Friday, May 26, 2017

Afghanistan, My Turn – Mohammed Bhayani

Most places we think of are defined by perceptions and personal experiences. Such is mine about Afghanistan, as I prepare to visit it with a team of Comfort Aid International Trustees, to see firsthand some of the amazing work being done in changing lives of orphans, widows, the sick and the destitute in the badbakth country. I am setting out on this journey with my brother Shaida (Bhaijaan), Sohail Abdullah of New York and Murtaza Bhimani of Dar es Salaam. To be honest, I kind of already know what to expect from the voyage. I am warned of the rough rides on unpaved roads, the sub-standard living conditions, unforgiving winters and blistering summers. About the danger of Taliban attacks, the nature of some Afghan customs and just the mere fact that the rest of the world sees Afghanistan as a high-risk locale to be in. Just a week before we are set to arrive, the US military drops a missile known as "MOAB- Mother of All Bombs" to destroy a terror site. My wife makes it seem like she works for BBC, as the news is relayed to me seconds after it is posted online. She ‘speaks’ her mind of her clear apprehension of my upcoming trip. Bhaijaan has narrated numerous stories of his first trip with CAI three years ago and that I should mentally prepare for no western type comforts. May 4th, we fly out of Houston to Dubai, stay a night with a friend, eat and rest, as if this will be my last meal.

We land in Kabul, Afghanistan the next afternoon; standing six feet tall, I stick out like a sore thumb. Most men on board our flight have long beards, many up to their chest, dressed in Afghani kurta-pajamas, white turbans, ruffled faces that apparently have never used sunscreen in the winter or summer to protect their weathered skin. The new Kabul Airport already looks old, but not shoddy. Immigration is a breeze with fingerprint scanners and cameras, like most international airports; we are out in ten minutes. Here I meet three individuals, may Allah bless them and their families, who define and exemplify believing in a mission, committing to it, and acting upon it. I have heard fantastic tales of Basheer, Wasi, and Assef, of course, the men with boots on the ground that make the impossible, possible. As we walk out of the airport, they welcome us with smiles and hugs. We drive to Wasi's place, where we stay the night with his family. We meet Sohail and Murtaza, both ‘veterans’ to this country, two other gems who vigorously put their comfortable lives aside for CAI.

We set out the next morning on a six-passenger aircraft to Nili, the provincial capital of Dykundy. An hour’s journey by air, which can take upwards of 24 - 36 hours by road, depending on the time of year and security conditions - flight, please. We land on a challenging single unpaved landing strip of this miniature airport in this tiny city. As we exit, our amazing one in the world driver Sher Hussain waits to drive us for the rest of this seven-day trip covering seven remote villages. Grabbing a healthy breakfast of eggs and tomatoes, our first leg begins with an eight-hour roller-coaster drive towards the first CAI medical clinic in the village of Kity. I'll cover the basic ambiance of our drives, which comprises upwards of sixty hours of driving in probably the most grueling and dangerous ‘roads’ in this world; without exaggeration. I’m not doing myself a favor by thinking about time; unpaved roads become a norm; dips in the dirt are like an encore every five seconds, we drive not above ten miles an hour, even though the van seating eight passengers revs as if we are. I look at the speedometer thinking I'll feel the passage of time quicken if I see a healthier speed; it doesn’t happen. It certainly requires a strong stomach, good company, and tons of patience. This is the primary challenge during the entire journey. Because the rest of it is sheer beauty. Everywhere I look, as we drive up and down different mountains terrains and through small and large rivers, I see nothing but beauty.

On reaching Kity, we stop at the temporary medical clinic before heading out to the new larger permanent clinic under construction. To witness a modern building in an area surrounded by mud/straw homes speaks wonders to the dedication and hard work of CAI in making it happen. The new facility has an OPD, maternity, pharmacy, vaccination, living quarters for staff, full-fledged bathrooms with heated water and a water well for potable water. The living quarters makes me want to make this my remote weekend getaway, that's how nice it is. We walk around this new construction located on top of a mountain with beauty surrounding every aspect of this land. The clinic will serve more than 30,000 people in a 3-hour walking radius. The next morning, we audit the current temporary clinic, inspect the patient log, pharmacy inventory, the cleanliness of the rooms and general maintenance following, CAI guidelines. After meeting with the staff and listening to their feedback, we take leave. This process is repeated at the clinics at Ahngar, Gazbiri, Dyroos, and Uzmook.

The only way to do justice to my visit is to cover in detail some aspect of my experiences. Just like the roller coaster drive up and down the mountains, I feel the same turmoil of emotions - grateful, pampered, privileged, humbled, and none of them. "Which of your bounties will I deny?" I see a woman on a donkey coming towards a clinic with the husband beside her. A kid lays in the mother’s lap because of malnutrition. Old men lining up to get their aching bones checked out. And many UTI cases because of hygiene issues. Each of the five clinics averages forty / fifty patients a day, seen by a single doctor. The drive shows the many health challenges of people living in these remote areas. And reminds me of how ungrateful I've been in my life at times. I see a woman and child sitting on top of a mountain miles from any visible village, just sitting and gazing over the grandness of the mountains. I came across a man lying in the middle of the road, sunburnt and exhausted. I think he is dying, but apparently, he's just resting, regaining strength to continue his trek on foot - we are miles from the last town. I almost laugh at how easily he regards it as something very normal. It's impossible to imagine living the way I do and how wasteful I am. But every time I enter one of CAI clinics I forget all that retrospective mess. We stay comfortably, are served good food, beds and a place to shower.

The second village we go to is Gazbiri, the newest of the clinics, just starting operations. It is their first operational day in the temporary digs, and the conditions appall us all. It is small, cramped, with flies everywhere. And yet, we have the whole village standing in line to welcome us, a feast for food, and show gratefulness. Because before this facility, they had no medical care whatsoever! Ahngaar is one of the most challenging areas to access. The views are breathtaking as I look at the vista. The clinic faces challenges, especially when it comes to accessibility, but there is a much better permanent location finishing construction soon insha’Allah. Dairus is the best example of what a permanent clinic looks like - beautiful, well maintained, five- star compared to the surrounding dwellings. With the construction of a new CAI sponsored school for kids nearby, I can't wait to see photos of the finished product. The kids are currently studying under a dilapidated and dour looking mud structure. I get to pray underneath the open sky in the morning where I see majestic mountains, starry skies and two joining rivers. It easy to forget where you are and what the people are going through, with such beauty surrounding me. Going to our last stop, we head towards Uzmook. But before that, we stop over at the governor’s place for a meeting and a feast. Uzmook's new clinic sits in the middle of a beautiful farmland surrounded by jagged rocky mountains.

When we return to Kabul the next afternoon, it feels we have left a country within a country. Bustling shops, tall structures, fast foods, colleges, local bazaars, etc. The next day we visit Sakina Girls Orphanage (SGH), and CAI Private English School (CPES) built and operated by CAI. The kids we meet at the school are amazing; I just want to eat them all up. Next is the SGH in the basement of the building hosting fifty of the loveliest girls I have met. May Allah bless everyone involved in these projects because there are no words to describe the work that is being done here. The girls are all happy and eager to greet us, and we get to spend a little time with them. Since Shabaan 15 is almost upon us, an orphan hand us a poem she wrote in English for the Imam (a). It’s eloquent and well thought-out as she reads it out, but I can feel her emotions in every word; there isn’t a single dry eye at the end of it between the four of us.

I fly out to India the next day, leaving the misery, hardship, and hopelessness of thirty-five million humans behind. I have an option of freedom, of living in the West, with relative freedom and security; they have so very little. For a country torn by war over the last decade, I leave Afghanistan with nothing but gratitude and love.

I sincerely thank Yusufali, Basheer, Wasi, Asif, Sohail, Murtaza Uncle, Bhaijaan and the rest of the team of CAI for giving me this opportunity. May Allah bless you guys and your families.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Sydney / London Diaries

Sydney / London Diaries

Sydney Diary

Alhamd’Allah, Sydney is sunnier and a bit warmer than Melbourne and Adelaide. At first glance, the city resembles any others in the US or Canada, with wide roads, traffic snares and a downtown with skyscrapers. Except they ape the British and drive on the wrong side of the road. I get the privilege of being taken around by Zain Sherrif, a long-term resident of the city, and who knows the different center’s leaders very well. The centers are alive with people, where celebrations of the holy month of Shabaan are in full swing. I also meet up with a dear friend, Sheykh Jehad, who helped CAI raise funds for Sakina Girls Home in Afghanistan by flying all the way to New Jersey in 2014. And then I meet Ali Hussein, originally from Myanmar (ex Burma). Ali Hussein is the founder member of Bellfield College in Sydney.

The college, a considerable distance from Sydney proper is remarkable in many ways. It is gracefully nestled among a suburban wooded residential neighborhood, so it is an ideal setting for learning. It is the first secular Shia school in Australia, I believe, and currently has a student strength of about six hundred-odd children from various communities. What makes this fact unique is the diversity of students; Hazaras, Iraqis, Lebanese and an assortment of Indians and Pakistanis; some Khojas, even. The contrast and confidence in these children compared to their brethren they left behind is remarkable and startling. These kids, overwhelmingly refugees who escaped turmoil, violence, and persecution from home in very trying circumstances, sailing in ships from Indonesia to Australia, have now seized the opportunities of education as the only way towards genuine freedom. My heart twinges in pain as I compare their good fortune to the plight of ones still trapped back home, who I meet every so often in my role with CAI, with so little hope and so much pain.

The road leading towards the establishment of this school has been an arduous one that Ali Hussein has bravely navigated. With meager resources, a hostile local civic council, a skeptical community, headed by religious figures who know nothing about running a school but are liberal with demands and advise, the team at Bellfield now have an institution that I am very impressed with. The management, staff and Ali Hussein should be very proud of their labors. The schoolchildren are probably the best-behaved ones I have met in the Western world.

I pray that Bellfield College sees nothing but progress and growth as its planned expansion towards sixteen hundred students in the very near future is realized, insha’Allah.

London Diary

A very jaded Punjabi-looking Immigration officer in London, with an extensive and wholesome nose, tragically punctured with an even more tired-looking nose ring, asks me to remove my cap, barely glances at my invisible mane of hair, asks how many days I want to be in the Queen’s country, does not wait for a response, stamps my brand-new passport twenty-two pages from recent activity and waves me away, as if I am an irritant to her boredom. I fume. What a dingbat! Why couldn’t she have stamped it bloody orderly, like the British are supposed to? I want to give her a mouthful, but the person next in line is already breathing down my neck, so I move on. I am in a bad mood, I guess, having flown fourteen hours from Sydney to Dubai and another seven to London.

London is a city always worth visiting. I have a home away from home here with Fatima and Nazir Merali, whose hospitality has no limits in generosity and kindness. They treat me with such extravagant royalty, the Queen would burn with envy, even. This Merali house is blessed with the tastiest and sweetest fruits I am lucky to gorge on, from papaya to melons and mangoes to daaram, and whatever else is in season; a heaven on earth. These are some of the people Allah has gifted CAI, who go out of their way to facilitate and host me in my travels; may Allah bless them abundantly. Now if only the weather will warm up and unfreeze my tush; golly me, it’s already May, and the thermostat at the airport flashes a chilly 9C (48F).

I am here for a few days to attend the wedding of the daughter of an officer, a gentleman and a friend, Nassen Valji of BETA and for the ever-demanding compliance issues related to CAI worldwide projects. Several visits to the Khoja Stanmore center is mandatory, of course. Here is where I can sometimes connect with people I meet after forty plus years. Childhood school or madressa mates from Tanga and Arusha from back home in Tanzania. Also mandatory is the fiery Zanzibari mix from Azad’s shack; the guy is now probably a hereditary icon in the annals of London’s Khoja history?

There is no dearth of halal restaurants in London, of course, so I am treated to good food and better company. Walking the streets of this ancient city, observing the diverse humanity mingling therein, with all religions and intertwining cultures, I am convinced humanity has hope. Real, solid opportunity for a peaceful and progressive future, even with the current global upheaval of gloom and doom that prevail. As a racial and especially religious (read Muslim) minority individual, living and visiting ‘Western’ democracies for almost forty years, I find my hosts practicing Islam without being Muslims. Yes, there are isolated incidents of intolerance, made notorious through social media, but that is to be expected. Especially when we take upon ourselves in sporting ugly looking unkempt beards or exaggerated adornings not mandated by our religion. I shudder to imagine what the scenario would be if the roles were reversed. Politics aside, minorities have been, are, generally welcomed and a vast number of us have, are assimilating, no, prospering in these adopted countries. The situation is never ideal, but what, in life, is. Insaaniyat is still, perhaps now a bit diluted, the underlying ethos.

I am glad to leave London and return home via a very warm India; it’s been too long.

Now, if you can spare fifteen minutes, I encourage you to watch the flowing clip. I promise you will be enlightened, at a minimum, insha’Allah.