Friday, September 29, 2017

Visiting Hell - Among The Rohingya Of Myanmar, Again

Emirates flight EK508 from Dubai descends to about 10,000 feet and begins the final approach towards Mumbai’s Chhatrapati International Airport. I am relieved, since I’ll soon be asleep in a comfortable bed at the Leela Hotel, after almost 24-hours on an aircraft from Orlando. Alas, not so fast. The plane lurches, turns course and heads up, up, up sharply, pumping up my blood pressure and making my heart palpitate like the effects from a drunken tabla player. The elderly guy next to me, an Australian, perhaps in his late seventies, utters a nasty profanity and quips to nobody in particular that he has wet his undies. He then laughs wildly, relieved that we’ll still live. The pilot sheepishly announces, after the aircraft steadies, like my heart, that he saw a plane on the runway he was trying to land on, something the air-control tower should have known and warned him. Nevertheless, we are on the ground safely in the next thirty minutes, and I am in bed within an hour of arrival. I need all my strength for my travels to visit with the suffering Burmese Rohingya on the Bangladesh side, in Cox’s Bazar.

To reach Cox’s Bazar, I have to fly to Dhaka, a 3-hour hop from Mumbai. Since there are limited flights to Cox’s Bazar from Dhaka, I have to stay in Dhaka overnight. Not such a bad deal, since I can convince Mrs. Hussein, CEO of the Bangladesh Women’s Welfare Association, CAI’s legal working partner in the country, to come visit me at my hotel so we can plan and strategize the intended aid for the Rohingya. This is not so easy, since the lady is a diehard ritualist for Muharram lectures and it is the 7th night of this sacred month. She relents after I convince her that Imam Hussein (a) would be happier with what we were planning to do. The flight to Cox’s Bazar is a non-event, except I can tell there are some aid workers, like me, who are headed there as well.

The Seyeman Hotel on the beach of Cox’s Bazar is like a fish market, with a steady stream of people wanting a room rendered disappointed. All the hotels in this city are full, thanks to the influx of aid workers and the UN expanding operations. The receptionist regards me warily and raises heavy kohl-laden eyes to the sky when she can’t locate my reservation.  I can only stare at her ears that have been punctured and adorned with at least six bling-blings on each lobe; what a whacko, no? My American passport works wonders, however, for she is quite impressed with it and labors to locate my reservation through the number and eventually finds it. Allah bless the good old US of A; I love ya!

The Kutupalong refugee camp is 30 miles from Cox’s Bazar, close to the Myanmar border. The army is omnipotent as we near and eventually get stopped. There is a quick and fiery exchange of words and eventual money with my chaperone. Since I understand Bengali very little, I think it goes thus: Where are you going and what is your business here? Huh, I am a Bengali and going about my business. Very funny, you cannot go, this is a restricted area. But I live in Cox’s Bazar, and I do have business further up. The guy stares at me hard; I stare back. Who is the foreigner with you? He’s not Bengali…I tense, since I have not brought along my passport and have no other ID on me. The soldier orders me out but a fast-as-a-flash exchange of some takas (the local currency) softens the guy’s heart, and he waves us through.

I have no shame in admitting that I cry at the camp; I cry like a baby. There is not an inch of firm ground to put my foot; it is all squalor. I can feel the germs and disease in the air; it’s all palpable. I walk on shit and wreck my shoes in an instant; I discard them on my return to the hotel. The smell of raw sewage is relentless, and I retch all the time. Everybody hawks and spits incessantly, perhaps trying to rid the rot that settles on the tongue and throat, infuriating me in the process.  Although the skies above are pregnant with rain, Allah makes them wait to relieve their burden. For me, I’d like to think; else I don’t know what I’d do if starts raining now.

The place is packed with young mothers carrying children who rattle coughs and sport thick runny noses. It’s the mother’s eyes; they look at me intently, expectantly, as if I’ll make their despondency disappear; I can only offer a sympathetic and kind smile.  The children’s eyes, they pierce through my heart, rending it asunder. They are vacant, with no emotion in them, as if the horror of what they’ve been through have robbed them of emotions. When I try to call or touch their cheeks, they emote nothing.

There is an urgent need for toilets and fresh water to drink and bathe; the refugees are absolutely filthy and nauseatingly smelly. A raggedy girl, twelve perhaps, squats right in front of my eyes and does her business; I frantically avert my face and take deep breaths, calming the barf that threatens to overflow. I look to the sky and cry again. Ya Allah, what have these people done to deserve this inhumanity? Oh, my Allah, the most Merciful, please, please help them. You are their Maker; You are their Creator; You and only You can change their plight…please!

The local Bangladeshis are excellent, sharing whatever little they have with the uninvited guests. Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the steely faced wily Prime Minister who is initially adamant about not allowing the refugees in her country, has now changed her stance; there are future electoral gains in this perhaps. So posters proclaiming her as ‘Leader Of Total Humanity’ abound everywhere; well, bless her. There are several aid agencies already here; the Turks, Malaysians, Pakistanis, Canadians, even the Russians, all dolling out packs of raw food. But there is no place to cook! There is no dry ground, only filthy stinking squalor mud. Each tarpaulin shanty is maxed out with at least 15 individuals crammed in. The majority, about 65% of these new refugees are women and children, either complete orphans or with a single parent.

I talk to a lot of the mothers, and the stories they relate to me are unimaginably repulsive.  I will describe the following two less violate ones, as some of these stories must be told.

Shahida Begum is only 32 but looks much older. She lives with other farmers in Nainshong village, about 18 miles away, in proper Burma, where her home is surrounded by the Burmese army and farmer husband, 35, is shot dead for no apparent reason at all. She manages to walk to Cox’s Bazar with her three children - daughter Tasleema 7, sons Shahid 4 and Subaid 3 - walking for a week and surviving on grass and appetite-numbing beetle nuts. Now, in the camp, she survives on handouts from aid agencies. Her future is very bleak, at best. I can only beg for some more time before CAI will be able to take care of their health, a warm cup of porridge and some primary education in survival and hygiene.

Kashir is a seven-year-old boy whose leg is hit by a shrapnel detonated from a toy planted by the Burmese army; it is slowly healing but will leave an ugly scar on the leg and years of emotional trauma. His grandmother, in her eighties, is grabbed by her hair as she protests the ravaging Burmese and decapitated, in front of Kashir. That wound will never heal.

I hear so many other tales, even more gory and ghastly, I want to scream for them to stop. My senses and emotional health cannot fathom all they are saying, it will crash, and I’ll end up a nervous wreck. They must be making it all up; a fellow human cannot be worse than beasts. Surely it is their imagination going wild? But this cannot be fiction, collaborated by so many others, in the same detail and fashion. I finally get beat and want to escape to sanity and urge my guardians to take me out of this hell. It takes a while to return to the main road and locate our vehicle. We take off just as the skies open up to torrential rain. My tears start their business again.

Action plan by CAI donors:
Immediate construction of as many toilets and water wells as we can get funds for. A privacy affording toilet costs US$120 and a hand-held water pump about US$270. Two toilets – male/female - and a well for every 15 shanties.
>  Complete medical attention and immunization to at least 100 orphans or children with a single parent. Including a hygiene pack gear with disinfectants and a dental care kit.
>  A large hot cup of highly nutritious porridge every morning for #2 above.
A makeshift school for #2 above imparting language classes, basic hygiene lessons, survival skills and Quraan. More importantly, a sense of belonging and purpose.
#1 above will be executed immediately; the others in about a week, the time it’ll take for our local partners to get a signoff from the authorities. Insha’Allah.

You can view some of the photographs of my visit here. CAI Trustees will be on the ground again October 18 – 23 to inspect and oversee above aid.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Masi Irma Comes Visiting / The Godmen Amongst Us / My New Novel

Masi Irma Comes Visiting
Masi Irma blows into Florida like an enraged ex, packing a hefty punch, huffing and puffing, spewing destruction and mayhem, upsetting routine and instilling fear. But like most exes with an ax to grind, the fury, devastation, and death she spits out are based on emotions churned by passion rather than logic. In this instance, the energy comes a spurring in Africa and roiled by the warm ocean waters of the Atlantic. We in Sanford are pelted by the howling winds, drenched by relentless rain, felled trees and snapped power lines, but alhamd’Allah, we survive. Not sure why the MC of HIC, under the wise wisdom of our young President do not open the doors of Masjid al Hayy as an obvious welcome shelter, like other Islamic places of worship have done.

Amazing how the media in the US cover this event. I’m not complaining, no. I’m glad of the minute detail tracking of Masi Irma’s ever-changing landfall sites and accompanying advice – where to get dwindling bottles of drinking water, depleting shelves of food, where to find shelter and much more, including dire warnings of death and destruction that this Masi is capable of venting. So much is hyped as well, however. Again, not complaining; we’d rather be extra cautious than sorry later. I can get my hands on drinking water, plenty of food and fruits almost to the last few hours before the supposed D-Day. I am tempted to evacuate to a fine refuge at Dauphin Island my good friend Faruk Khambaty from Greenville, NC offers, but Maaha Zainab is not too enthused to leave her other inflexible family behind.

Power snaps at magreeb, engulfing my house, the neighborhood and everything else in complete darkness, and cutting contact with the outside world since the communication towers are also hit; no phone or data access. As the winds howl and whip at my house, sitting in the darkness, I feel very small, helpless and claustrophobic. I must rely on Starbucks or Panera next few days to replenish juice to my MacBook Air and iPhone. My overwhelming reliance on the internet becomes a stark reality. The power remains out for agonizing days, spoiling all frozen meats, dairy, etc. Ouch, that hurts; nyaama is pricey here in Sanford. It takes 5 agonizing days without juice before Duke Energy restores power to my area; I’m willing and ready to commit certain murder by then. The constant stickiness from relentless sweating, uncertainty in the dark and reliance on torchlights to navigate rubs nerves raw, makes decent slumber impossible. I’ve been through much worse in my eventful life; daughter Maaha Zainab hasn’t and the strain shows on her face. I contemplate local hotels but they are either full or prices start gauging at $250 / night; I decide to sweat it out in a hurry.

The whole episode is quite unnerving really, the second time I’m going through preparing and braving a hurricane since moving here some seven-plus years ago. Not sure how many more of these life turbulences my fragile heart can take.

The Godmen Amongst Us
I’ve always wondered how and why seemingly intelligent people end up hero-worshipping Godmen like Ram-Rahim, the Indian criminal recently sentenced to twenty years in jail for raping his disciples; it's incomprehensible. His guilty sentence brought about the slaying of 38 people, imagine. Kheli ajeeb, no? He’s not the only one out there; there are several others, once commanding millions of frenzied followers, now rotting in jail. Hundreds more, equally popular and raking in tons of moola, roam free to spread their lunacy. Perhaps the following incident might give some pointers?

While I’m fretting about Masi Irma coming, a well-meaning sporadic donor to CAI, from somewhere along one of the scorching states of the Persian Gulf, calls and advises me that CAI should do more investing towards the orphans of Iraq. This guy is a momin and all but tends to impose his diehard opinions about religion and the rules of conduct in charity management and funds application. He informs me that there are thousands of orphans in deplorable conditions in Iraq that need our help right away. I readily agree with him, but politely point out that the orphan dilemma is not exclusive to Iraq; it ails Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, many countries in Africa... I also inform him that Iraq earns about 5 billion dollars in oil revenues every month, minimum, has tons of NGOs working for various humanitarian causes, our glorious and respected marajaas receive millions more in religious donations, so the need to help orphans outside Iraq, in countries where there are next to no natural resources, is more pressing. I also inform him that Iraq is one of the most corrupt nations on earth, that doing business there has ethical, accounting and compliance challenges and my past overall experience with charity work in that country has not been less than encouraging. This is where our conversation becomes far less amicable and eventually ends up in acrimony.

There is an immediate backlash at my assertions, even though I give him facts about my claims. The man, bless him, accuses me of disobeying the ulemas in Iraq, that they are the ones who decide who gets what. That they are the learned ones and I have no right to accuse the country of being corrupt. And even if it was, I am still to let the clergy decide where the aid should end up. I am advised that unlike him, who follow the ulema unquestioned, I would be wise securing my future by following his lead. Ahem.

I would have ended the argument then, since it is obviously illogical, and should have. But as I mature in overwhelmingly exceptional wisdom even more, I feel I cannot suffer fools so easily anymore. So, I tell him that our Glorified Allah has given me, and him, intellect, and made it mandatory that we use it. That we would be questioned for wasting it on Judgement Day. Ulemas, I tell him, are our respected guides, not infallible. When their ruling contradicts reality, reasoning, and verified balance, we are to refrain from following them. That brings about claims that not everything in Islam is overtly rational. Perhaps, I concede. But to me, with the knowledge and experience I have, I would not be a blind follower.

When we fail to agree to resolve our differing opinions, and cannot agree to disagree, I concur, rather cunningly and cruelly, to channel all his $50,000 plus in donations to the orphans in Iraq if he committed to it right then. He hangs up on me.

I know the guy is well-meaning and righteous. But sitting in an air-conditioned office, managing a cushy job is not equal to being on the ground, facing stark everyday realities. In my capacity as CEO of CAI, I must decide, in utmost anguish most times, where to channel scarce resources. It breaks my heart and gives me sleepless nights when I must allocate priority to one at the expense of another. All poor orphans are eligible a share of the available pie, and if I know that Iraq already gets more than its share, I’ll be aggressive in trying to equal the share elsewhere. Unrepentantly.

This episode gives me insight then, somewhat, how and why Godmen like Ram-Rahim exist and flourish. Perhaps?

My New Novel

Remember, my third novel is ready and a limited print version will be available immediately after Moharram / Saffer, 1439. All proceeds, 100%, will benefit 460 CAI worldwide orphans in their quest for excellent education. Please preorder a copy at US$100 each here. Delivered worldwide. Allah bless.