort, rather a community that has come together under the leadership of Yusufali to help their own people.

By Muslim Faisal