We have a grand opening of Al Mahdi School in Manakara, Madagascar on Valentine’s day, a proud BCT / CAI undertaking. A wonderful day for about 300 girls who will have an opportunity to quality education for the first time in their lives. Manakara is a poor town south of the island, and difficult to get to. Driving there from Antananarivo on good roads takes a minimum of fifteen hours. Should you have the inevitable flat tire or the roads have not been graded after a predictable cyclone, the drive can be eighteen hours plus, plus. We are lucky to have Ylias Akbaraly offer his complimentary business jet to fly up and down which takes under an hour each way. This video captures the happy moments.
A Cyclone Chase
Sohail and I had anticipated a rough few days in Madagascar and rougher times in Syria, so have planned a two-day stay in Mauritius for some R&R before embarking on a trip to Kathmandu, Nepal, and then to Lebanon and Syria. We get to Mauritius okay, but the R&R is ruined as cyclone Freddy barrels toward us. Anticipating flight cancellations, we evacuated the next day and wait in Dubai for the next leg of our trip to Kathmandu, Nepal.
CAI donors have been assisting displaced Afghan refugees in Nepal for years, providing children with food and education assistance. These refugees are in a hopeless situation, with no end in sight for their relocation to a safe country. They cannot work, travel, or receive any benefits from the UN since they are ‘undocumented refugees. We meet with the refugees, arrange for them to receive Ramadhan food aid, and review/renew the children’s education needs.
Sohail and I apply for Syrian visit visas weeks ago and I am excited to go. There are about 250 orphans who are in dire shape and need immediate attention, and CAI donors are anxious to lend a helping hand. Then, the devastating earthquake hits Syria and Turkey, killing thousands and ruining the lives of many, many more. We get the upsetting news that our visas have been denied due to the ongoing aftershocks, the unsafe situation of buildings, and the country’s security situation in general – I am so heartbroken. Since we are already in Lebanon to visit CAI-sponsored orphans in Nabatiyeh, I request Abdulkarim Lalgee, our point man on the ground, to try and reapply, using wasta. He does and we are told to wait. I harass him for updates every hour and he replies in the typical infuriating Arab manner. Five fingers pinched together and wagged at me with the inevitable Insha’Allah. This can mean shut up, wait five minutes, an hour, a month, a year, or forever. The 18 hours it takes for us to get the green light takes a terrible psychological toll on me; I can easily strangle someone with my bare hands.
Komail and Hussein are friends of our contacts and well-known faces with Lebanese security officials. They are initially reluctant to accompany us into Syria but once they realize we are going there for humanitarian reasons, they warily agree. Komail’s comfortable Land Cruiser takes us to the border on deteriorating and snow-laced Lebanese roads and we clear through immigration quickly enough. Since we have all the paperwork in place, the crossing into Syria is surprisingly smooth as well; I was expecting trouble with our American passports. We transfer to a local Syrian taxi here. The robust odor of gas in the Prado taxi, manufactured when Adam (a) was born, dulls my senses and I have a splitting headache in minutes. It is cold and raw outside, with only the stars above and the struggling headlights of the taxi as our pilot. The vehicle is cramped and the sciatic pain in my butt returns with a vengeance. Poor Sohail is trapped between Hussein and me for the entire trip; he grins and bears it. What makes the situation worse is the extra baggage we have with us – medication we have purchased in Beirut for the victims of the disaster, in short supply. There are security checks every few miles in Syria. Had it not been for Hussein and Komail’s extraordinarily sweet and persuasive tongues, we would not have been able to accomplish our mission.
We simply cannot proceed anywhere in Syria without a mandatory stop to pay our respects to Bibi Z (a) – what a treat! Unfortunately, it is too late to visit Sayyeda Ruqyya (a). We expect to reach Latakia by 21:00, in time to take part in feeding a hot meal to about 2,000 displaced victims of the earthquake – we get there at 2:30 the next morning; the food is distributed in our absence. I am so bushed; I do not even think of brushing my teeth and fall asleep before my head touches the pillow at a reasonably comfortable hotel.
The full day in Latakia and later in Hasya’a is a rollercoaster of emotions, from the pain of seeing the earthquake victims lined up for handouts to the stories of hapless children made orphans by people with deviant and bestially convictions. I meet children whose school bus was blown up and survived, badly mangled, and in need of constructive surgery. I meet proud children of slain fathers, some of whose throats were slaughtered for no reason than their beliefs. They put up a brave and intensely emotional display of their pride in being children of martyrs. Hasya’a is even worse. Over 700 families were forced out of their village by these same animals and now rot in squalor with no foreseeable respite. The camp has 250 orphans, cared for by the community with dismal resources.
There are so many orphans, there are so many orphans; I despair. Some, I hope, CAI will soon adopt to care and educate and make them productive and somewhat repaired humans. Insha’Allah.
We distribute hot food to the hungry and Ramadhan iftaar supplements to the poor and homeless. Eighty poorest families get a stipend of US$50 each for their living expenses, like rent and medical supplies. A supply of medicines in short supply is dispatched to a relief hospital; these will be dispensed under our supervision. Our return to Beirut is incident free, except for the cramped ride, and we finally arrive at our hotel at midnight. All of us have flights out today.
Both Sohail and I’ll be back sometime in Ramadhan. There is a severe shortage of infant milk in the country. CAI is arranging for 50,000 large cans of this to be shipped from Iraq as soon as logistics and legal compliance allow. I anticipate distribution by mid-Ramadhan and we’ll be on the ground meeting compliance requirements and supervising. We also need to legally formalize the care of the 250 orphans, so both these tasks will be taken care of at the same time insha’Allah.
If you are interested in helping CAI with the infant milk appeal or orphan support, please donate here, and notate ‘milk’.
In all of my road travels within Syria, I was shocked and pleasantly surprised at how well-maintained the internal roads were. I was expecting a disastrous situation, what with the internal conflicts and sanctions. The roads were not only well maintained, but they were also generally clean of litter. Except for the unending checkpoints throughout the country, our trip was as ordinary and uncomfortable as other dicey countries I have traveled through. Good job.
Please click this link to view photos and videos from our trip.