Thursday, September 19, 2013

Little Muskaan Is Going Blind

I sit in the shade, outside CAI built Al Zahra Boys Home in Sirsi, UP India. My face and every exposed body part feel the scorching heat and humidity out here. I earlier inspect new science laboratories and seven new classrooms at the school across the orphanage all morning so am taking a well-deserved break. I can see shimmer of heat creating mirages across the field that our children will play cricket later today, seemingly unaffected by the suffocation I feel. Six orphan puppies, cubs of our guard dog mauled to death by predators while fighting to protect her litter, take shelter from the heat under a cluster of pretty stressed flower plants, panting as they try to seek comfort from siblings in the absence of their mother. Even a slight movement of squatting flies away from my face brings instant beads of perspiration all over my body; even my undies seem to weep at the effort.

I believe I am coming down with something dreadful. It has not been an easy trip this. Punishing commute between villages in Afghanistan with very little sleep, to Srinagar, Kashmir for a girls orphanage project and now in remote Sirsi has, perhaps done harm to my immune system. I could go to the air-conditioned guest room inside the orphanage building but that would entail starting up a pricey, noisy, erratic generator so I am not bothered. Plus, the brave man I am, I am scared silly of mice. For the first time in four years that I regularly visit this orphanage, there are mice in the room. Yesterday, Aliakberbhai and I finally go to sleep, at about 2AM, arriving from New Delhi, driving six hours. I am in deep sleep when I feel light tapping in my back. I open my eyes to look at Aliakberbhai in blissful slumber. If he is facing me, who is it tapping my back? With my heart in my mouth, I leap out of the bed; so does a tiny mouse, even more terrified than Î, who springs in the air and frantically scurries to the safety of a refrigerator nearby. Earlier today, after salaat, the room super chilly, I insert my feet into the warmth of a comfortable blanket. Mr. Mouse thinks likewise, so my foot caresses a furry ball. I scream the orphanage down, much to the merriment of staff and boys. No, I am fine wilting away here in the heat. I am not going to sleep in that room tonight either, not until the mice trio are shooed away or put to permanent sleep.

My feeling weedy and melancholy, even with excellent progress of school labs, classrooms, both girls and boys orphanage ship-shape here in Sirsi and a new classroom wing extension at Phanderi Sadaat Girls School some two hours away has deeper reasons. Some three months ago, a friend observes I have lost laughter and merriment; I have turned much serious with my association with CAI; a grouch, he suggests. Then, I wave this off as a silly observation, of course. Now, I am unsure. With worldwide Muslims, especially Shia Muslims in deep suppression and oppression, what is there to elate and be happy about? I cannot name a single country where Muslims are prosperous or happy. Can you? A smug mug of Narender Modi all over the country as front contender for next Prime Ministers post of India can easily slide even the most optimistic mind into deep melancholy.

And then, early this morning, I meet Muskaan, a seven-year-old orphan girl at the orphanage. She is going blind, you see. Muskaan is unique, for she has no parents; both die within few years of each other. She is taken in by her maternal grandmother, an old woman, poor and sick herself. Overwhelmed, she turns to our orphanage for succor and is more than relieved to put Muskaan in our care, which is fine of course; this is why we are here. Recently however, our staff detect Muskaan does not follow instructions and takes inordinate time performing routine tasks. When a doctor examines Muskaan, the diagnosis is swift and devastating. She has very weak and unstable retinas, deterioration of condition is certain, leading to eventual blindness. The doctors can only delay the outcome with immediate surgery, one eye at a time. But it will be certain blindness eventually, for sure.

This news is both numbing and painful, both to Aliakberbhai and I. Aliakberbhai, who is more close to all the girl orphans as he visits them more frequently than I, is not willing to accept the doctors verdict. He insists a more qualified specialist be contacted, no expense spared. The doctor regards Aliakberbhai with understanding, tolerant eyes; he has no objection to the suggestion, but cautions us not to delay. Now, Muskaan will go through the routine of being examined by a specialist and then certain surgery. This will retard progress of the darkness that has begun engulfing this pitiful child of Allah, whose wellbeing and care He has commanded and admonished us so much in His book and through His representatives (A) on this earth. This darkness engulfs me as well, suffocating me as I imagine my own Maaha Zainab in a similar situation. I start violently, startling the slumbering puppies, who yelp and whine in protest, but are unwilling to vacate their relatively comfortable place under the almost weltered flower plants.

So here is little Muskaan, who has stolen my peace and quiet since I learn of her predicament. I know of nothing that I can say to her that will give her hope. But yes, I can pray for her, beseech my kind and merciful Lord to please, please give Muskaan her sight back, even if I cannot be merry and cheerful. I beg you to join me in praying for this beautiful child as well. Miracles can, do happen. Insha’Allah.

I include photos of other orphan girls gleefully exploring my IPhone 5, a novelty for them. Yes, we execute one mouse, the other two, unfortunately, escape.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Afghanistan, My Turn - Shaida Bhayani


This, my 26th trip to Afghanistan was mighty tough, as you will learn from Shaida’s narration below but as usual, very gratifying; the primary aim was ensuring donor and huqooq funds are spent in responsible manner. I am humbled at the projects CAI donors have supported, bringing much relief and hope to the utmost downtrodden of Allah’s creations in the most remote parts of His realm. Abbas Jaffer and Shaida’s company made the difficult trek a little more bearable and I thank them for their gritty determination to endure it. Shaida’s narration has been edited for structure and size, of course; his core observation and narration remain intact. Enjoy. You can also view wonderful photos of the trip here.

Key players in this narration:
Yusuf Yusufali (aka Ali Yusufali, Kisukaali, Prince Ali, etc…)(YY) – CEO, CAI.
Abbas Jaffer (AJ) – CEO, Architectural Sign Group, New York.
Shaida Hussein Bhayani (I) - CFO, Shokura Inc., Houston.
Wasi Mohammediyan (WM) - lead engineer and head of CAI Afghanistan.
Basheer Razaee (BR) -  lead engineer for CAI Afghanistan.
Dr. Aaseef Husseini (DAH) - medical coordinator for three CAI medical clinics in Afghanistan.

All praise belongs to Allah (S) who gives me the opportunity to share this experience and peace upon the Holy Prophet (S) and his Progeny (A) who have been my guiding force.

The trip has been long time coming, going back and forth with YY. After two days well spent with family in Dubai, YY, AJ and I set off for our trip to Kabul, a city surrounded by mountains, on Friday August 30.

The journey starts well with YY and me going back at each other with puns and AJ as bait, but he breaks his silence as soon as we land in Kabul and the fun begins.

Kabul airport is surprisingly good, considering I am in Afghanistan. Our hosts WM and BR meet us and we drive 30 minutes to WM's warm and humble home in a ‘secure’ neighborhood. Afghan food is one of the best foods to have, which BR's wife prepares with a lot of love. We relax the day to prepare for our fun journey ahead.

Funny fact: YY uses a prescription medicine bottle for loose coins and toothpicks; stores cigarettes in a sunglass pouch.

Day two starts early at an unholy time; immediately after Fajr, which is a little before 4AM. We stay up, enjoy cream and gharm naan for breakfast and are off. Saturdays are Mondays here, streets are packed and the city is alive with people and cars after yesterdays subdued holiday traffic. After formalities at a local bank, we proceed to CAI built Imam Hussein (A) School and Masjid. It's a bumpy, gritty ride of thirty minutes to Dasht-e-barchi, an untidy, grimy sprawling neighborhood where internally displaced Shia Muslims refugees call home. The school is massive, current student count mind-boggling 4,154 in three shifts. Our third stop is the new CAI office, now required by Afghan law for all registered NGOs. I witness a local Afghan donating his huqooq funds to CAI. We also meet DAH, Director for three remote medical clinics CAI has built and operates. After lunch and a nap, we visit twenty-six girl orphans at CAI’s Sakeena Girls Home. It’s a humbling feeling, meeting these kids, realizing how blessed I am. I get so engrossed in my everyday life and routine, ignoring Allah’s repeated command towards care of orphans. The girls greet us in English and have a few presentations in English and Daree. A meeting with teachers and staff ensues; YY addresses their concerns and questions. Our last stop for today is searching land for a new orphanage, which will hold sixty girls still on waiting list. We look at two great spots that are situated in a ‘secure’ area but prices are out of CAI reach. Insha’Allah...

Day three commences before 3AM since we have to be at the airport by five; multiple, mundane security checks can create havoc with time. It’s a tiny six-seat Kodiac plane and I get the co-pilot’s position because I am the biggest in the group. The one-hour flight to Nili has some amazing views (‘amazing’ is AJ’s constant refrain throughout our trip). I see villages in valleys between the mountains in remote areas. I wonder how people survive from up here, only to find myself outside a CAI funded school right in the middle of a mountain; the place is called Hijdi. The ride here is not easy, a workout really, through rough mountain terrain; our driver Sher Hussein is adept on these treacherous roads. Upon arrival, we receive a very warm welcome from almost the entire village and students of school chanting Khush-Amadeed. The seven-classroom school, exceptionally made, is inspected; YY advises the village head of their responsibilities of maintaining the school.
We take off from Hijdi towards Dareoos; the two hour ride is an adventure and very rough. The sight of CAI medical clinic up in the mountains is a welcome sight. Words of shukaar are on my tongue by default. The basic necessity I take for granted and often waste is luxury here. Clinic staff greets and feed us lunch. After an eleven hour journey a nap is wajib. YY goes thru three months of medicine stock and other accounting reports.
This clinic has an OPD with an ultra sound, vaccination room with freezer, pharmacy, delivery room and a MCH room. There were eleven night deliveries last month. YY meets with staff and addresses their concerns.

Day four starts at 3AM; we set off towards Kejran to inspect a school construction. This is our toughest day; a fifteen hour drive through very rough and sometimes precarious terrain. No photos or words can describe the actual journey, but a brief idea for your imagination: Distance between the two villages is 110miles. There is no road as such, a cut through mountains. The car lurches along at peaks and valleys, through rivers, Sher Hussein having to switch to overdrive every so often. We avoid boulders and deep cliffs with much effort. The ride takes a physical and mental toll, both sleep and talk is virtually impossible. Although the mornings are chilly, the afternoon temperature under a cloudless sky heats up the car mercilessly. If I open the windows, I breathe and eat fine dust; this settles in my nose, tongue and throat. Our security escort, with five heavily armed policemen, tries to keep enough distance between cars so the chocking dust does not overwhelm them. We get a machinegun mounted security car with armed policemen throughout our trip, courtesy of local Provincial Governors.
The school, when we reach it bone exhausted and weary, is well under way and will be ready to open doors for over 300 plus students of both gender in two shifts. The implementation process and formalities with the local education ministry is arduous. It's good to see dedication and hard work of CAI team members come to fruition. The inspection and suggested improvements is completed quickly and although I am fatigued, I sit at the school site and rewind through our drive here and contemplate. Children as young as 5/6 grazing sheep and working in family fields make me realize the benefits of my education. How it helps us define our lifestyle, our present and future, how much emphasis and resources my parents put towards it. Since this is the first NGO project here ever, the logistics of getting the construction material is nightmare. Materials are transported in parts, disguised for Taliban bands are known to attack and destroy all school related projects. We are ready to retire soon afterwards since we have the same long drive back tomorrow. Today’s meal was simple; inevitable naan and tea for breakfast; canned tuna, naan and tea afterwards.

Some quotes I capture from AJ:
‘This drive is not for the weak hearted.’
‘Does YY put everybody through this torture?’
‘I need to be carried, I can't do it anymore.’
‘Every time I see a four runner I think Taliban.’

I can't imagine YY doing this routine with very project no matter the distance or weather, at least I have the comfort of knowing I won't be doing this again in three months.

Day five is a classic memorial. We literally climb up a rickety ladder to sleep on rooftop of a mud house under the open sky. Living in the wild does have advantages, falling asleep gazing at the stars with a clear Milky Way is one beautiful experience but the night doesn't go as well. My immune system surrenders; I awake with sharp pains at 1:30AM. I dread going to the restroom in pitch-dark, down the steps, through uneven pathway to a stinking hole without a door in the outer courtyard. Gathering up courage and coming down the tricky ladder, to sounds of howling dogs and cows, no lights, imagining a Taliban attack, I manage to get through this. We are up at 4AM and head back to our 13-hour dreadful drive from Kejran to Nili; no fun with all liquid out of my body. We make it to Nili by 5PM and head straight to a seedy hammam; a good hot bath nevertheless! After prayers at a mosque in utter darkness, we head towards our clinic in Oozmuk; this clinic has excellent space and structure. We retire to sleep after dinner.

Day six starts at 3:30AM. Routine accounting checks and audits follow salaat and breakfast. We are on schedule for our 30 minutes flight to Panjab, yup Panjab, Afghanistan. Before we land, the pilot makes a horizontal fly past close to the airstrip before returning to land. ‘Runway might have turned into a soccer field with goal posts,’ explains the pilot. We drive out to Waaras, Bamiyan District, which is a 1 1/2 drive (if you pay attention to our commute times, you will perhaps appreciate what a trashing my body takes) through horrible roads; no fun even if the route is scenic. We make it to a local hotel - 5 star, no less. One large room with a common toilet outside; my, what luxury. Our lunch is french-fries, boiled potatoes and the king naan, no eggs or rice available. We are so tired everybody groans when WM informs us the drive to Takhavi, possible 15th CAI school site is two hours away; even YY. Once we get to the village, our hearts immediately melt to the sight we see; three torn tents, about 120 plus pitiful, scurfy kids and hopeful village elders stand waiting quietly. The kids probably have not showered for days, their skin blistered due to the weather; the feeling I describe, will not do justice. It simply leaves me humbled, full of humility. It’s a no brainer for YY who immediately OKs the project. We check out the proposed land and agree to initiate ASAP. The drive back literally brings tears to my eyes with prayers of shukr and taufeeq to help make this project, a reality with pure intentions. A good observation by YY: ‘How interesting these remote and improvised areas are mostly populated Shia Muslims, Kargill, Pakistan, UP...’

Day seven is privileged; why, we start at 8AM! Distribution of one month of food supplies, using Fidya and Kaffara funds, to fifty poor families, some coming from great distances. We proceed toward our 2nd stop of the day, mass marriage of 75 couples. We reach before schedule and wait for the couples to arrive. YY shares his initial experience in Afghanistan; I can now appreciate the challenges after experiencing the better piece of the pie myself. Throughout our visits we are constantly bombarded with requests and help for different needs. These are most difficult moments; people with expectant faces and humility in their requests. CAI cannot help them all, obviously, but YY promises to try, if they will participate in joint funding, CAI will try getting donors. Ya Allah! The connection I feel with these people, simply because of my shared love of Ahlebeyt (A) is definitely a feeling I cannot pen, especially when many of them are children of Fatema(A).
Grooms and brides show up, Quraan is recited, speeches follow. I ask WM if I can expect a wedding cake, especially since dessert has become a fantasy during this trip. WM smiles; alas the waleema is simple but delicious naan, rice and lamb.
We set out for Yakowlang on schedule after Dhor prayers for yet another 4-½ hour journey. After a visit to a local hammam, we are guests at Jamsheds (a local businessman and great logistical supporter for CAI) lovely house, a royal treat, nothing less than a 5 star hotel; clean room, comfortable floor beds, great food...truly a great host.

Day eight begins with two-hour drive to Sachek. I feel my body giving way and pass out throughout the drive but wake up to a beautiful sight of the new clinic. This was the first clinic by CAI. The new building stands besides the old one and it has the best facility out of the three, a much needed one specially in an area where people travel for hours to come see a doctor on foot or donkeys. After a through inspection and minor suggestions, we proceed with the opening.
Being a Friday the clinic is closed, but the sick still try their luck. While we are checking inventory and accounting, two critical cases arrive. A six year old girl, constantly moaning in pain with each breath.  The doctor suspects acute hepatitis, suggests she be taken to Bamiyan city. CAI donates the $100 expense she needs for her travel and treatment. The second patient is a 16-year-old boy with a cracked spine; it’s a wonder he can walk! He needs to be sent to Kabul for surgery; again CAI comes through. There are many such regular cases and Alhamd’Allah CAI donors have always come through. We head back to Jamsheds house, as we will fly out of Yekawlang tomorrow; our chartered flight arrives at 7:20 am. (You must see a pictures of this airport).

This trip was surely not easy, but made bearable by the great company of YY, AJ, WM, BR and DAH. The local CAI team truly goes through great lengths to implement an excellent and successful logistics and operations. Though I met them for the first time our bonding and connection was no less then that between brothers. Insha’Allah, until next time...

Shaida Hussein Bhayani – Houston, TX