A sincere thank you, and a favor

IMG_7378My dear friends,

A heartfelt thank you to each of you for reading the blog this month, and for continuing to be such loyal followers of 30days30deeds.com. I know it isn’t easy, there is so much vying for our attention on the Internet; and the posts were long this time, as I wanted to do some justice to the inspiring stories I was entrusted with. But you followed along, and brought your friends on board, and I am very grateful.  I remember the first year we started, I would check how many readers we had and wonder who are these wonderful 35 or so people reading; since this started off as an exercise for my family, I was happy family around the world was tuning in.  Through the years, others have found the blog; I’ve been particularly touched to hear from non-Muslims who have shared that they now look forward to Ramadan in anticipation of the blog. Thank you so much. This was our fifth year and readership was at an all time high — more than the past two years, combined. Over 10,000 people, in every corner of the world, from Australia to Zambia.

To be honest, I was thinking of wrapping it up after five years. But I’m feeling emboldened. If you’ll join me, let’s keep going. If you have ideas for next year’s theme, please let me know. One thought is ’30 days 30 images’ – an image each day capturing the beauty of our faith in all its aspects, from devotion to service, art to every day life, with a caption highlighting its significance.

I want to also ask you a favor. I feel honored to have been invited to speak about the blog and my writing at the State Department this Wednesday; it’s a panel with distinguished writers, filmmakers and producers on “The Power of Storytelling: Highlighting the Voices of Muslim Women”. I am excited for the opportunity, humbled to be included in such august company, and a bit nervous. I want to be able to share your reflections – what you may have gained from reading the personal stories on the blog this year, and in years past; why it may have meaning for you; and especially for non-Muslims, how it may have helped promote understanding or dispel misperceptions.  Please share your thoughts; specific examples will help me articulate the importance of sharing our personal stories to nurture understanding and promote our common humanity.

Thank you sincerely. Until next year, iA.

Love, Salma


Todd Shea

IMGP0644It’s hard to think about celebrating the end of Ramadan when the anguish just doesn’t let up. The murder of four marines tonight is crushing. Todd Shea, once in the Marine Corps himself, captured the sentiment of many on his Facebook page tonight. He said he’s too emotionally and physically weak to celebrate anything right now — after seeing the tremendous suffering in Pakistan, from sectarian violence to millions displaced to schoolchildren being killed; and the senseless killings in the U.S., from Chapel Hill to Charleston to Chattanooga. He writes a moving Eid prayer, which I’ve excerpted in part: “May all Humanity somehow find a way to work harder and love more, free from any quest for personal gain, to end the menace of violent extremism; may the indifference to all Human suffering, which allows greed and conflict to metastasize as a cancer in the hearts and minds in every corner of the earth, somehow be countered with love, intellect and positive action; may Humankind come up with a dramatically different strategy in this world to turns things around, otherwise these dark times will only get darker and darker.” But he also reminds us that, “as long as there are beautiful, pure, precious and hopeful children living on this Earth who deserve better, we must accept our reality as a test, never ever giving up trying to transform the World into a place where every child everywhere has a fair chance at success and happiness, a belly full of nutritious food every day and the uplifting education from books instead of the soul killing destruction of bombs.”

On nights like this, when our hearts are burdened and our hopes exhausted, it’s people like Todd who allow us to dare dream that a better world is possible for our children.

Todd is the founder and executive director of Comprehensive Disaster Response Services (CDRS), an organization that provides medical and humanitarian relief in disaster-affected areas, focusing now primarily in Pakistan. At five-eleven and 315 pounds, with a beard and red hair, jeans and a Pink Floyd t-shirt, and a guitar in tow, Todd doesn’t quite fit the profile of health care administrator. But since the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, he has worked to provide healthcare in some of Pakistan’s most remote and disaster affected areas. In the past 12 months, CDRS, in partnership with the Imran Khan Foundation, has treated over 115,000 patients in Bannu, where one million people displaced from North Waziristan are seeking refuge; worked in five flood affected regions in the Punjab, treating over 50,000 patients; maintained a mother and child health center in Swat; galvanized CDRS youth volunteers, who are providing help during the current heat crisis; and initiated a women’s empowerment and social entrepreneurship program. “It’s been one of our most successful years in terms of programs,” Todd told me yesterday. But he’s never satisfied. “I’d like to run 50 mother child health centers throughout Pakistan, if I had the funds.”

“Before going to Pakistan, I remember people would tell me you’re nuts for going over there; you’re going into the belly of the beast.” Todd told me. “If every American could spend one week in Pakistan, they would never have a problem with Pakistan.” Todd learned a great deal about Islam from his staff and from reading the Quran. Stories about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) made a particular impact on him, such as the story of how the Prophet cared for a woman who repeatedly threw trash at him, and the one about the prostitute whose sins were forgiven because she gave water to a thirsty dog. “These are the kinds of messages that have touched me. To me, this religion, and the holy Prophet, is about humanity.” He converted to Islam in 2009.

Todd’s journey to Pakistan began in Maryland, where he grew up. When he was 12, his mother took an overdose of Valium and ended up in the hospital, where she died from complications. Devastated, Todd started getting into fights, skipping school, taking drugs and getting arrested. His guitar brought him solace. He taught himself to play, strumming Van Halen and AC/DC songs until he figured out the notes. “Music saved me from depression and suicide,” Todd says. At 16, about to fail ninth grade for the third time, he was sent to an alternative boarding school. But when he returned home a year later, he started doing drugs again and hanging out with the wrong crowd. By the time he was 18, he was addicted to crack cocaine. Todd joined the Marine Corps to clean up his act, but was kicked out six weeks later when the results of his urine test showed drugs. Back in Maryland, he joined a band, and spent the next several years playing at clubs and bars around the country. He was scheduled to play at the famous CBGB’s Gallery in Manhattan, on Sept. 12, 2001. On September 11, from his hotel window, he saw the towers fall. The next day, Todd was at Ground Zero, packing his band’s van with Gatorade, water and fruit to deliver to firefighters and police officers throughout lower Manhattan, and distributing dust masks and medicines donated by area pharmacies and stores. This marked his turning point. “I don’t have any business going into collapsed or burning buildings,” Todd says. “I don’t know how to save lives. I can’t even treat a hangnail. But what I do know is how to make arrangements and get supplies to people so they can focus on saving lives.”

Todd’s story was one of the most incredible I’d heard; I knew I had to visit him in Pakistan to see him in action. In 2009, I traveled to Kashmir and stayed at the CDRS headquarters, in Chikar at the time, nestled in the mountains at about 6,000 feet. The day I arrived, it was Eid al-Adha, and the government health facility was closed; patients streamed into CDRS for the next several days – a baby with high fever, a woman recovering from a heart attack, a young man who severed his hand. Todd was in constant motion, trying to procure medicines, scolding unreliable doctors, managing in inhospitable conditions. (If you’d like to learn more, please read my feature on Todd in the Washingtonian below.) One thing I knew for sure, with Todd, what you see is what you get: a strong-willed, fearless, passionate, blunt, larger-than-life individual who can’t bear to hear a baby cry or a kitten whimper.

To learn more about CDRS and to support their work, please visit, http://www.cdrspakistan.org





My article on Todd Shea in the Washingtonian:

“It’s a matter of life and death” – Asma Hanif

asmamomsgrave“It’s a matter of life and death,” Asma Hanif wrote in an email last night, about a Syrian woman Noor (not her real name) and her five children, who are in a shelter in the U.S. Noor’s husband has threatened to kill her and all her children if he finds her, which he did once before; he is considered armed and dangerous. The children, ages 2 to 11, will be removed from Noor’s custody if there is any contact between herself and her husband. Asma is desperately trying to raise funds to get Noor and her kids to her shelter in Baltimore.

“InshAllah please save her life,” she pleads.

Asma receives emails and calls like this one on a daily basis from Muslim women across the country and around the world desperate to escape domestic violence or homelessness. Women call her not because she has better resources than other shelters or masjids, she says, but because she answers the phone, day or night.

I’ve written a feature story on Asma, which will be published in a couple of weeks in “The Islamic Monthly”. Her story – of her childhood, her grandmother’s inspiration, her conversion to Islam, her commitment to her local community, and her passion to provide a home for Muslim women escaping abuse – is extraordinary. I’ll share the full story with you once it’s published, but I didn’t want Ramadan to pass without telling you about her and providing us the opportunity to help support Noor and her children, and so many like her who count on Asma for a home, a chance, a shoulder.

Asma is a nurse, midwife, chaplain, domestic violence advocate, community organizer, and champion for the underprivileged. She has been helping people in need for the past 30 years. She runs a neighborhood clinic that serves Baltimore’s needy of all faiths, and provides services like school physicals, a food pantry and a back-to-school health fair for the city’s homeless and uninsured. She founded Muslimat Al-Nisaa in 1987, a nonprofit that provides health, education, and social services to Muslim women and children.

Hanif established the shelter for Muslim women victims of domestic violence in 2007, after a two-year comprehensive assessment. It can accommodate 50 women and children; currently there are about 27 people living there; by tomorrow, iA, there may be six more. Each story Hanif shares with me is laced with pain, even the one about the shelter’s capacity. She tells me about a mother and her four children who slept in one bed because they had been abused for so long, they were too scared to let each other go.

The aim of the program is for women to become self-sufficient, based on individual circumstances and needs, by pursuing education, getting training or finding employment. Noor was a math teacher in Syria; at Muslimat Al-Nisaa she will get the support and resources to be able to regain employment and become independent, iA.

Asma gives voice to the issue of domestic violence, particularly in the Muslim community where she feels it’s not recognized as a problem and therefore not addressed. It’s important to separate the crime from the religion, she says, then perhaps Muslim women will get the help that women of other cultures and faiths get. “Domestic violence is criminal, it’s not religious. It has nothing to do with Islam.” She is frustrated that after so many years she still has to beg for funds to keep the shelter running.

A few months ago, I invited Asma to share her story at MoverMoms’ Inspiration Day. “I’m not sure my story will be inspirational,” she told me. It seems very very sad.”

She shared with us the story of her mother, who fell ill a few years ago. “As a child you never think of the death of your mother. You always think you’ll have more time.” Asma regrets that she didn’t have a home that she could bring her mother to; her mother was in a nursing home, and Asma lived in the shelter. She felt torn about leaving the women at the shelter to go and care for her mother; she knew that being away even for a few days would be problematic. “That’s one of the things that makes my heart very sad,” she tells me. The day Asma found out that her mother passed away, she was on a train to meet another woman in distress and bring her to the shelter. “I know that people may say that I’m doing a good thing, and that may be true. I may be a good Samaritan, but I’m a bad daughter.”

It broke my heart to hear her say that. I wanted to make sure that Asma could visit her mother’s grave, for Mother’s Day, two weeks later. She did, and sent me the picture above.

“I will continue to take care of those in need,” Asma says, “because if nothing else my mother would not be pleased with me if I stopped.”

Read the feature story in The Islamic Monthly

To learn more about Muslimat Al-Nisaa, support Asma’s work, and provide much needed immediate funds to help Noor, please visit: http://mnisaa.org





You did not break me – Sabiha Husić

Photo: Saanya Ali

Photo: Saanya Ali

Today is the 20th anniversary of the massacre in Srebrenica, when more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (“Surely we belong to Allah, and to Him shall we return). It is unbearable to read accounts of the heinous crimes committed during the Bosnian war and genocide, including the use of rape as a weapon of war and ethnic cleansing. An estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Bosnian women were raped, in a targeted, systematic assault. Each a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife.

The depravity that human beings are capable of is beyond comprehension.

The level of courage and compassion that they can rise to is what makes life go on.

Sabiha Husić, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, has devoted her life to helping survivors of rape and other violence against women. She is an Islamic theologian, a psychotherapist, and Director of Medica Zenica, the first center to provide therapy and aid to women who were raped and traumatized in Bosnia. Most of the women who were raped were Muslim, and only ten percent have come forward to speak about their experiences, she says.

Medica Zenica provides psychological counseling and other support to survivors of rape, domestic violence and other violence; and establishes networks with other NGOs that can also offer support. It has a safe house where women can stay; up to 22 women can live there. It provides women and girls vocational training, such as tailoring and hairdressing; workshops for rural women so they can recognize violence and know where to seek help; programs to empower women to become more active in social and political life; and a shelter for children victims of violence and those who live on the streets. There is also an SOS 24-hour hotline that women can call from anywhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition, the non-profit lobbies and advocates to keep pressure on the government to prioritize these issues and to implement international protocols. But much remains to be done, Sabiha says.

“Twenty years after the war, we still have a lot of problems. For example survivors of sexual violence can see perpetrators on the street; perpetrators hold some positions in our communities or in our country. They need to be punished. We help and support survivors to provide testimony.”

Sabiha’s goal is to ensure that all women, no matter where they live in Bosnia- Herzegovina, are granted the same rights. “In the Federation, it’s a better position, women can get health insurance and some other benefits; but this is not the case in other areas like Republika Srpska.”

Last year, after Sabiha participated in the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in London, and after a visit by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie to Medica Zenica, women felt encouraged and more started speaking out. Next year, Sabiha wants to organize a workshop to invite survivors to share their stories; she says this motivates other women to break their silence.

Sabiha was born in a small town in Central Bosnia. From a young age, she was interested in the rights of women in Islam, and later studied Islamic theology. “In madrasa, I learned that Quran gives good position for women; but interpretations by men, do not.” She was in the second year of university in Sarajevo, doing a one-month internship in Montenegro, when war broke out. Sabiha was forced to remain in Montenegro for several months; her parents had no news about her during that time. She was 20 years old. After three months, she decided to return home to Bosnia. She couldn’t return the same way she came, because now she didn’t have a passport to cross borders. “When I left, we had one country; and I didn’t expect that after one month, we will have separate countries.” The police thought she was crazy to want to return to Bosnia when everyone else was leaving. After an arduous process, she was able to cross through Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, to finally get back home; the journey took 21 days. “My parents didn’t believe when they saw me in front of their door.”

But a few months later, war broke out at home. “I didn’t think that one day we would also become refugees,” she says. Her family escaped, traveling for 15 days on foot, during the night for security, and arriving in a refugee camp in Zenica; the trip by car takes 30 minutes. “We had no house, no clothes, no food; we have our lives only.”

At the refugee camp, Sabiha knew she had to do something. “If I loose my hope and go into depression, I will die. She says, “God requests from our side that we take action.” She organized women to come together and spend several hours talking, cooking, praying and learning from each other. Medica Zenica came to the camp to learn more about what she was doing; she started volunteering for them, and has been there since, becoming its Director in 2007. “I realized that I can help myself, by helping others.”

I asked Sabiha where she gets her incredible resilience, and what keeps her from feeling overwhelming sadness. “My faith gives me a lot of strength and hope and it’s the reason why I have not gone into depression,” she says. “And my parents, they are very important in my life, and of course my children and my husband. Also, when I see some progress; when I see a smile on the face of a survivor, I get new energy and so I continue to work.”

In November last year, Sabiha was awarded the “Woman of the World” award by Women for Women International, at a gala at the Museum of Natural History in New York. I interviewed her a few hours before the event. Sabiha was receiving texts and calls constantly from family and friends during our hour-long chat, congratulating her on her tremendous honor. She felt embarrassed by the attention, and apologized for the interruptions.

That evening at the gala, she said she was feeling nervous. I gave her a hug; and thought to myself, this woman who has counseled thousands of rape survivors, advocated for just and equal rights for all women, provided more than 400,000 services to women and children suffering from violence, was feeling nervous about getting an award recognizing her achievements.

Angelina Jolie honored Sabiha at the event, through a video message: “Tonight’s award honors Sabiha for her incredible strength and compassion. It acknowledges the pioneering idea that women themselves can help each other recover from sexual violence. And it recognizes her impact outside Bosnia. Indeed, when I last saw Sabiha, she was sitting at the Cabinet table at #10 Downing Street…The use of rape as a weapon of war is continuing now around the world, and people like Sabiha are sharing the story. So I thank her for never giving up, for never loosing faith, and for her incredible dignity and her inspiring compassion.”

That night, I asked Sabiha what she wants us to know, how she wants us to help. She shares a message from the women she tries to heal: “You did not break me as a woman. I have been harmed but I am brave and strong. And I am still alive.”

To learn more about Medica Zenica and to support Sabiha’s efforts, please visit: http://www.medicazenica.org





Edhi Foundation

Photo: Shahidul Alam

There were rumors last week that Edhi sahab was in ICU. I reached out to his office and to others in Karachi to find out more. Jibran Nasir got back to me quickly, as he happened to be with Edhi’s grandson the day I contacted him. He said that Edhi was in the hospital for routine dialysis and that he’s doing fine. I hope inshAllah he remains well. I know our prayers are with him.

Edhi is arguably the most widely admired person in Pakistan. Some call him a saint, others call him maulana (Islamic scholar); but the children he cares for – the thousands of abandoned, orphaned, destitute children in Edhi centers around the country — simply call him ‘Abbuji’ (respected father).

Abdul Sattar Edhi has been taking care of Pakistan’s desperate young and old for over 60 years. He and his wife Bilquis have built a nationwide health and welfare organization consisting of ambulances, clinics, orphanages, homes for the physically handicapped, shelters for runaway children, blood banks, mortuaries, adoption agencies, animal shelters, drug addiction programs, and much more. In a country without a national health service and with inadequate facilities for the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens, Pakistanis depend on Edhi, an octogenarian with a long beard and a primary education, to fill the void.

During Pakistan’s current heat wave, or during any crisis, Edhi ambulances are the first to arrive at the scene of an emergency, and the last to leave. According to reports, more than 650 bodies were brought to the Edhi morgue ten days ago; it has a capacity for 200. A sign outside says that the morgue is filled to capacity; bodies lie outside. Mass funerals and burials are being held in Edhi graveyards.

Edhi’s first ambulance was a dented blue car bought in 1957 from donations by a local businessman, on which he painted “Poor Man’s Van”. He drove it himself night and day, taking the injured to the hospital and unclaimed bodies for washing and burial. “I brought back bloated, drowned bodies from the sea. Black bodies that crumbled with one touch. I picked them up from rivers, from inside wells, from roadsides, accident sites and hospitals. I picked them up from manholes and gutters, from under bridges, from railway bogies, from tracks, water sheds and drains. I brought them home, to my work force, spreading the stench in the air forever. Then I bathed and cared for each and every victim of circumstance, just like I had done for my mother,” he writes in his autobiography “Mirror to the Blind”.

Today, Edhi has more than 2,000 ambulances; it’s considered the largest volunteer ambulance fleet in the world.

I traveled to Pakistan after almost 15 years to interview Edhi in March 2009. When I arrived in Karachi, I called Anwer Kazmi, Edhi’s right hand man for  40 years, to ask the address of the center; he said just tell the driver “Edhi” and he’ll know where to bring you. Everyone in Pakistan knows Edhi.

I was dropped off at a dilapidated, small, corner, white-washed ground floor office buzzing with activity. Several ambulances were parked outside. I immediately noticed the cradle in front, with the words “Do Not Kill”; there is a cradle outside each of the Edhi centers where people can drop off babies that they cannot take care of. Hundreds of babies, mostly girls, are left in these cradles each year; they’re cared for in Edhi orphanages.

A few men were standing behind a wooden counter fielding phone calls; others sat behind donated desks signing off on bills, ordering medicines, or taking donations. Anwer Kazmi was at the center desk, feet on his chair, arms crossed and tucked across his chest, chewing beetlenut, and talking to a reporter. He orders chai, and we talk about the monumental work that the Edhi Foundation does every  day — 800 people are fed at the free soup kitchen in Karachi; 8,500 rotis are made and distributed to 13 Edhi centers; 25,000 people are fed at the various centers; 6,000 calls are received for the ambulance service. Each day. “This is the work of one man,” says Kazmi. “He motivated the people by his commitment, by his vision.”

Edhi was in Islamabad the day I arrived; it was the day of the ‘long march’ of the lawyers’ movement from Lahore to Islamabad; he went to ask for calm, but feared there might be commotion. He returned the next day and I was able to interview him then. That day, we went in an Edhi ambulance to visit some of the centers with Dr. Aftab, one of the doctors working with Edhi. Our first stop was Edhi Village, a 65-acre campus just outside Karachi that includes a center for runaway and abandoned boys. On the wall outside are photographs of more than 50 boys, so parents can see if their sons have run away to the center; photos are also placed in newspapers and shown on TV, to try and reunite as many children with their families. There are 200 boys at the center. A woman at the front office tells me about their typical day: they get up at 5 am for prayers, attend school from 9 am to 1 pm, have lunch and do chores, then play sports and games. Edhi visits the kids every Sunday, and brings them toys and treats; the previous Sunday he had brought plastic sunglasses and colorful watches, and several of the boys were wearing them. We walked into a few classrooms. Each time, the boys, dressed in dark gray shalwar kameez like the kind that Edhi wears, stand up and say assalamalaikum. In one of the classrooms, a young boy shakes my hand with a big smile. I ask him how old he is; he doesn’t know. He recites the ABCs, and tells me he loves school, cricket, chocolate and ice cream – I suspect perhaps not in that order.

Bilquis is like a mother to these kids; she makes sure that they get fresh vegetables and meat for dinner twice a week. She ensures that their first roza (fast during Ramadan) is celebrated with garlands and mitahi (sweets), as it would be if they were with their families. They celebrate Eid, Milad un Nabi, and August 14th with new clothes, games and outings. There are closets stacked with clothes, bedding, and stuffed animals; women in the kitchen sit on the floor peeling pounds and pounds of onions and potatoes; tables covered in plastic overflow with toy cars, balls and plastic guitars. At this complex, there is also an AIDS and TB ward, a home for the mentally and physically challenged, and a dispensary. There are 300 Edhi centers throughout the country.

Edhi attributes his sense of compassion to his mother. Each day before school, his mother would give him two paisas and tell him to spend one on himself and the other on someone in need. When he returned home, the first thing she would ask is how he had spent the money; and scold him if he hadn’t found anyone to help. His mother became paralyzed with diabetes; Edhi took care of her, feeding and bathing her emaciated body. This is likely how he imbibed the lessons that have guided his life’s work: to value life no matter how frail; to give people dignity in life and in death; to care for those whom society has disregarded. The night his mother died, Edhi committed his life to serving humanity.

In 1951, Edhi, then 23, used some of his savings to buy an 8-foot square run down shop in the poor neighborhood of Mithadar in Karachi. He set up a dispensary open to everyone, rich or poor, Muslim or not. He slept on a cement bench outside so he could be available at all times. A sign outside read, “Those who give charity are blessed, those who do not are also blessed.” His goal was to change people’s attitudes toward the poor and marginalized; “to get rid of man’s disgust towards human suffering,” as he puts it. He realized that he had to start with himself and show people through his own example. “From this day onwards, there is no difference in what I am, and what the people see. There will be no expenses on my person and therefore, no contradiction. My home will be open, my life will be the life of the people,” he writes in his autobiography.

And this is how Edhi has lived for the past 60 years. He sleeps in a room adjacent to his office, on a traditional bed covered by a thin mattress; in one corner there is a pile of medicines, fllashlights, and sun glasses. He gets up every morning before 6 a.m and has roti and chai (bread and tea) for breakfast. The rest of the day he’s on call, available to anyone in need at any time.

“The greatest thing Islam teaches is insanyat (humanity),” Edhi tells me. “At the basis of all religions is humanity.”

Stay well, Edhi sahab. Our prayers are with you.

To donate to the Edhi Foundation, please visit: http://edhi.org

My article about “These Birds Walk”, a beautiful film that provides a glimpse into the lives of boys in Edhi Village: http://theislamicmonthly.com/these-birds-walk/

* A huge thank you to Shahidul Alam, the world renowned photographer from Bangladesh who introduced me to Edhi and who took photos for my story, including the one above which he uncovered a few days ago; it is one I will always cherish.

Happy 80th Birthday Dad

IMG_7242I had decided at the outset that I wouldn’t write about my family this year (their inspiring stories could fill 30 days and more); but there’s one exception. Today, is my father’s 80th birthday. The kids and I, and my brother and his family, are gathered with my parents in New Jersey. Dad didn’t want a fuss, just for all of us to be together. He is surrounded by his four grandkids, and received video messages from family in Calcutta, Bareilly and Karachi – the best presents he could have asked for he said. For me, my dad’s story is the most inspiring one I know. And on his 80th birthday, when he’s feeling not quite himself – a little less confident, a little more fragile – there’s nothing I want to do more than to remind him of his courageous, gutsy, hard working, inspiring life.

My father, born in Bareilly, India, was the first in his family of four brothers and a sister to study abroad and to attain a professional degree. He really didn’t want to go to England to study; he didn’t feel he could succeed. He was content learning to play the guitar; going to movies with his friend every Sunday – the 6pm show at Chowrangi; collecting stamps – the stamp collectors club would meet every 2nd Saturday evening at the YMCA and dad was its youngest member; and saving his pocket money for little treasures from his family’s auction house, the Russell Exchange, a place so full of history and meaning that a film has been made about it. But his brother-in-law insisted; he believed in my father more than my father believed in himself. The day of dad’s departure, dozens of family members came to the train station in Calcutta to see him off, garlanding him with flowers. His father came too, in a wheelchair. He had suffered a stroke just days before. My dad traveled to Bombay and then took a ship to London. So much hope and pride tucked into a 20 year old setting off for an adventure unknown.

My father’s stories of his years in London are full of the trepidation and gumption of a young man trying to make his way, alone. At the airport when he first arrived, a pen pal that my father had exchanged stamps and letters with for years, was supposed to meet him; he was there, and was paging my father. My father had no idea what ‘paging’ meant and was too flustered at Heathrow to hear his name being called. Dad arrived at the hostel where he would be staying, in an upstairs room; the room was so frigid, dad layered on all the clothes he had brought and sat huddled next to a geyser, which he later discovered he had to put coins in to make it blow hot air. He went to Imperial College London and got his degree in engineering. A few years ago, I had the chance to take dad back to Imperial College. He was greeted so warmly at the Alumni office, given an Imperial College mug, and asked to sign their guest book. You should have seen his face. All the memories came flooding back, as he walked around campus and showed his grandchildren the school he once thought he couldn’t conquer.

Two years into his degree, my father’s father passed away in Calcutta; his mother had died of cholera when he was seven. Afraid that my father would return to India without completing his studies, his family didn’t tell him of his father’s death until just before he graduated – almost two years later. My father worked several jobs to pay for his education – at Hartley’s jam factory and at a bakery called Hot Cross Buns. His passion was to travel and to collect beautiful things like fabrics, wall paper, even a tea set. Last time dad came to visit us in D.C., we had tea in that tea set — the first time he had ever had tea in his treasured tea set that he bought in Germany and that he’s carried around the world for 60 years.

Dad worked for a British aircraft manufacturer for a few years after he graduated, and then returned home to find someone to share his life. My father asked his eldest brother and his sister-in-law to find him, a suitable girl. His requirements were quite straightforward: he wanted someone from a good family background, well-educated, but not too educated, easy to get along with, and someone who was family oriented. His brother knew exactly the right match, and wrote to my father: “We have just seen a lovely young girl from a very good family. She’s not too tall, nor too short; she’s slim, has a long braid and mostly wears saris; she seems fairly quiet. We think you two would get along well.” They sent a photograph also, but it was a photo of my mother and her three sisters. My dad did not know which of the four was supposed to be his new bride. My mom was in the first year of her Masters degree when “the letter” arrived, addressed to her father: “I respectfully ask for your daughter Rashida’s hand for my brother Atiq. He has completed his engineering degree from Imperial College in England and has secured a good job. He is highly qualified, honest and sincere. I believe he and your daughter would make a suitable match. Omeed hey ke ap is rishtay ko kabul farmain gay (Our hope is that you will accept this proposal).” And with those words their fate was sealed – a marriage that has spanned three continents, weathered a civil war and countless moves, celebrated two children and four grandchildren, and thrived for half a century.

A few years ago, I interviewed my dad so I could find out exactly how our family came to America, to record that aspect of our family’s history; it ended up being published in the Washingtonian. It inspires me every time I retell the story, which starts like this: “Where you wanna go? Where you wanna go?” I don’t think my father understood a word the cab driver said. “This is our first time in New York, he told the cabbie at JFK airport in his heavily accented Indo-Pak London English. Please take us to a neighborhood that would be suitable for my family.” The cabbie shrugged as he tossed our suitcases in the trunk. We had left our country, our home, our sense of belonging – and now our fate rested in the hands of a NY cab driver from China. We didn’t know anyone in New York. We had little idea of life in America. All of our belongings – some clothes, a few books, a Rosenthal tea set my father had bought in Germany – was in the twine-tied trunk of a yellow cab.

The stories continue — how my father was willing to travel wherever his job took him, to any state, any country, alone, so we could continue our education without having to change schools; how he could never get mad at my brother or myself, and when he did, he would hold his own hand on top of ours and tap it to show his displeasure; how there is nothing he wouldn’t do, no sacrifice he wouldn’t make, for his family’s comfort. To this day. Even though his gait has become a little more tentative, he’s the first one to want to bring my suitcase in from the car; even though his hands have become a little less sure, he’s the first one to want to make me tea in the morning.

Happy Birthday Dad. You inspire me every day. I love you.


having tea, in his treasured tea set

having tea, in his treasured tea set




Protecting Animals

lunazaydGuest blogger: my son Zayd (13)

My mom has been working on a Ramadan blog, sharing inspiring Muslim stories. When I was thinking about who I could write about, I thought about what I am passionate about and what I am really inspired by. As someone who loves animals, I really admire people who advocate for animals’ rights and fight against cruel treatment of animals. I have seen videos on factory farming and the way animals are treated in the “organic” and “natural” food industry, and it is completely barbaric. Last week, was the Yulin Dog Festival in China, where tens of thousands of dogs are stolen from their homes, brutally beaten and tortured, stuffed into cages, 10-15 to a cage, skinned alive, thrown into nearly boiling water to clean; and whichever dogs are not dead yet are thrown into a pile with all the rest to die and get sold for meat. The fact that this continues to happen every year is horrific.

One thing that inspired me were stories about a Chinese lady named Yang Xiaoyun who has been trying to raise money so she could buy as many dogs as possible and keep them in her sanctuary and give them a safe home. She sold her house and everything she owns and lives in the sanctuary with 1,000 plus dogs. She gave up her whole life to save these dogs who were bound to have no life. A story like this really inspires me. I wanted to see if Muslims are also working towards saving animals.

I found an Egyptian woman, Amina Abaza, who leads an organization called S.P.A.R.E. – Society for the Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt. I interviewed her by email. She tries to save all animals from cruelty; animals that can’t say when they are scared, when it hurts, when they need help. She fights for animals that are tortured, abused, and treated like they don’t matter. For example, she has a shelter where she takes cats and dogs from poor areas in Egypt that don’t have a home and could end up being abused; she keeps them in her shelter so they can get adopted. Camels and bulls get killed on the street for show; she protests against this. She also tried to protest the corrupt food industry in Egypt (the US food industry is also corrupt) by filming inside the slaughter house. What she filmed was so outrageous, the media didn’t even believe her and said it was fake. “What we have seen in slaughter houses has nothing to do with Islam or humanity,” she said in her email. Ms. Abaza and her organization tried a different approach; to get legislation to protect animals in the Constitution. And it worked. Now there is an animal welfare clause in the new Egyptian constitution, which bans animal cruelty on the street and sets standards for slaughter houses. She is someone who inspires me, along with Yang Xiaoyun, and anyone else who believes in the rights of animals and in abolishing animal cruelty so much that they will devote their entire lives to saving the lives of thousands of animals.

To learn more about SPARE and to donate, please go to http://www.sparelives.org. Or you can donate to your local SPCA.

Pakistan Zindabad – Jibran Nasir

IMG_6949Over 1200 people have died in Pakistan in the past week, not from natural disaster or a terrorist attack, but from debilitating heat. Temperatures are reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit; there’s no water or electricity for days in some areas; laborers, street hawkers, pedestrians and others are out in the heat for hours; and there are few trees or covered areas for shade. Compounding the situation, it is the month of Ramadan and people are fasting; and continuing to fast even if they feel ill. City mortuaries are full; there are few cool places to store dead bodies; and mass graves are being dug.

In the midst of one of the worst calamities in Pakistan’s recent history, Mohammad Jibran Nasir, a 28-year old lawyer turned social activist, is taking charge of a situation that has confounded the government. He’s directing an army of volunteers, via social media, with the urgency of a firefighter and the compassion of a parent.

I had a chance to get to know Jibran last month when he stayed with us for a few days, as he toured the U.S. sharing his vision for what is possible in Pakistan. I was moved by his maturity, his heartfelt passion for his country, and his unflinching commitment to carry through a responsibility he stepped into; and I felt fearful for his safety.

During this latest crisis, he’s been posting videos on his Facebook page that provide public service announcements about symptoms of heat stroke and how to prevent it; let people know where to donate water and oral rehydration salts (ORS); reveal the abysmal conditions of the hospitals; call out politicians for failing to deal with the situation; and urge people to step up and volunteer. In one video, inside one of Karachi’s largest public hospitals where heat stroke patients are supposed to get care, Jibran exposes the lack of air conditioning and the vile bathroom conditions. Within two days, his team, working through Elaj Trust, had brought in 18 AC units and the required generators; hired a janitorial company to clean the facility and maintain it for the month of Ramadan; and stocked hundreds of cases of water bottles. He ends his video updates with “Pakistan Zindabad” (Long Live Pakistan); and heads on to remedy the next situation, doing the job that government is failing to do. He is raising funds from private citizens in Pakistan and the U.S. In four days, he raised more than his goal of $25,000; then did something uncharacteristic in Pakistan — urged people to stop donating more money, because they had enough. “Wow, one of the very few times I’ve heard something like that,” someone wrote on his Facebook page.

Jibran has become the public face of a growing citizens movement, since the killing of almost 150 people, 132 of them children, in the Peshawar army school in December 2014. Well-known cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) refused to condemn the actions. The ruthless attack against school children and the cleric’s sympathy towards the Taliban was Jibran’s final wake-up call. He decided to peacefully protest in front of Lal Masjid; four people joined him the day after the attack. That night, Jibran made a Facebook event; the next day, 400 people were there. The protests resulted in an ‘first information report’ (FIR) being issued against Aziz, obliging police to investigate because of threats he had made against Nasir and the other activists.  That night, the trending hash tag was #jibrannasirisahero. Momentum gathered and a diverse group of citizens became charged and engaged to demand change. “People were gearing up and saying, ‘what next Jibran, what next’. And suddenly I found myself made into something that progressed into a movement,” Jibran tells me as he recounts what happened in the days right after the Peshawar attacks. “Now I thought, what do I do with this. I knew I had to get people off the streets and onto the media, so this information could get everywhere.”

Jibran is leading a citizen’s movement to counter religious extremism and terrorism in Pakistan. “When violence becomes a way of life, people become desensitized and dehumanized,” said Jibran at The Atlantic Council in Washington D.C., during his recent 40-day U.S. speaking tour. “Even people on whom violence is inflicted are becoming immune to it.”

Jibran wants to provide a counter narrative.  He has launched “Never Forget Pakistan” (#NeverForgetPK), a campaign to ensure that the thousands of Pakistanis who have lost their lives to terrorism and religious violence are always remembered. He is developing an online portal that will gather and share a plethora of information to inform, educate, and empower citizens and hold government and politicians accountable. For example, “#AajKeDin (today), will document sectarian violence each day, including who was targeted, which groups were involved, how many were killed, and so on, and mark the information on a map so there is a complete archive of every terror attack. #HamareHeroes (our heroes) will include stories of the people who were killed in extremist attacks, those who actively fought terrorism, and those who died trying to save others. “It’s not enough to point out who the villains are, we also need to know who our heroes are,” Jibran said.  “We need to talk about our victims as our heroes.” He wants to capture people’s stories and the impact that each loss of life has had on a family, a school, a community, a city, on all those affected by that individual. Another part of the portal is a free help line where people being threatened in the name of religion or falsely accused of blasphemy can record their information and seek help; as well as a citizen journalism app that will enable people to post photos and videos of hate speech or other dangerous activity so information can be gathered in one place and used more effectively.

“Can one person solve the situation of 200 million people with one NGO,” he asks at an OPEN (Organization of Pakistani Entrepreneurs of North America) event last month in Virginia. “No! Every single Pakistani needs to put pressure on the government of Pakistan.”

It is a hugely ambitious project, nothing short of revolutionary. From what I know of Jibran, he is passionate, hard working, and fearlessly undeterred — a potent combination, especially for someone working in one of the most intractable countries in the world.

For more information about Jibran’s work and to join the movement, please sign on to https://neverforgetpakistan.com