#PakistanFightsCorona: Lending a helping hand

What to do, who’s doing it, and how to do it

A poetic fundraising resistance to despair

Event invite / Asmer Asrar Safi

The current coronavirus pandemic, and lockdown that is essential to prevent even more destruction, increases urgency in countries like Pakistan to ensure the survival of daily wagers and their families. With lockdown the only way to #stopthespread of COVID-19, many organisations are working on the ground to provide rations to families and PPE to health workers.

One initiative aimed at supporting these efforts is a poetic resistance to despair: An online fundraising effort for COVID-19 relief, Pakistan, Sunday 19 April 2020 at 1 pm ET (10 pm Pakistan time). Join online via this Zoom invite. (www.bit.ly/cvd19apr)

This is the first of a series initiated by the US Pakistan Students Coalition, including students at Harvard, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Swarthmore, Yale and others. The Joy of Urdu is supporting this effort, that I am honoured to collaborate with.

It all started a couple of weeks ago near Harvard Square, running into Nadia Rehman, a political activist from Islamabad and Benazir Bhutto Fellow at the Mason Program, Harvard Kennedy School. We had been in touch for a while before we first met last December, when she invited me to moderate a wonderful event, Celebrating Kartarpur: The peace corridor between India and Pakistan organised by the South Asia Engagement Group which she co-chairs. Nadia is also President of the Harvard Pakistan Students Group, which co-hosted the event along with the Harvard Sikh Students Association and the HKS India Caucus.

When she asked what music I like and began singing as we walked (at a good physical distance, preferred term to social distancing) I was struck by her lovely voice and repertoire of songs. Why not do an online event with a few friends, get people out of their funk, connect friends online over some good poetry? In fact, why not make it a fundraiser for Covid-19 relief?

A thinker and a doer with a clear vision, activist Nadia took the idea to a whole new level. As head of the HPSG with its driven board, she quickly mobilised fellow students. I roped in my old friend and colleague Ibrahim Sajid Malick who has an enterprise account with Zoom. A small, committed team of students joined enthusiastically, putting things together despite their own stresses with online classes and grueling deadlines. Yes, oorganising an online event takes just about as much effort, surprisingly, as any other event.

Nadia Rehman participates in Joy of Urdu’s Stay Home and Read Books series. Screenshot from fb.

Friend and fellow collaborator Zarminae Ansari is on board with The Joy of Urdu, a natural partner for our event. Hear Nadia sing Faiz’ “Bahaar Ayi” for Joy of Urdu’s Ghar Bethiye, Kitabein Parhiye initiative – the first facebook video she has done. This is one of the items she will present on Sunday as part of her lineup of resistance poetry from Urdu literature including Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib and Ghalib — in this context, “the resistance is against despair”.

A student of the Patiala Gharana school of music, Nadia will be accompanied on some items by violinist Ustad Raees Ahmed, Sitar-e-Imtiaz awardee, from his base in Rawalpindi. Sitar nawaz Wajih Nizami of the Senia gharana, named after Mian Tan Sen, court musician of Mughal emperor Akbar, will join from Islamabad.

“You can’t be lazy and not do your homework”

The music and poetry, as mentioned above, are ways to support the relief efforts. The story of one such relief initiative began with a friend in Islamabad’s E-11 sector.

Unemployed for some time and feeling dejected, he had wandered out of his flat to a nearby dhaba for tea. It was lunchtime so he was surprised to see many men having just roti with their tea. Hadn’t the dhaba prepared lunch today?

They had. “But these are labourers who don’t have work now, and they can’t afford more than tea with roti”, said the owner.

One lunch (two rotis and sabzi or daal) and a cup of tea cost Rs 120. The realization that these men couldn’t afford to buy lunch shocked my friend Asad out of his own depression. He reached into his wallet and shelled out money for 10 meals, then set about trying to raise more. This was in mid-March.

Soon he was providing money for 35 meals daily at the dhaba. Then came the lockdown. Sort of. The police shut the place down, so Asad converted his efforts into buying rations and making relief packs for affected families.

Rashun pack… Flour, sugar, cooking oil and more: Rs 3,000 (less than USD 20) feeds a family of five for about two weeks.

Roadside relief distribution is not a good idea. Those handing out food items from trucks parked in various localities have no idea who they are helping, observes Asad. “A weak individual can’t fight crowds to reach and grab. Sometimes five members of a family get five bags each”.

To be effective requires time and groundwork. The process involves going through local contacts to identify homes that need help. In Asad’s case, his eyes and ears are his housemaid, the dhaba cook and a friend’s driver left jobless when the employer moved away after the lockdown. After obtaining initial information, Asad visits the families to verify it. “Everyone tells you they need help. We have limited resources and have to make a call. That can be hard”.

This is something that anyone can do in their areas, says Asad. But “it means going the extra mile to do your due diligence – you can’t be lazy and not do your homework”.

It is of course a drop in the ocean. But many drops do an ocean make. There are other efforts across the country. The most effective are those that collaborate with local governments and other NGOs to avoid duplication, and do the work respectfully, not making a spectacle out of those being helped.

“One has to bury ego deep in the ground before starting this work”, says Asad. The work has given him a new outlook and a new purpose in life.

At this point, he’s not asking for funds publicly because he doesn’t have the capacity to expand. In this small, personal effort, the volunteers know each of the nearly two dozen families they are helping.

In Lahore, student Aneela Ahmed began a similar initiative, putting together 20 ration kits for affected families that she found after door-to-door research. She is now reaching 50 families with the help of her brother and a couple of local volunteers, targeting kachi abadis on the east and west of Ferozpur Road near Saroba Gardens. She wants to scale up and is still taking contributions – this is her Paypal account.

To increase the reach, activist Jibran Nasir suggests making groups of ten. “If each person takes the responsibility for feeding ten families, it will reduce overlap and increase outreach”.

Asad thinks this is a great idea but doesn’t see it happening on an organic level across the board — “Pakistanis are great at donation, but don’t want to get their feet wet”.

Sindh Relief Initiative app that volunteers in the province should use, to avoid duplication and document distribution.

In a video of April 3, Jibran Nasir shares the step-by-step process that the organisations he works with, Elaj Trust and Aik Awam Movement, are following as they deliver food rations to the doorsteps of families across Karachi. The protocol should be useful for other volunteers; outlined below:

* The first step is to do a door-to-door survey on the ground and identify needy families. The Elaaj Trust volunteers used data sheets in which they entered the name and NIC number of a household member.

* Second, have a rider (or driver) with a smartphone, and a local to help with the delivery.

* Third, have a ‘holding place’ for the rations located near your delivery area.

* Volunteers in Sindh should use the Sindh Relief Initiative app (are there similar apps elsewhere?) to register where the delivery is made, how many days it will help the family (15 or 30), the team’s time in and out.

Jibran suggests that all NGOs in Sindh should adopt this mode to help avoid duplication, inform the government where deliveries are being made, and map their teams’ performance.

Organisations working on the ground

Shehzil Malik’s artwork for @paperazzimagazine: “I have made my work on #covid19 under the Creative Commons License for Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives, meaning you can use it provided that you dont alter or sell it. It should be used for awareness or community engagement. 🙏🏽”

With a need for coordination about relief efforts providing rations and PPE around Pakistan, feminist designer Shehzil Malik began compiling the information in a google doc. This is now a live website.The organisations listed there that I or the students I’m collaborating with have some personal connection with, include:

  • Akhuwat
  • Awami Workers Party
  • Dosti Ration Campaign for Balochistan by IDSP
  • Elaj Trust – M. Jibran Nasir in Karachi
  • Iqra Fund – running schools in remote villages in Baltistan, focusing now on raising awareness on the pandemic and distributing ration.
  • Karachi Relief Trust
  • Kiran Foundation Lyari Ration Campaign
  • JDC Foundation Pakistan
  • Rizq – a “social enterprise in the business of ending hunger”
  • Robin Hood Army
  • Slumabad  – working with the gypsy/nomadic communities in the Lahore area.

Some other initiatives I know personally, listed below:

USD 20 goes far in Pakistan….

Child Support Fund, started as an educational scholarship charity in Lahore by Sakina Hasan when she was 11, in 2002. After her family moved to Chicago, she got it registered it as a non-profit mainly engaged in providing grants and loans to students in Pakistan. Like many other NGOs, Child is currently focused on providing food rations. They are targeting more than 3,000 families through volunteers on the ground who were active during the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods.

Check Fb page for payment details


Huqooq-e-Khalq and Progressive Students Collective in Lahore are supporting families in need in the areas they have been working in for some time incl: Chungi, Gajjumata, Yuhannabad, Nishtar Colony, Shahdara, Darogha-wala, that have greater labour concentration. “Since we’ve been working in most of these areas for quite a few years now, we’ve identified the families in urgent need. We’re also aware of the list of families being looked after by WDF, Aurat March and other groups, so no overlapping hopefully”, says Bilal Zahoor who is helping coordinate efforts.

Life Bridge was launched by Dr Geet Chainani and Sabyn Zaidi who worked together address the health and hygiene needs of those displaced by the catastrophic floods in Sindh in 2010. Sabyn has 20 years experience in the humanitarian relief and development sector, and has worked as a humanitarian affairs officer for the UN in Pakistan and in Sudan, including as UNOCHA province head in Sindh. They have continued to work with local communities they engaged with at that time. Their current focus is on provide monthly rations to families affected by the lockdown and business closure. Volunteers on the ground providing food are Murtaza Haider (Karachi), Moula Bux (Hala) and Aneela Zaidi (Badin). Here’s the Life Bridge GoFundMe created for the US Pakistan Students Coalition’s fundraiser.

Tabassum Care Society, run by Ibrahim’s family in Karachi is targeting a small area in People’s Colony and Sarjani Town.

And let’s not forget our feathered and furry friends, many of whom have been also hard hit by this crisis. The Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation is well known for its work in this area. Smaller organisations include this animal rescue shelter/foster home that my friend Quatrina Hossein helps run, IPS animal shelter.

More later.

How a society treats its most vulnerable is a reflection of its soul…

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