August 2008 Report – Report Two

This month, I had the opportunity to visit India and observe some of Comfort Aid’s charitable projects. It was an eye-opening experience as I got to see first-hand the problems faced by our brothers and sisters in India as well as the effort being made to solve those problems. I’m thankful to Br. Yusuf Yusufali and his team for allowing me to accompany them in their travels and treating me hospitably.

I arrived in Mumbai on August 7th and got my first look at India. The sun wasn’t shining too brightly but it was very humid as I was informed that I had arrived during the peak monsoon season, which I would experience later on. The first thing I noticed during the drive from the airport was the huge number of people walking the streets. I finally recognized how a country with a population in excess of one billion looked like. Mumbai to me was a city of contrasts. On one side of the street, I would see huge shopping malls advertising the latest fashions and products and the movie theatres promoting the most recent Hollywood and Bollywood films being enjoyed by the well-dressed, more affluent part of Indian society. As I turned my head, on the other side, I saw the slums of Mumbai – houses (if you could call them that) built on stilts, made out of scrap metal, plastic and cardboard. I would see children running naked on the streets, people urinating, and massive piles of garbage slowly melting in the Mumbai heat. I was shocked to see such contrast in such close proximity. I would get a chance to visit the slums the very next day.

On August 8th, I had the opportunity to visit some of Comfort Aid’s projects in and around Mumbai. Our first stop was the Sakina Girls Home in Andheri. This under-sized orphanage housed about 75 girls, ages 5-17. The girls were busy studying as the khala showed us around the modest but clean complex. Downstairs was the cooking, eating and study area and the top floor were the sleeping quarters. Although the orphanage had been kept as clean as possible, the size and condition of the building were not adequate. The number of girls had increased by 15-20 within the last couple of years and the impact of the monsoon rains was easily noticeable. The roof and walls were damaged from the rain that had leaked through and its condition was getting worse. Despite these problems, the girls seemed happy and although it was sad to see so many orphan girls, it was nice to see that they were being taken care of.

Content girls at the Sakina Girls Home
Damaged walls at the Sakina Girls Home

Govendhi is nothing like I have ever seen. And I’ve had the opportunity to travel quite extensively and see some of the poverty in other parts of the world. But Govendhi is different. It is like a huge neighbourhood – no, like a huge city made of scraps plastic, cardboard, wood and metal (if you are one of the lucky ones). In this city live over 20,000 people, just about every one of them is Muslim. As we arrived in Govendhi, the skies opened up, allowing me to see the extent of what these people went through. The stench was overbearing, probably as a result of the heat that augmented the odour. The combination of the garbage and the rainwater was not a pretty sight and I had to work hard to control my stomach. Thousands of flies infested the area and it seemed as if each one landed on my face at some point. I wondered if I could last five minutes in Govendhi, not comprehending on how some could last generations. At the entrance to the slums, we were already faced with a problem. The monsoon rains had created a huge lake-sized puddle, about 20 inches deep, blocking us from visiting some of the housing projects. I saw the inhabitants of Govendhi wading through the water and being as adventurous as I am, wondered aloud if we could do the same. No, I was told. These waters were heavily infested with the urine and feces of both humans and animals and a municipal warning had been released cautioning people from wading in these waters to avoid contracting fungal diseases and Leptospirosis. It was quite hard to comprehend that I could not even walk in the same water that others probably used for drinking, showering and washing their clothes. Nevertheless, I was not about to come all the way to Govendhi and then walk away at the entrance. Some of the locals brought rocks and pieces of wood that they used to make a “stepping-stone bridge” so we could cross the puddle. These helpful locals waded in the water beside us as we held on to their shoulders to keep our balance as we crossed the puddle. I finally got a chance to see how these people lived and what I saw shocked me. Tiny little shacks, smaller than my bedroom back home, were what our brothers and sisters were living in, sometimes eight or ten in one “house”. The lucky ones had a tin roof while the majority took cover under weak tarps or a collage of plastic bags. There were no rooms, only “corners” – one corner used for cooking and one corner used for sleeping. Yet the residents welcomed us warmly, thanked us for coming, offered us tea and a seat on the one small bed they shared with six others. The hospitality shown to us by the locals was a sign of their humanity for their living conditions had unjustly dehumanized them, in my eyes at least. We spent about an hour in Govendhi, visiting the different houses and seeing some of the houses that Comfort Aid had built. I left with a totally new perspective and although it was only my second day, for the rest of my trip, I would never see anything like what I saw in Govendhi.

Govendhi
Probably one of the best houses in Govendhi
Child of Govendhi

Later on in the day, I got to go to Malad and visit the Jaferi School. Although the school was not in session, I got to see the place where over 1700 children from the slums built their future. The slums where the students lived were just behind the school and although we did not have time to visit them, I was told that they were no better than what we saw in Govendhi. The last stop of the day was the Zahra Boys Orphanage in Mumbra which housed about 80 orphan boys. This orphanage was in excellent condition and it had great facilities including a gym where the boys could work out. We prayed and ate a delicious meal at the orphanage and were given a tour. The orphanage was exceptionally clean and seemed to be managed very well.

The homes of the students of Jaferi School

The original plan was to go north to Kashmir, to the cities of Kargil and Srinagar for Iftar distribution. However, the day before we were to leave, the news reports about the unrest in Kashmir began to come in. Tensions between the Muslims and Hindus were higher than normal and so it was decided that we would pass on the trip to Kashmir. Thank God we didn’t go because only the next day, we heard of the riots, protests, shootings, arsons, and curfews. So it was decided that we would go to the east, to West Bengal. We would distribute Iftar in Murshidabad and Kolkata and then fly to Delhi where we would distribute Iftar in one of the suburbs called Sirsi.

We flew to Kolkata and drove to the  Boys Home, an orphanage that houses 20 boys. Kolkata is quite an interesting place. It is one of the most populated places in India, exceeding over 15 million, and this was immediately noticeable. Also, West Bengal is run by the world’s longest-running democratically-elected communist government! This is immediately noticeable as well, as the “hammer and sickle” flag could be seen everywhere and there were leftist political rallies on every street. I was told that the Calcuttans were very educated and that the literacy rates in Kolkata are among the highest in India.

The boys orphanage in Kolkata is running well. The 20 boys who live there have all been rescued from life in the slums. Br. Yusufali mentioned that when these boys arrived, they did not even know how to wear pants! But the boys we saw were smartly dressed, well-groomed, and greeted us respectfully. I met Amjad Bhai, an extremely hardworking and sincere person. He is in charge of the boys. He wakes them up in the morning, gets them ready for school, feeds them, makes sure they say their prayers and do their homework, makes sure their uniforms are ready, and makes sure they stay motivated and inspired. He is the father-figure for 20 boys. It is not an easy job, yet he is patient, does not lose his temper and is very pleasant with his sons. Most of the boys are upbeat and cheerful, a couple are still quiet and low-spirited. All the boys go to school and bring home excellent marks. They work hard at their studies and grace us with their recitations from the Quran every day.

Kolkata Boys Home
Kolkata Boys Home
Studying hard at the Kolkata Boys Home
Me with the boys at the Kolkata Boys Home

After a brief meal and a short nap, we made our way to the train station to take the overnight train to Murshidabad. After nearly missing our stop (jumping off the train while it had started moving again), we started the procedure of Iftar distribution. Since there was a change of plans and we were not expected in Murshidabad, the process did not seem as organized and efficient as I imagined it would be. The first day (and night) was spent making a list of all the families who were eligible to receive the food. Each name was discussed and approved to ensure that the most needy families were taken care of. Each family would receive a voucher, which when presented the next day, would entitle them to a package of food. Also that first day, we went around in the market place trying to get the best deal for the food itself. Prices were haggled over as we made sure that the suppliers had the quality and the quantity that we were looking for. After a long day, everything seemed to be in place.

The next morning, before the Iftar distribution began, I had the opportunity to visit some of the historical sites in Murshidabad. Murshidabad was the capital of Bengal before the British conquest and the glory of the Nawabs who ruled Bengal during the Mughal Rule was evident. We visited the Hazaarduari Palace (Palace of a Thousand Doors), a magnificent Victorian-style palace built for Murshidabad’s Nawab Najim Humayun Jah. Opposite the Hazaarduari Palace was the Nizamat Imambara, the largest one I have ever seen (some say it the largest in India). Between the palace and the imambara, is the Madina Mosque which contains a small replica of Prophet Muhammad’s tomb. I also got a chance to visit Katra Mosque, built by Nawab Murshid Quli Khan who is buried under the stairs of the mosque. This imposing building looked more like a fort or castle than a mosque.

Hazaarduari Palace
Nizamat Imambara (this picture covers probably a quarter of the whole imambara)
Katra Mosque

After a morning of sightseeing, we headed back to observe the Iftar distribution. We made our way to the market where the distribution would take place. A huge line of people was present when we arrived and the food distribution began. A name would be called out and that individual would come forward, give us the voucher, sign their name and receive the food. Most of the people did not know how to sign their name so we took their fingerprint instead. Each eligible family received a set amount of basic provisions such as rice, flour, lentils, chickpeas, oil, butter, salt, tea, etc. The crowd was relatively peaceful and the distribution went well considering we arrived unexpected.

Food distribution in Murshidabad
Food distribution in Murshidabad
Food distribution in Murshidabad
Taking the food home

After the food distribution, we tried to get train tickets back to Kolkata but they were sold out so decided on the 6-7 hour drive back. This was the most frightening part of the trip for me as our 22 year-old driver sped through the narrow, broken down roads in the darkness of the night, with the monsoon rains pouring down, impulsively avoiding the rickshaws, motorbikes, cars, and trucks which I would see dangerously in front of us only moments before the car swerved out of the way. We witnessed a horrible accident where the car in front of us crashed into a motorcycle ahead. The driver of the motorcycle appeared to have broken his neck and after we stopped and made sure he was taken care of, we continued on. Although it was a long drive in the evening, I had an extremely hard time going to sleep as my eyes were wide-open staring at the road ahead. But, thanks God, we arrived safely in Kolkata where we took up residence at the boys orphanage once again. The next day we went to a local imambara in Kolkata where we distributed Iftar rations again. This one seemed much more organized as the food was already pre-packaged and the crowd came in shifts. The next morning we said goodbye to our hosts at the orphanage and flew to Delhi.

Food distribution in Kolkata

Our last stop was Sirsi, a town in the Moradabad district in Uttar Pradesh, just outside Delhi. It was established by the great Sufi Syed Jamal-ud-deen Naqvi who is also famously known as Shah Maqdoom. We graciously accepted by our hosts at the Bahman school, hospital and mosque. We received a tour of the hospital and the school while it was in session. There was also the grand opening ceremony for the new science lab that had been sponsored by Comfort Aid. Sirsi was also our final stop for Iftar distribution. Here, the locals were a bit more agitated and restless as many thought that the food would run out so they fought for a better spot in the line. But the process finished smoothly, or at least smoother than the last time food was distributed in Sirsi. That night, I got to try the famous Sirsi kababs, which were the best I have ever tasted. We sat around the table (with our armed patrol close-by) as my hosts asked me about Canada. It was extremely hard for me to make them understand (not just because of my limited Hindi) the luxuries that we lived with for I don’t really think they understood the contrast between our lives and theirs. They couldn’t even comprehend how the second-largest country in the world had a population just double that of Delhi.

Bahman school, hospital and mosque
Opening of the new science lab in Bahman Public School
Grade 10 class in the new science lab
Taking the bus home
Iftar distribution in Sirsi
Trying to control the crowds in Sirsi

The next morning (on India’s independence day), we thanked our hosts and made our way back to Delhi. I said goodbye to Br. Yusufali as he was going straight to Afghanistan the next morning while I, accompanied by Ali Akber uncle, flew to Mumbai that night. My last day in India was spend sightseeing as I got to see the famous sites in and around Mumbai. A heartfelt thanks to Imran uncle for spending his entire day with me and showing me around.

Haji Ali in Mumbai

Once again, I would like to thank Br. Yusufali and his team for allowing me to accompany them. It was a truly life-changing experience and I hope that more youth are encouraged to go on these trips so that they may gain a new perspective as well as help out, in their own capacities, to improving the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world. I also pray that Comfort Aid International continues to get the support it has gotten and more, so that it can continue its fantastic work. I hope that God continues to give strength to Br. Yusufali and his team, who go where not many others would go, to offer their help and support to our brothers and sisters. Inshallah, the countless hours spent in this worthy cause will be rewarded accordingly. Please do not forget our brothers and sisters around the world in your prayers, especially during Ramadhan and during the Nights of Power. May God relieve them of their poverty and ease their difficulties. Ameen.

Sajjad Dewji