September 2006 Report

My fellow Muslims,

Salaam aleykum and special greetings to you on this blessed and holy month. May Allah (swt) accept our meager a’amaals and sacrifices this month, increase us in our imaan and have mercy at our shortfalls.

As is the norm, here is a report on my recent projects trip. Insha’Allah, I hope these reports are informative and give you, my donors and well-wishers, a flair for ground realities in the areas we operate in. Nothing, however, can replace your physical presence and I have always urged, nay, challenged you to accompany me the 4 times/year that I visit. Well, Mussarat Yusufali initiated last January and a young man followed up this time around. Murtaza Jaffer from Canada / Dubai joined me in Mumbai and his narration follows for the Kargil / New Delhi segments and I will follow with Kolkata side as I went there by myself.

I also made a quick trip to Kenya / Tanzania this time, six days in all. The objective was to introduce CAI to our African residing community and educate them on our projects and learn of ways CAI can assist in Africa any way it can. One glaring need in Africa is the scarcity of water in villages and the suffering of hundreds of our African reverted communities. CAI has taken up one cause in a Masai school near Arusha where storage tanks for fresh water will be installed underground. Insha’Allah, we will take up more such projects in the future and will update you when appropriate.

Here then is Murtaza:

Report on My Trip to India in September 2006 by Murtaza Jaffer

One of the Dalia Lama messages for 2006 says: “Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.” And that is exactly what I did – I packed my bags for a one-week trip to India.

It all started like this …

A US based charity, Comfort Aid International (CAI), has an annual project to distribute food rations to the needy in India for their month of fasting. The Principal of CAI, Mr. Yusufali, was heading down to personally distribute these rations and asked me if I wished to see the projects they were working on first hand as well as help with the food drive.

I’ve always wanted to see where my charity money really goes, so I agreed to embark on this journey with CAI. What started out as perhaps a personal journey to get some answers and earn a few good points in God’s books – for surely I could use those – turned out to be one of the greatest lessons in my life. The poor of India taught me in one week what 32 years of living could not – the true meaning of faith and contentment.

I write this report in the hopes that you will take some time to walk with me through my journey of learning and discovery and then take some time to reflect on how you too can help make a difference.

The journey …

On arrival in Mumbai, I planned to stay in Dongri, a small suburb that is a rather poor area compared to its touristy neighbors such as Juhu Beach.

On reaching Dongri, I was utterly overwhelmed. There, in front of my eyes, were people – rows and rows of them – men, women and children sleeping on thin cardboards on the footpaths. Strewn amongst them were dogs, cats, litter, poop – you name it and it was there. I grew up in Kenya, where there was a lot of poverty around us, but this sight was something else – rather disturbing at first, but if you looked hard enough you noticed something, that the people sleeping there appeared to be content. Wow!

I wrote in my journal: “Lesson #1: Be content with what you have.”

The first stop of our missionary trip was Kargil, a small town in the greater Himalayan region. Kargil is located very close to the line of control with neighbors Pakistan in the North and Kashmir in the South. This remote district, which covers 14,036 sq km, is subject to extreme temperatures varying from 38 degrees Celsius in the summer to negative 40 degrees in the winter. The heavy snowfall and extreme cold during the winter months means the region is inaccessible and cutoff from most other parts of the country for a good 6 to7 months of the year. To get to Kargil, we had to fly from Mumbai to New Delhi, from New Delhi to Leh and from Leh; we took a 4×4 proceeding on our 200km trek up the hilly terrain of the Himalayas. The drive from Leh to Kargil took over 6 hours.

The drive was both scary and awe inspiring at the same time. Imagine: a single, narrow, unpaved road winding up the mountain, with a cliff on one side and towering mountains on the other. One wrong move and that would be the end of us. Although I was scared for my life, I couldn’t help feel a sense of tranquility inside me as I watched the endless mountains in sight.

On arrival in Kargil, we were warmly greeted by the local religious leader, Agha Mohamedi, and given a tour of the new CAI sponsored orphanage house that is under construction. The orphanage will be home to 50 plus orphan girls and will be heat efficient.

Girls orphanage under construction

Heat efficient, I thought to myself – isn’t that obvious? For God’s sake we are in the middle of the mountains – and it gets rather cold up here. I mean, I have lived in Canada and we had our heaters cranked up when it hit negative 20 Celsius and if we dared venture out in a winter storm, we would be bundled with layers of clothing – vests, hats, mittens, sweaters, jackets – the whole nine yards.

Well, not in Kargil. Heat efficient buildings, extra thick blankets, layers of clothing, hot water to shower in, indoor bathrooms – those are all privileges in Kargil. The modus operandi here is survival of the fittest.

I couldn’t do this; I thought to myself, if I had to live here through one winter, I would surely die. And so I wrote in my journal: “Lesson #2: You don’t realize the bounties God has given you until you see the condition of others. What I take for granted as a necessity of life is actually a privileges for many others.”

We visited another orphanage funded by CAI that night. The orphanage housed 16 girls, aged 6 to 8 years. These little girls behaved with a level of maturity that transcends their age. They were disciplined and well mannered.

As I sat there and observed them receiving religious instructions and reciting the sermons of faith, I couldn’t help but feel tears in my eyes. These innocent children had lost their parents at a young age, yet they were so strong – they had complete faith in God and were content with what they had. I remembered a saying of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (P) “The greatest form of wealth is contentment.”

And so I wrote in my journal: “Lesson #3: Learn to be content with what you have. Be needless of others and place your reliance only on God, remembering Him in good and bad times.”

Yusufali and me with the orphans

The next day in Kargil, we drove to a small village, the Taisuru Village, some 20 km away, to distribute food rations to the poor for the month of Ramadan. The mere 20km took over two hours of driving and we learned as we passed the different villages that there were recent floods in the area that killed and injured many and caused substantial damage to the infrastructure there, including houses, mosques, bridges and water tanks.

The food distribution was for invited guests – the poorest of the poor (yes, even poverty has classes). These families usually had 6-7 members, many of whom were disabled and unable to work. We distributed the food to one family at a time in an orderly fashion. What struck me was the graciousness of these people. These people were dirt poor, yet they carried themselves with such dignity. None of them moved during the food distributions until their name was called and when they got their package, their face lighted up with joy. I thought to myself: the cost of feeding one person for a whole month was equal to ONE cup of coffee in the West. And so, I learnt Lesson #4: “Wealth is relative. A dollar a day means a cup of coffee to me, but that same dollar means a week’s worth of basic sustenance for someone in a remote village in India.”

Me distributing an Iftaar package
Yusufali discussing logistics
Nassir, our ever helpful guide / interpreter giving a helping hand

As we ended the food distribution, a woman came up to us and placed a little child, the size of a newborn baby in front of us. But, the child was 5 years old. Apparently this child has not grown an inch and no one knows if its because of a rare medical condition or if the illness is the result of wrong medical treatment administered by the poorly trained doctors in Kargil.

As we reviewed this child’s medical report, it was also brought to our attention that there are villages in Kargil where almost all the people are disabled, some are paraplegics, others have polio and yet others are deaf and mute. Something was surely wrong and we need to find out what it is before things get worse.

If anyone reading this report is a professionally trained medical doctor or knows of someone who is, please help us diagnose this situation in Kargil. Remember, “The one who has the most blessed life is the one who supports others during his life.” Imam Ali (P).

Our next stop was Lankarche Village. On arrival at the village, we stopped to say our prayers at a mosque under construction. We discovered that the villagers in this community had raised one third of the total funds required for the construction of their mosque – quite an accomplishment considering the average monthly earnings per household is less than USD 50.

As we discussed their requirements in details, we asked how they plan to fund the ongoing maintenance of their mosque. We learned that the community has decided to design their mosque with indoor bathrooms and water heating facilities. Families would use these facilities during the winter months for a nominal fee. The fees collected would be used towards mosque operations and maintenance. Now this is what I call creative thinking! CAI committed to help the project with IRP 200,000 (USD 4500) while the community committed to raise another IRP 100,000 (USD 2250) on their own.

On our way back to the town of Kargil, CAI was again approached for funds to build a school. Given the project was in the very early stages, CAI decided not to commit any funds and asked the project sponsors to prepare a detailed plan and forward it to them for review. Here, I was happy to observe that CAI was run like a business – before funds were committed, appropriate due diligence was performed to ensure project sustainability.

The next morning, we visited the Jafferi Academy of Modern Education, a school that catered for students up to Grade 10. Thanks to a CAI donor, the school was able to complete its library and lab and the kids had even come up with a creative way to protect their lab equipment in the wintertime from damage due to the extreme cold. There was an interesting sign posted outside this school. The sign said: “An orphan is not one who has lost his parent(s), an orphan is one who has not acquired knowledge.”

“An orphan is not one who has lost his parent(s), an orphan is one who has not acquired knowledge.”

We continued our journey to Dras, the second coldest place on earth after Siberia – some 60km west of Kargil. In Dras, we visited the CAI-funded mosque which is almost complete.

From Dras, we drove the long stretch of 192 km to get to the town of Srinagar to visit another CAI project before flying out to New Dehli to hand out food rations, making the end of my journey (CAI continued on to Kolkata).

The most eventful moments of my trip were in Delhi during the food drive. It was chaos, utter chaos. Even a fish market is more orderly. This madness was due to a two-fold result – one was the lack of organization in the distribution activities and second was the people. Remember Kargil – where I described to you the dignified manner that the people behaved? Well in Delhi, people thought it was their right to receive food. In fact, they thought it was their right to receive not only their own food, but that of others, whatever they could get their hands on was theirs, and if lying, betrayal and violence was the only means to get it, then so be it.

Melee in Delhi – One

I was truly saddened and angered to see the scenes, especially compared to Kargil. Many times I suggested to CAI Principal, Mr. Yusufali, that we stop the distribution completely. We couldn’t, he replied, because if there was even one poor, deserving person in the crowd, we would be accountable to God for not giving them their dues. Mr. Yusufali was right I guess, but still, it was pure madness.

Melee in Delhi – Two

At some points during the distribution I felt I was in a zoo. These people, most of them women and children, were clinging on to the administrators as if their life depended on these rations.

Melee in Delhi – Three

As I fought to keep my calm and sanity, I wondered to myself – why are these people like this? Is it the city that has hardened them? Or is it the lack of education? Perhaps it’s the government that has deserted its people causing social corrosion? I don’t know. But whatever it is, I hoped and prayed that at least one family out there would pull their kids out of this cycle by putting them in a school, where they had a chance at a decent education so they could do something with their life.

It began innocently enough …

As for CAI, this was the first experience in Delhi, and it has learned the hard way that if we are to continue food distributions in Delhi, more accountability and organization needs to be put in place to prevent this mayhem from happening again. I understand from Mr. Yusufali that CAI has resolved not to continue the food distribution in Delhi and instead transfer more funds to Kargil and surrounding areas until a more structured process of accountability can be established for Delhi.

Iftaar packages lined up before the madness …

And so my journey ends. As I make my way back to Dubai and to the life I know, I have many things to ponder over and have been gifted with a different lens to see the world through. I have learned much – on faith, contentment, poverty and life.

I got the answers to the questions I had on how far my charity dollars go – very far, especially in India, where a good majority of the population lives below the poverty line.

Through my experiences, I have resolved to continue supporting charitable projects both financially and with my time, for the Holy Prophet (P) has said: “Verily charity brings abundance for the one who gives it, so give charity; God will have mercy on you.” I hope this report has helped you too, make that resolve.

If anyone wishes to donate to CAI – either financially or through their professional expertise, please contact Mr. Yusufali directly.

Part 2 – I am back with the Kolkata piece:

I stayed nervous in Delhi, for two reasons. The stomach flu I contacted in Kargil was still giving me progressively energetic dashes to the bathroom and we received reports from Kolkata of torrential rains and flooding in the areas we were to distribute Iftaar packages. And the melee we encountered at New Mustafabad, New Delhi during distribution was disgusting, mildly speaking, and put our community there to shame. If it had not been for the helpless children I found clinging to their mothers in absolute terror, I would have walked out and not handed out a single package. I am no one to judge, but the jostling with women, the screaming of children and brazen cheating of a few and the threats to us had utterly sapped my strength.

I must admit a lapse in my due diligence for New Delhi distributions. I went with the recommendations of a very well know social helper and Al Imaan, that there are thousands of poor in New Mustafabad. Perhaps. However, there should have been a system and certain dignity present; we were helping humans after all, not animals. And there really were hundreds needy and deserving families present. The error was in ensuring a disciplined and organized distribution; like that in Kargil and Bengal. I had assumed these issues would be taken care of; well we know what happens when we assume.

By the end of the day, I was in two minds whether to continue to Bengal or call it a day and preserve my health. Later, my stomach stabilized and late night reports out of Kolkata were encouraging; the rains had ceased and water levels were receding. I decided to proceed; there were 250 families waiting to be helped and I felt uncomfortable leaving the task to by (very reliable) colleagues alone. The distribution venue was changed to higher grounds however, as the previous venue was under water (a shocking occurrence in the West but a norm for Bengal).

Alhamd’Allah, my flight to Kolkata and the ensuing distribution of Iftaar rations went of very well. This was a well administered, well planned distribution with eligibility of those helped very well authenticated and recorded. Although the work was hard as usual, I would never trade it for the satisfaction of a mission accomplished and the whisperings of blessings from poor women (some so old we had to help carry the rations to a rickshaw) and children recipients as they received their valuable nourishing Iftaar. It took two days of back breaking work but was worth every second; thank you Allah for giving me this humble opportunity. I apologize for the quality of the following photos.

Filling in Iftaar goodies
A helping hand

I spent the late evening with my 19 orphaned children at the CAI built and funded Boys Orphanage, talking to them and reviewing their mid-term school reports. Some boys are still weak in English so I arranged extra coaching outside of school; considering where they came from about 18 months ago, these boys have shown remarkable progress.I returned to Mumbai late next day and tried to relax before my long trip back home and looked forward to the blessed month of Ramadhan that had begun in India that day.

My Bengali children offering Magrib on the (cooler) terrace of orphanage

Insha’Allah, my next trip to India will be in January 2007. I will not go to Kargil due to the annual winter road closures. However, I will venture into Heraat, Afghanistan. If Iran will indulge me with a visit visa (Iran steadfastly refuses visit visa for Americans and all attempts thus far of obtaining one have been rebuffed). The road from Kabul to Heraat is frought with danger for and no flights operate either. There have been disturbing reports (from several sources) of our orphaned children sleeping in streets and begging to survive. These children ware orphaned by the Talibaan, who executed about 2,000 minority muslims for their different beliefs. I will perform due diligence and Allah willing, begin the project for an orphanage there if conditions about transparency and accountability of money satisfy CAI’s standards.

CAI is still in need of your support for funds in the following areas:

1. Bengal orphans education fund which has a shortfall of about $3,000. Unfortunately, a regular donor has cash flow issues, we pray for him.

2. We need educational assistance for a school in the villages of Chovis Parganah in Bengal for poor children.

3. Tremendous need for housing in Malaad and Bengal. We need donors to help us build about 100 homes in 2007 for destitute families, mostly sadaat. A home costs about $1,500 and will save many children and families from certain disease and or ruin. It will also provide children a sense of belonging and enable them to begin an education that is so important to break the cycle of poverty.

4. We will expand the Basra Water project to a commitment for an additional 3 months if we get more funds from donors; $5,000 is the budget.

5. We need donors for the purchase of 5 computers for the Boys Orphanage in Matia Burg. You will agree with me that these yateems will need computers to advance in their education. Insha’Allah, computers will see them on sound financial footing once they leave the orphanage, especially in a country like India. We have seen success with our other students who graduated from Jafri School in Govendhi. Two children pulled from the slums of Govendhi and provided education opportunity over ten years ago are now executives in technology companies in Singapore and masha’Allah earn six-figure compensation. Not in rupees. Imagine! Alhamd’Allah, they in turn now support their own. See what we can do?

Think of the following when in sajda of thanks next time:

1. If you have good health, or resources to cure ill health, of a child in remote Kargil village who I saw is so sick, she does nor have the strength to swallow food and wants to die but cannot until her time comes.

2. If you have shoes, of a boy in Govendhi slums who pesters his mom for good ones as his fill with the slime of the slums due to egg size holes in the soles.

3. If you have clean water in the house (not necessarily running) of the six year old girl (in impeccable hijab) in Uri who wakes up at five in the morning and accompanies her mum, walking two kilometers and brings in a pail of water balanced on her delicate head.

4. If you have imaan and the toufiq to perform salaat in tahaarat, for in Malaad slums, to find a paak place is a challenge.

5. If Allah (swt) showers you with blessed rain and you have a good roof, for I have seen a two day old mum clutch her new baby and stay awake all night, as her hovel was flooding and she feared cat sized rats that feast on unmoving humans and have known to take chunks of little babies.

Alhamd’Allah.

If you can, please help. Visit www.comfortaid.org and see what you can do. All these people we help need is an opportunity. And we all do this for one purpose one – the pleasure of Allah (swt). Nothing else matters.

Please include me and my extended family (215 and counting, masha’Allah) in your prayers and to the success of all CAI projects.

As usual, kindly forward this posting to all you know or think may mutually benefit. Jazaak’Allah.

Yusuf S. Yusufali