January 2006 Report (Part One)

Dear fellow Muslims,

My uncle suggested that I write a report about my experiences on my recent trip to India, where I accompanied him while visiting the various projects he is involved with for as President of Comfort Aid International (CAI). First, I would like to say that I am not a writer by nature, so please accept my modest ramblings of my trip. It was an exceptional journey, one everyone must experience and one that cannot be described by words or by images.

My purpose of going to India was to experience first hand what I had read about CIA’s projects. The tales of abject poverty, destitution and helplessness felt remote from reading about them; I wanted to experience all of it personally. Although I have full trust in CAI and the work being done, the purpose of my trip was to try to put myself in their position. To try to feel and perhaps experience what the people we are trying to help experience. It’s sometimes so easy to write a check, but we tend to forget these are humans are just like us. These are children like our very own. Although we may be helping them by lessening our bank balances, I wanted to see these human faces and emotions that are a part of these projects.

People ask me how is India? India is so many things; how can one describe India? India is a complex masala of contrast, of abject poverty and vulgar luxury, glitter and filth, big cities and small villages, idolized movie stars and pathetic destitute, harassing hijras and aggressive guides, unrelenting music and maddening traffic hubbub, fascinating history and frantic modernization, pristine beaches and gutter stench, modern jets and human rickshaws, Hindus and Muslims… India is all these and so much more, how can one describe India?

I had been in India for about a week and I was slowly getting used to the delays, whether horrendous traffic chaos or airline departure. I tried not to get frustrated as I kept reminding myself, I am in India and I will feel and live as Indians, this is normal, no sweat needed! We arrived in Kolkata late night on Wednesday. Waiting for us was Maulana Hyderi, a short stout man who wore a crisp white ‘shalwar-kameez’ and a white ‘topi’. As I stepped out of the airport, I could immediately tell Kolkata was different from Delhi and Mumbai. We quickly hired a taxi as we had about another hour’s drive before we got to our destination. We would not be staying at a hotel or someone’s house, but we were going straight to the orphanage where they had made accommodations for us to stay. By this time I was exhausted and I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I had also already started to cough a little, as the pollution levels were higher here in Kolkata. As I zoned in an out of sleep, I could hear the car chugging along on the highway, I don’t think I’ve sat in a slower car before. At one point I looked outside and we were in the middle of a lone highway, Maulana Hyderi had stepped out to ask directions from a stranger – the taxi driver seemed to have forgotten to tell us he didn’t know where he was to take us! The only thing reassuring was that Maulana Hyderi seemed to have an idea where to go.

We finally arrived at our destination and we walked in a small alley towards the orphanage. Painted white and green, the new building stood out standing amidst many less maintained old buildings. They gave us a room, which would later be used for the kids and the nice surprise was that there were no English toilets! For anyone wanting to travel to India, be advised: prepare and learn how to use the eastern toilets! Although I was disappointed, I thought ‘OK well this will teach me a lesson and let me live their life.’ Our beds too were very desirable for anyone wanting to wake up for Salat-ul-Layl (night prayers); a wood plank covered with a blanket just as hard!

Because it was late in the night, the kids were already asleep. I went to take a peek at them and it was a sight to see 14 kids sleeping next to each other, sharing their blankets. As one of them snuggled into the blanket, the other was left uncovered, only for some time before he drew the blanket closer to him again, and so it went. Their beds had not yet arrived but finally came in on our last day.

The next morning, I woke up to hear the kids awake for prayers and reciting their Surahs. The kids have a ritual every morning after they’ve prayed their Fajr prayers. They all come downstairs and pick a leader to lead them in reciting their Surahs, kalimah, names of Imam, and the Usul and Furu-e-Din. After this they all brush their teeth, change and are ready for breakfast. To make sure they get a healthy meal, they have a schedule of what they eat everyday. Bread and butter two days, eggs two days, etc. The kids are then ready for school and each student wear’s his school’s uniform and goes to school.

Kids reciting duas
Kids changing for the day

The boys were curious to know who I was. I was also excited to get to know them. I had heard that the hero was Shah Rukh, no not the movie star, but the youngest kid at the orphanage. Although a little shy, they all said ‘Salaam’ to me, but I would have to wait another day before I got to spend some time with them.

Shah Rukh the hero

Our task for the day was to go to villages and see the progress of the mosque and house projects. After a sumptuous breakfast of eggs and ‘malai’, which by the way was not helping me in living a simple way of life, we were off on our adventure. To say that our ride was bumpy would be a modest description. We somehow got away from town through the thick traffic of cars, people and rickshaws. The alleys that we drove through in the village were just narrow dirt roads; the ‘compact’ car spaces back in America are bigger then what we drove through! There were no ‘road signs’ as to where you were going and I doubt I could ever “learn the roads” of the villages, but somehow one of the people with us, Ashraf Bhai, who lived in one of the villages, was able to guide us through the different villages.

Being out in the country was a humbling experience. People lived in small houses made of compact sand. Their houses were just one or two bedroom houses with a small area outside with two holes where they would burn a fire and use it as the kitchen area. During the monsoons when the water level rose in these areas many houses were washed away or severely damaged. CAI provides houses for the destitute built on raised platforms with more concrete material, so that they can survive through the monsoon without much damage. The first house we visited was of a Maulana, who had actually been sent to another village to preach. His wife was so welcoming and invited us to her home. I was a little unsure how to react and what the customs are, as we did not speak a common language and at the same time I did want to make her feel that we were here just on “business”. She welcomed me into her kitchen and it was a small hut like room outside of her house. I asked if I could take a picture of her, and as I took a picture of her, she looked down with a shy smile.

Shy smile
House of Maulana with kitchen outside
Kitchen stove

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Many of the villages we went to visit were places where the people had converted from Wahabi Sunnism, so guidance and knowledge is crucial to the success of their conversion. These communities did not have a mosque and CAI has built mosques for these communities and a scholar is provided for them. We visited one such village where the mosque and a house for the resident scholar had just been completed. The kindness and generosity showed by these people with so little was humbling. They made a feast of chicken curry, daal, rice, rotli and dessert for us. At first I was puzzled and thought that they were going to feed us what they eat everyday; however this of course was not their daily meal. They had cooked their best meal for us as guests. My intention of living in simplicity was not working out! We were being fed as if we were royalty; we had a ‘cool car’ with A/C so that the pollution wouldn’t affect us very much, were being fed the best foods, and we were being treated with such hospitability. I was humbled, that these people with so little were willing to give their all with open arms. The wife of the resident scholar there was a beautiful sweet lady who was warm and affectionate and so welcoming. Fortunately she spoke Hindi, as most people here speak Bangla, so we talked about her life and how it was living in the village. Her two-year-old son Hasnain, reminded me of my little nephew. It was a warm feeling to be able to connect with someone in a remote village.

Maulana with Yusuf

We went to another village where the construction of a mosque was half complete. Here too as soon as we arrived, the women living nearby made tea and snacks ready for us. The kids stopped playing and came to see out of curiosity their visitors. They were excited and amazed with my camera. When I took a picture of them and showed it to them on the LCD they were shocked and giggled with excitement. This was probably their only opportunity at the peek of the outside world. They all gathered around me while I took pictures and recorded them on my video camera, they were shy when I asked them their name and how old they were. They giggled and snickered and this was our friendship.

Mosque under construction
Curious child

Close to sunset we went to another village where we saw a completed mosque and this is where we prayed our evening prayers. Although the women did not come to pray at the mosque, because I was alone two women came to give me company and even though we did not speak each other’s languages we somehow managed to communicate a little. What was heartwarming and sad at the same time was this warm generosity and love shared by them, but the thought of where they lived and the lack of opportunity made me feel helpless and sad for them.

As we were walking towards our car, once again we were invited to a home for tea, and although darkness had set and we were in a hurry to reach Hoogley, a small city where we would sleep for the night, we did not want to be rude. The ceilings of the houses were low, the room was just enough for a bed and their modest belongings. They had a story to tell us. There was a boy in their village that had been sick for months and of course his family did not have funds for the treatment. The boy had an ulcer burst that needed operation for treatment. This boy had suffered for months, his family had tried to get treatment for him, but of course there was not enough funds and he was hanging between bureaucracies of doctors and getting a word with possible donors like us. Treatment was for about $130, which CAI agreed to and I was happy to see the relieved faces on the villager’s faces.

We got in the car and were ready to leave when I suddenly heard a little commotion and overheard something about another boy and being sick. I saw that someone had brought him to be seen and he was sitting in the rickshaw helplessly waiting as his father tried to get a word with us. Even through the darkness of the night, I could see eyes of a child in pain. I did not want to see that pain, and I nudged my uncle and told him there’s something going on. Realizing what was going on, my uncle went out to see what the commotion was about. This boy had been paralyzed waist down and the family wanted help in treating him. It was some sort of a debilitating disease that even the father was not sure of; he did not have the means of having it diagnosed. CIA made arrangements for the child to be checked and further care through Al Imaan medical assistance if needed. We cannot help all the people of this world, but certainly we can help one child at a time, certainly we can help these children?

Our last stop would be a village where the people who had recently converted made their living out of rolling ‘bedis’, raw tobacco. There was a family of father, mother, son and his family that all sat from early morning until the late hours of the night to complete their job. The father had moved his house a few feet away from its original position and gave his land to have a mosque built on. Even though he had very little, he gave it away without hesitation in the way of Allah (SWT). True submission, isn’t it? Incase you are wondering how he could “move his house”, it’s because his house was not made of concrete materials. It was more like a tent then a house, made of many different materials, straw, tree branches, packed sand as their floor, plastic, whatever little they could find.

We then made our way to Hoogley, a small city where we would spend the night. This is a place where a hawza had been built and the replica of Big Ben was adjacent to the hawza. The next morning I got a personal tour of the Big Ben of India, the mosque next to it, the river of Hoogley as the backyard. It was frustrating and maddening to know that this place that had been once been a flourishing city and a flourishing attraction, was now deteriorating and falling apart. To think that we have such an asset and we have misused it and run it down boils the blood in me!

Big Ben replica in Hoogly

The hawza in Hoogley had about 69 boys studying under the patronage of Ayatullah Seestani. After breakfast I saw that they were all sitting in rows in the hallways outside. Each section had one or two teachers sitting in a chair watching them. Today was their test day, and to make sure they did not cheat they had to sit a certain distance apart. We also met the person that translates our religious books into Bangla for these people to read, as there are no books available in Bangla about the Ahlul Bayt. He was almost complete with another book, and Insha’Allah they were soon on their way to the printing press.

Habeeb, the convert translator with Yusuf

Before returning to the orphanage that afternoon, we met a lady who needed some medical treatment. After working from many years she had slipped while at work and had ‘slip disk’ Because of the pain, she had been unable to work. From whatever modest earnings her son made, she tried to go to the local doctor to get treatment. Obtaining the prescribed medicine was a task for her as she had only her son supporting her, and he had his own family to support as well. Her son was not a computer engineer or even a businessman, but just tried to sell glasses from door to door. Again, her case was referred to the medical team at Al Imaan in Mumbai.

That afternoon back at the orphanage, I finally got to meet the kids and spend some time with them. We chatted about their work and what they were doing. I asked them where they came from and how many brothers and sister’s they had. I gave them chocolate and tried to be their big sister for even just a few moments. I wanted to tell them that they are not alone and that there are people that care about them. I wanted to hug them and promise them that whatever they wished they could accomplish. It’s so often that we forget the compassion these kids need. Amjad bhai is the only father and mother they have, and Khala who cooks for them is the only mother’s love they receive. I told my uncle why doesn’t Amjad bhai’s wife live here so that at least they can have some sort of a mother’s care. Who will console them when they’ve been bullied at school, or when they didn’t make a grade they wanted to? Who will hug them and tell them they are loved and cared for? Once the building is complete, we’ll have to get Amjad bhai’s wife over, Insha’Allah.

Kids getting tooth paste

The last day of our stay in Kolkata was the day of Eid-e-Ghadeer. Some of the student’s had off from school, while the rest had half day off. In the morning after their morning ritual of prayers, duas, and breakfast they all sat down to do their work and each was eager to show me what they were learning. They each read me a story in English and Bangla for those going to Bengali Medium School. They were so excited to read to me and although I did not understand Bangla, their excitement made me eager to hear them read. I pretended I understood everything and one after another they read me their stories. I looked through their report cards and was amazed and overjoyed at their progress. These students had come in making 10% and 20% grades, and the latest report cards showed they were now making grades of 60% and 70%. The kids were so full of life and vivacity. When asked if they wanted to go back home, there was no confusion in their answer, it was a loud and clear NOOO. Here they had an opportunity, they had food, they had a bed, and they could be kids.

Reading stories
Waiting for lunch
Khala preparing lunch
Praying Zohr
Lunch! Let’s dig in!

The orphanage is in a much better state then it was a couple of months ago. Although it was the first time I was seeing it, it is far better than what I had seen in the pictures. Unfortunately small construction was still going on but they now had two bedrooms with two bathrooms on two floors, and rooms for the administrators on the ground floor were under construction. They also have a proper kitchen and an area for a dining room. There was also a TV, which was covered at all times except when used for the purpose of watching news and other useful programs.

The kids will also get five computers where they can be exposed to technology and learn the very basics. It is our duty to teach them how to fish and not to only put fish on their plates. These kids are our future. These kids look to us for hope. God (SWT) intended for all of us to live in prosperity and enjoy the fruits of this world.

My favorite moment with the kids was on the last day when we were taking pictures with them. First we went to the terrace to get “profession” pictures. Then after that I taught them how to make the UT Longhorn sign and they gleefully smiled at the camera cheering on the Longhorns!

Go Longhorns!

Although our stay in Kolkata had come to an end, our purpose had just begun. So had my ailment. Even with covering my mouth and nose like a niqabi, and sitting in an air-conditioned car, the pollution had gotten to me and my stomach was already feeling uneasy. And if it wasn’t the pollution, it must have been all that eating!

I will talk about my experiences in Mumbai, in my next report Insha’Allah.