Naureen Aqueel

Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan

Three-year-old Rayan needs a bone-marrow donor match in two weeks. A South Asian person is more likely to have it. PHOTO COURTESY THE SHER FAMILY

Published in The Express Tribune – city, February 19, 2011.

A Pakistani family from New York has two weeks to search for a bone marrow donor for their three-year-old son Rayan who has been diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a form of blood cancer which causes damage and death by crowding out normal cells in the bone marrow.

The Shers have come all the way to Karachi because people of South Asian genetic backgrounds are underrepresented in the US Bone Marrow Donor Registry. An appeal was launched across the US to encourage South Asian people to take a bone marrow compatibility test. The family was lucky to have hundreds of volunteers get together to organise drives to find a match in different towns and cities across the US and Pakistan.

Rayan, who his uncle Rizwan Sher describes as the perfect “picture of health” prior to the diagnosis, is now in urgent need of a bone marrow transplant. As time is not on their side, doctors are pressuring the family to find a donor as soon as possible.

“Farhan and Sarah (Rayan’s parents) are busy 24/7, taking care of Rayan who has been getting intensive chemo dosage to force him into remission, a pre-requisite for a marrow transplant,” explains uncle Rizwan.

The drive began in Pakistan almost two weeks ago and the team, consisting of Rayan’s relatives and many other volunteers, has carried out drives in Karachi and Lahore. In the US, over 4,000 potential donors signed up.

“We aim to find 6,000 potential donors in Pakistan,” says Farrya Sher, Rayan’s paternal aunt.

Drives have been held in at the homes of relatives and at The Second Floor café. In the two drives held at their Defence residence, the team was able to get 480 potential donors to test for compatibility, says Farrya, adding that the number should have been higher.

The team will also be present at a blood donation camp at the Pearl Continental Hotel on Saturday and plans to hold drives across colleges in Karachi, including Nixor College and Szabist.

The process of testing is fairly simple and painless. It involves taking a cheek swab or a spit sample which is sent back to the US to be analysed for tissue typing in two weeks. Once a match is found, the donor will be required to donate their peripheral stem cells through a process known as Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donation which is a non-surgical procedure involving the extraction of stem cells. The process does not have any long-term side effects and is perfectly safe.

The team has set up a website (CureRayan.org) and an active Facebook page with over 4,000 followers. Drives have been coordinated online and have drawn an overwhelming response from people. In an emotional thank you note to all those who have been helping them, Rayan’s parents wrote:

“And what else gives us hope is when friends and family work selflessly and tirelessly to try to find that one person from millions who will bring the gift of life to our life. When complete strangers send us messages that they want to help and get tested and organise drives and that they have Rayan in their prayers and they want to give cord bloods of their own precious babies, that gives us hope.”

Children engrossed in a book during the story telling session, ‘Khail Khail Mein’. PHOTO: NEFER SEGHAL/EXPRESS

Published in The Express Tribune – city, February 7, 2011.

Visitors, young and old alike, to the ‘Khail Khail Mein’ story-telling session held at the Karachi Literature Festival on Sunday got a dose of nostalgia as the now near-extinct grandmother’s storytime was enacted.

Little children between the ages of four to 14 sat enthralled, some cross-legged and others on their shins, on the carpet in front of the stage as three prominent children’s writers read out their stories. Other children chose to sit on the chairs with their parents or squirmed out of their grip to play a quick game of tag or hide and seek before being reprimanded to sit quietly and “listen!”

There was one group of children in uniform that had come to attend the session as a school trip on a Sunday.

Although the session began a few minutes late, parents kept streaming in with excited children in colourful t-shirts and cute bubblegumer shoes. At the end of the session, a few parents who had gathered up to meet the writers complained that they had really wanted to attend the session but had run late.

The session started with Mahnaz Malik’s talk on her book ‘Mo ka Tara’ which is the translated version by Fahmida Riaz of Malik’s famed ‘Mo’s Star’. Malik had brought a stuffed replica of Mo, the penguin protagonist. This part of the session was kept interactive as Malik asked the children questions about penguins and Antarctica, where the story plays out. Malik went on to explain how Mo spots a star which he wants to reach. “So how does Mo go to the star?” she asked.

Tiny hands shot up from the audience. “He can fly!” cried out one child.

When Malik said Mo could not fly, another child yelled, “He can go to a tall mountan!”

“He can call the star down!” said another one, causing ripples of laughter.

The next talk was by Saman Shamsie who read out parts from her book ‘The Adventures of the Slothful Slough-Off’, a story about a blue snake and its quest to make friends with other animals. This session too was interactive as Shamsie kept asking questions about the story and about the snake’s behaviour. The issue of trust that helps the snake make friends was also discussed by the author.

The last session was by far the most lively of all. Writer Zara Mumtaz, a true grandmother-like figure, kept the audience mesmerised by her story ‘Kawa aur Maina ke bachay’ as she mimicked the birds.

The children were also drawn into the story as they tried to interpret the actions of the crow and the myna and guessed what would happen next. Some children also shared the personal experiences they have had with such birds.

Mumtaz urged the children to chant the crow’s words with her each time they were repeated in the story. The principle line of the book was repeated many times by an enthusiastic Mumtaz and the excited children: “Khao chirri ki chochlay matkao ucha!”

Mumtaz was reading a story that is a part of her forthcoming bookAnna Buwa ki Kahaniyan, a collection of ten stories that she calls part of the oral tradition of our society. “The aim is to bring the old stories back again and to make them known to children,” she told The Express Tribune. “This is the oral tradition that has been passed on to us, but it will be lost if not preserved.”

Parents and teachers flocked around Mumtaz after the session, asking her if she could conduct a story-telling session at their home and school. “Do you charge if you come to schools?” asked a teacher of a private school in Karachi.

“No, I do not charge,” said Mumtaz who has been writing and reading for children since 1965. “My reward is the happiness of the children who I see.”

Mumtaz’s books come with audio CDs and she is eager to see her next book published by the Oxford University Press.

Appreciation for the effort echoed among parents and children. “It was an excellent session,” said Ambreen Ashar, who had come with her two children. “The way she was explaining and giving a lively performance reminded you of the old times when grandmothers would tell stories. Sadly, that rarely happens now. It was especially good since it taught children good morals.”

When asked what morals they had learned, her daughter 12-year-old Eraj said, “We should not be greedy.” Nine-year-old Arsalan said, “We should not take others’ things.”

“I think the opportunity children got to interact and discuss was a wonderful experience,” said Maliha Hassan who had come with her two daughters. “I feel such events should be held on a regular basis.”

Christmas has a magical aura that seems to draw everyone into the spirit of celebration. Colourful Christmas trees, glimmering candles, sumptuous cakes, melodious carols and Santa Claus act as the face of Christmas festivity. But for practising Christians like Menin Rodrigues, the real spirit of Christmas is “about loving, caring and sharing the goodness and graces of God’s love for His people, and about Jesus coming to our homes.”

Rodrigues calls Christmas a “Holy and Happy occasion”. “Christmas is about God’s People, no one is rich or poor, young or old to await, celebrate and welcome Jesus in their homes, hearts and lives!” he says. “All people come together for special Christmas prayers, commonly known the ‘Midnight Mass’ which is held in all churches on the eve of December 25. On Christmas day, many groups and families make it a point to visit the Old Aged Homes to share happy moments with the old and feeble. Many groups of people and individuals alike, prepare special ‘Hampers’ for poor children and families.”

Reverend Christopher Hawks of the Central Brookes Memorial Church speaks of the same spirit as the catalyst behind the festive mood. “We know that the real meaning of Christmas is that God came down to take care of and love and forgive the ‘undeserving’,” he shares. “‘Undeserving’ expands it to the whole universe; salvation is about the universe. It means we take care of not only humans, but animals and the planet too. Christmas is about taking care of everything and celebrating what God has done for us.”

It is the same spirit which drives Christmas celebrations that start with the Advent Sunday, which is symbolic of the lightning of the four ‘Advent Candles’, each lit on the four Sundays leading to Christmas. “The focus is on preparation for the feast of Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ,” explains Rodrigues. “This period ahead of Christmas is called Advent – the New Liturgical Year – during which the Church involves her congregation, the faithful, in spiritual preparation for the coming of Jesus. Special activities are held for children during Advent to make them understand the true meaning of Christmas.”

Prior to the beginning of these activities, Central Brookes Memorial Church prints a Christmas card detailing all the programmes lined up for the occasion. The cards are distributed so that people know about the activities beforehand and the Church encourages members of the community to participate actively, says Hawks. Different events like social dinners, prayers and sermons are organised to prepare people for the occasion spiritually. Specific areas attributed to specific services like the Women’s fellowship, the Children’s Bible School and the Youth fellowship organise their own events like singing, dramas etc for the occasion. Like all Churches, Central Brookes Memorial also holds Sunday Carols where the spirit is to worship through singing, explains Hawks.

Rodrigues shares that neighbourhood Advent services are also held in individual homes and Evenings of Carols are held in all the major churches in the city prominently including St Patrick’s Cathedral, The Trinity Cathedral, St Anthony’s Church, Our Lady of Fatima Church and St Lawrence’s Church, including Christmas pageants in schools and colleges. “Choral groups from various parishes (localities where Christians live) participate in these performances, attended by a large number of people,” explains Rodrigues. “Carolers also go singing ‘door-to-door’ – an activity which was very popular in the past but has lost its charm today due to security and safety issues.”

Traditional sweet and cake making is another highlight of Christmas that keeps Christians busy ahead of the big day.

“All Christmas activities lead up to the main event of the Christmas eve mass on the midnight of the 24th of December which is to remember the birth of Jesus Christ in the small town of Bethlehem in Palestine,” says Reverend Dr Pervez Sultan, the principal of St Thomas Theological College. “General celebrations then continue till January 6.”

Hawks says the number of participants in a single event can go up to around 500 to 700 people when other churches are invited to theirs. The main Christmas event, the Midnight Mass which Hawks describes as “the climax of Christmas events” draws approximately 1500 people in the Central Brookes Memorial Church. In St Patricks Cathedral which is the largest Church in Karachi, approximately 4000-5000 attendees show up for the midnight service. In the Holy Trinity Church in which Reverend Sultan’s college is located, the number of attendees come up to around 800 to 900. Marquees are sometimes extended beyond the Church buildings to accommodate the number of people attending.

Speaking about security, Reverend Sultan says the government is conscious is about security and so are the Church authorities. “We have never had any problem as such,” he says. “We look to God for His protection.”

Published in The Express Tribune – Techeye, December 5, 2010.

The leaked American diplomatic cables released by whistleblower WikiLeaks this week have not only taken the world’s governments and financial markets by storm, they have also caused a stir in the Pakistani cyberspace, with Pakistan topping the global charts for ‘WikiLeaks’ searches on Google.

Pakistan’s obsession with the news is no secret. Being Pakistani means being accustomed to the many ‘happenings’ that provide fodder for a booming news media industry. Whether it is bomb blasts, natural disasters, match-fixing scandals, crime, corruption allegations or military operations – the news media is never short of things to report and Pakistani viewers and readers are provided with a healthy diet of news to feed off a huge appetite that has been built up throughout the years of a developing media.

Among the top 20 most visited websites by Pakistani internet users according to Alexa, four are news websites belonging to mainstream media outlets.

And when it is about secrets contained in leaked diplomatic cables, the value of the news seems to increase all the more. Statistics collated by Google Trends revealed that Pakistan had the highest number of searches for WikiLeaks in the past seven days (as on December 1). Italy follows second to Pakistan with 18 per cent lesser searches. Next come in Finland, Israel, Estonia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Norway, Algeria and Poland, respectively.

The statistics point to the importance being given to WikiLeaks by Pakistani internet users compared to those of any other country. They may, however, not be a very reliable representation of the situation as the sample for these results is based only on searches done on the Google website, ignoring WikiLeaks related content reached directly through news and other related websites.

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, November 25, 2010.

A recent report indicated that the US was considering expanding drone operations in Pakistan to now encompass areas surrounding Quetta. Pakistan vociferously rejected the expansion and said the US would not be allowed to expand the areas where drones operate.

Drone attacks have a history stretching back to 2004, when they started as part of George Bush’s war on terror. An independent tally by New America Foundation, shows that there have been 199 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan with approximately 103 in 2010 alone. The records state that till today between 1,276 and 1,955 individuals were killed, of whom around 965 to 1,420 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. The non-militant fatality since 2004 according to this record was 28 per cent, while in 2010 it was approximately 8 per cent.

Statistics compiled by Pakistani authorities indicated that US drones killed 708 people in 44 Predator attacks in 2009, but that only five of these were able to hit their real targets meaning that for each al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists killed, 140 innocent Pakistanis had to die.

US authorities continue to stress that the attacks have successfully helped kill a number of high-profile al Qaeda targets. They point to high profile successes like the killings of most wanted Tehrik-i-Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, and other senior al Qaeda leaders.

Yet, a ratio of 140 deaths for one high profile target hardly spells success. Apparently, these strikes are not precision ‘one-bullet’ type of killings that kill only the intended target of the attack. There is always a horrendous ‘collateral damage’ attached.

Interestingly, there is more to this debate then just the measly collateral damage that officials brush off with a wave of their hand.  That the killings are unlawful themselves is often ignored. Most strikes that report the successful killing of ‘militants’ and ‘insurgents’ rarely identify the names of those killed. Who are they? What are the accusations and evidence against them? By what means has the US military obtained information about their ‘militant’ activities? Have they been tried and indicted in court? These are just some of the questions that need answers. Killing ‘alleged’ militants outside any zone of combat without proving charges is an extra-judicial killing and illegal by international law.

Another serious concern is how a state can allow its own citizens to be killed by a foreign power. Drone attacks in the tribal regions are a serious breach of Pakistani sovereignty. The fact that these attacks are carried out with the connivance of the government is another debate altogether.

Does the US not notice this extra-judicial killing considering it had created much uproar about a recent video that showed apparent Pakistani army personnel carrying out extra-judicial executions of militants? There was much concern about fears of illegal executions that are constituted as human rights violations and war crimes. But what happens when it is an unmanned US predator carrying out the executions via drone missiles that kill innocent civilians and also destroy infrastructure?

Drones have a proven record of having killed non-combatants just like any other terror attack kills innocent civilians. Both are worthy of condemnation and neither deserves to be tolerated. Terror attacks in our cities and drone attacks are invariably connected since after almost every terror attack that inhumanely kills innocent civilians, destroys infrastructure and disrupts everyday life, terrorists point to the continued drone operations as the motive. These predator attacks do nothing but make US installations in the country more vulnerable to attack. Because at the end of the day, when the law is flouted, and the state allows the perpetration of extra-judicial killings, a deadly cycle of violence steps in to fill the legal void.

I woke up today to read a friend’s SMS inviting me to join them in a walk to commemorate Global Work Party day to help raise awareness about global warming and climate change. Looking forward to a lazy Sunday, the message slipped my mind only to come back when I logged on to Facebook later in the day to see the same call on a friend’s Facebook status.

I admit. I did feel a little guilty. But climate change and global warming…what could I have done?

The idea behind “Global Work Party” which was floated by a group called 350.org is to do something that can help deal with global warming in each community or city, and in doing so, to send a message to leaders and politicians to make efforts on a larger scale that matters. More than 7,000 events were scheduled in 188 countries. From tree plantings and trash cleanups to solar panel installations, there was much that was done across the globe. And those participating were common people like us.

The group seeks to build a movement to unite the world for solutions to the climate crisis focusing on the number 350 which represents the level of atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide that is the safest. Getting below that is the aim, as unless that happens, the damage resulting from global warming will continue to accelerate.

We have already seen the devastating effects of global warming in the form of the floods that have ravaged our country. The world in the past year has experienced heat waves, droughts, melting ice-caps and rising seas. Needless to say, the damage caused to the environment by years of neglect and harmful activity is finally showing its effect.

So what can we do?

Walks and slogans do make a difference in creating awareness. But what ultimately matters is whether you act on all that talk.

While the decisions of powerful governments, legislators and companies seem to be the ultimate determinant for the course the environmental crisis takes, there is still much that we can do as individuals to become the solution generation. It all begins with taking ownership. So whether it is planting a tree, not flinging a wrapper out of the car window or closing the tap while you brush your teeth, it is small steps like these that can help make a difference.

While many will smirk at the idea, I have always believed that it is the little things that go on to make a big difference. If we remain hopeless of the impact we can make, our attitude leads to nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy of helplessness. No action leads to no difference. Small acts by many lead to a big difference.

So, it’s time for us to step up and take an initiative. Take small steps in your own individual capacities, do something to help the environment. May be it isn’t too late for me and those of you who didn’t participate in this global campaign to play our part.

Published in The Express Tribune – web, August 17, 2010.

Floods have wreaked the worst devastation across Pakistan, but they have also brought out the best in Pakistani youth, both in the country and those abroad.

While youth across the country have risen to collect donations and pack and dispatch relief supplies to the flood affected areas, Pakistani students abroad have also stepped up efforts to make it known that although oceans apart, they are there when their country needs them.

Pakistan Graduates Students Association (PGSA) at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign is one such organisation. A purely student run organisation working independently from other Pakistani student organisations in the US, PGSA has partnered with Islamic Relief USA, to help the victims of the floods. Student volunteers collect donations from door-to-door drives and arrange fundraising dinners that invite affluent members of the Pakistani community in Urbana-Champaign, professionals, corporate organisations, faculty members and students to donate generously for the cause.

The organisation plans to collect close to $40,000 from the fundraising dinner that is being organised for flood victims on August 21. Volunteers have already collected $2000 from a separate drive at a mosque.

PGSA has previously raised funds for the 2005 Earthquake relief and for internally displaced persons (IDPs). It helped raise $30,000 for Swat IDPs working in collaboration with Islamic Relief. The organisation has also worked with Shahzad Roy from Zindagi Trust and helped raise $35,000 for Zindagi Trust schools in Pakistan. The students’ organisation was also recently recognised by the Champaign-Urbana community and awarded the CU Humanitarian Award.

“Most of our students are able to manage these activities alongside their studies,” Rajesh K Karmani, President of PGSA told The Express Tribune. “The students are very driven and motivated themselves as many have been directly affected by the floods since their relatives or acquaintances have been affected.”

Preparations for the fundraiser on Aug 21 have been made and members of PGSA are hopeful that they will be able to raise the amount they have targeted.

“PGSA represents a microcosm of the Pakistani society,” said Karmani. “We see the same conflicts we see in our society, but we always overcome those conflicts and work for the benefit of our country. Herein lies an example for Pakistan.”

Muslim Students Organisation steps up to help

Another international students organisation working for the relief of Pakistani flood victims is the Muslim Students Association at Columbia University in New York. The organisation has raised about $15000 from various fundraising and door-to-door drives in Muslim communities, mosques and Churches in New York city.

Students of the Muslim Students Association managed to raise these funds despite the fact that schools were closed for the summers. The organisation now plans to donate the funds collected to the Rural Support Programme and the armed forces of Pakistan and to air ship the goods collected to the affected areas.


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