Friday, December 23, 2016

Amongst The Rohingyas Of Myanmar

My current trip, to distribute rice to the Rohingyas escaping persecution by the powers to be in Myanmar (Burma), at the border area with Bangladesh, is turning out to be quite a gut-churner. Both in the physical wellbeing of my body as well as the trauma to my mental/emotional health. As I see and hear about the chilling and incomprehensible brutality that the army of Burma is melting out to the very citizens they are bound to protect. Please keep in mind that the following is not hearsay. Rather, these are first-hand narrations by the people lucky enough to have fled and survived an attempt at their systematic genocide.

The Emirates flight from Orlando leaves on time, but arrives Dubai almost an hour early, thirteen hours later, thanks to positive winter tailwinds; as usual, I barely sleep but a couple of hours in that time. After a four-hour layaway, I head to Mumbai, where I want to sleep at least six hours by 11:00 PM, but am wide awake by 03:30. My fitness trainer has advised that the best way to beat jetlag is exercise, so I go running at the gym – six miles in 60 minutes. I am at the airport by 07:00 for a Jet Airways flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The imbeciles at Jet Airways change to winter schedule at the last minute, making my connection to Cox Bazar from Dhaka by Novo Air dicey. Still, I have two hours, enough time to get a visa on arrival and walk to the domestic terminal. It never works like that, nai? My flight is kept holding in the air above Dhaka due to the closure of a runway; my blood pressure notches up. We land with barely an hour left for my next flight. I get the visa fast enough, but the problem now is getting out of the immigration area. Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Etihad, Fly Dubai, Saudi, Thai and local Biman airlines have all landed at about the same time. Leaving the airport resembles a disaster evacuation zone. Everybody pushes, so I join in, until I am stopped by a customs officer who barks at me in Bengali. I stop and look at him in frustration and confusion. Flashing my US passport at his face. I plead with him.

I have nothing to declare, and I’ll miss my connection if I don’t hurry up. Can I please go?

He regards me, then at the passport, sighs, breathes pan fumes at my face, baring bloodied fangs. But he waves me on my way, regret at losing a possible bribe written all over his face. The passport comes in handy once more, as a security officer, deep in conversation with a female colleague, lets me into the domestic terminal without a security check of my person or any of my possessions, including my laptop when I flash him the US booklet. I guess the passport or the female company took priority over security?

If the international terminal in Dhaka is bad, the domestic one resembles the Crawford Market in Mumbai with its orderly chaos. There are about five domestic carriers that use this terminal, and all of them have their employees shouting their heads off; the PA system is not working. Except nobody pays any attention. I get to the check-in counter with 10 minutes to spare, certain I’ll be denied a pass. But the chubby agent issues me a boarding pass; I board the aircraft, and we are off, on the dot, on time.

Kausar Jamal, the rubber plantation owner in Bangladesh who is handling the logistics of distributing the 14,000 5kg bags of CAI donated rice to the traumatized Rohingya families meets me at the airport. I am to spend the next couple of nights at a dingy apartment hotel infected with bloodthirsty mosquitos. After a quick shower and magreeb salaat, we head out for the first batch of distribution. BD government is not keen on aiding and encouraging the refugees, so have severe penalties in place for the offenders. So, I distribute the rice in the dark of night. The refugees, faces etched in fear and pain appear, with a putrid stink of unwashed bodies, like ghosts, grab the rice package and disappear as eerily; I feel grim satisfaction.

Kausar and his wife then treat other volunteers and me to a sumptuous dinner of barbecued duck, tiger prawns and other delicacies fit for a gluttonous emperor. However, my taste buds are sullied by the misery I have just witnessed and severe exhaustion from my travels. The mosquitoes have me awake by 3 AM, even though Kausar has had the room fumigated earlier. I watch several of my tormentors, heavy with my blood, resting on the wall behind me. One has the audacity to escape from my sleeping shorts and join the others. I carefully, happily murder them all, leaving red blotches on the wall that was once white. They, however, have the last laugh in death, since I am left with an irritated behind and no possibility of sleep for the balance of the night.

After fajr at a nearby mosque where hawking, snorting and coughing is non-stop, we head out, this time to proper Burma, through an unmanned border. Again, clandestinely, the rice is given away to the hapless refugees. I request and am granted an interview with Noor Begum, who hails from Burma proper. She escapes death four days ago, by carrying her 80-year-old frail father, aided by her four young kids, to safety. This, after the Burmese army strafes her village, Lung Dung, using helicopter gunfire, setting all bamboo homes on fire and kidnapping the men. She has no idea if her husband survives the attack. She asks me for a blanket and some clothes since the outfits on her and her kids are the only ones they escape with; I feel inept and miserable, unable to help.

I meet Basheer Ahmed and his mother-in-law, new escapees. Basheer tells me his wife and sister were raped; his sister's breast chopped off. I stiffen in horror; I’ve heard of this method of torture before; in Afghanistan, by the Taliban, on the Hazaras.

Why, I wail?

Just because we are Muslims, is the response.

I am then related other forms of torture, to children, tales too gruesome and graphic to pen. The Army uses rape, especially of teenagers, as a routine method of torture, the victims relate. I don’t know what to do, what to say, how to react… I want to scream… I want to tell them to stop… I can’t take this anymore… I want to run away…

We deliver more rice to these despondent people. I do this unfeelingly; my emotions numb with pain. I watch young, very poor boys get free circumcision treatment with clinical efficiency. The foreskin is pulled down tight, a numbing needle follows, another antibiotic needle in the bum, a wait of 5 minutes, the skin stretched again and a sharp bamboo knife slices away the foreskin – the procedure completes. The children feel no pain, look around without shame, bewildered. They are treated with two lollipops and a brand-new lungi, which they gingerly hold away from their assaulted budding manhood. Kausar Jamal provides this free service to 1,000 needy children every year. 

We head back to Coz Bazar; I am in a daze of severe emotional turmoil. I refuse lunch and dinner; I think I’ll puke if I attempt to eat anything. I die of mental and physical exhaustion after salaat; the mosquitos leave me alone, as Kausar has them neutralized with a nauseous but deadly combination of repellent spray and coil. I awake for fajr salat at the hawking masjid. The Imam is brave; he recites Sura Mulk. I wonder what’ll happen if Mohammedraza Janmohammed attempts this at HIC back home. A riot and a coup-d’état, I reckon?

I go beach running at Cox Bazar, the longest unbroken beach in the world, at 72 miles. The crowds gape at me as if I am from outer space; stand out like a sore thumb, the only one with shorts. The beach is breathtakingly beautiful, especially after I run past the milling crowds. My appetite returns after the run and a leisurely shower; Kausar treats me to a sumptuous breakfast at a restaurant, then drops me to the local dala-dala airport and I depart for Dhaka – Kolkata – Delhi – Sirsi.

CAI would love to rebuild some of the bamboo / thatch-roof homes burnt down by the plundering Burmese army. They cost about US$125 each. Sponsor one at - donate – Aid For Refugees.

Click here for photos related to this trip.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Oh, Canada

The cute WestJet Airlines stewardess asks me if I want to something to drink, so I ask for black coffee. I’ve just had a spicy guacamole jalapeno veggie sandwich so bitter coffee with complimentary cookies sounds might fine to me. The lass’s smile is infectious, so I take up the courage to ask for another pack of cookies. She bats her kholi clad eyelashes towards me and flashes a perfect set of snowy dentures.

‘Why, of course, sweetheart, you can have as many as you want!’

I glow scarlet as she hands me three packs. My, oh my! It’s been decades since anybody has called me a sweet anything. Feels nice. But then she punctures my puff by using the same term of endearment on the grossly overweight dude seated next to me, who seems to be having breathing issues due to his size. Oh, well.

Canadian stewardesses are better trained in customer service, I think, more than their US neighbors. I remember asking for an extra pack of peanuts once on United Airlines and the snob, in a loud and offensive tone told me to wait until all the passengers are served before she’d consider giving me extra. This was in an era when the poor peanut was not treated with the allergy stigma it is today. I’ve always had courteous treatment from the Canadians in general. Cultural diversity?

I am going to frigid Toronto for a few days. It seems 50% plus of my time as CEO of CAI is now spent on compliance issues, making sure the IRS is happy with our reporting and obedience. The pale hearty Canadian lady immigration officer regards me and then peers at my passport photo suspiciously.

Lost some weight, have we? Like traveling, don’t we? Is all this travel personal or business? What do you do?


Ummm huh.

She thumps my passport with exaggerated gusto and waves me through. My body goes through severe shock as it adjusts to the senses numbing 30F outside the terminal; I was in balmy 80’s just a few hours ago in Sanford. I sleep in a cozy room tucked away in the basement of my niece Fatema and hubby Shabbir Alibhai’s home in Richmond Hill the next three nights. Shabbir’s mom, Nargis Aunty, is a soopa cook, her spicy methi parathas are heavenly, and it takes an act of supreme jehaad to deny myself extra helpings.

I spend the three days in pursuit of making CAI regulatory compliant, donor meetings and enlightening two Khoja communities about the plight of the hapless Rohingyas of Myanmar (Burma), probably the most oppressed people in the world today; both Masumeen and Jaffari Centers agree to let me address their members. So, I present the case of these pitiful peoples at Brampton, under the evergreen counsel of Sheykh Jaffer Jaffer on Thursday; thank you Zuhair Ebraheem, for arranging it all. I present the same case at Bathurst next day, after Jooma; thank you Mehboob Shivji, for weaving the magic wand. Isn’t it telling that both these Canadian jamaats are (always) so open minded and progressive, ready to consider the world outside of their comfort zone; I pray that other Jamaats, closer to me, would want to be similarly enlightened. 

Icy flurries and snow move in the second day of my visit, and I don’t like it. At all. I wear thermals, warm clothes, a scarf, an overcoat, cover my head, wear gloves, clear the snow from the car, scrape the ice from the windscreen and windows, shivering non-stop, wait for the car to warm up, drive on the snow very cautiously as if treading on eggs…this life is for the birds. I’m glad I fled both Toronto and Minneapolis when I did.  I go workout in the excellent gym at the Bathurst center early all the three mornings. It has state of the art fitness machines and weights, sauna and steam rooms, separate for women and men; strangely, they are sparsely utilized. I get to eat sweet yellow-shell passion fruit after a long time; had them last eons ago; Fatema buys me some; at C$1.50 each; they are pricey.
I don’t know what they are called in English. We used to call them matunda back home in Tanzania. My daughter Maaha Zainab calls them snot-fruit, since the insides resemble a runny nose?

The best way to consider the future is to look at the past. So I spend some time chatting with Nargis Aunty, Shabbir Alibhai’s mom. She tells me stories from the past that has a soothing effect on me; I could spend hours talking to her and not tire or bore. I also meet Khairoon Bhabi; the lady tended to me when I was a vulnerable teenager and bestowed on me a motherly love I yearned for, ages ago, away from home, studying in Moshi, Tanzania. And I spend an enjoyable hour with my ex-mother in law, Shereen SS. Even at 82, she is all class - prim and proper, bless her. If you are ever in the dumps, spend an hour with her, and you’ll almost die laughing; your mood upped a million times over.

Leaving Canada, at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, the US immigration officer notices a Myanmar visa stamp on my passports.

Oh, she says, I’ve been to Yangon. What a beautiful place. What wonderful people.

Since the place is almost empty, I tell her about CAI and that I am on my way to Burma next week to feed the hungry Rohingyas.

She shakes her head. Yes, I’ve heard of their plight. Very sad. Welcome home and have a safe trip.

I’m glad I am returning home; there is a snowstorm headed for Ontario in the forecast for tomorrow; I’ll be depressed if I am here. The flight home to Sanford is uneventful.

I’m heading towards the Bangladesh / Myanmar border next week insha’Allah. CAI has arranged five trucks of rice, to be distributed to the oppressed Rohingya refugees trapped there, a simple act that will, insha'Allah, bring some solace to them.  You can pray for them, of course, but if you feel charitable, please donate towards their cause at