Paradise Lost… and Found?

Twelve years ago, the Ibrahim family made a trip up to a beautiful town in northern Pakistan. It was the peak of winter, there was snow everywhere, and they were staying in a small and very poorly heated inn reminiscent of Wuthering Heights. Appropriately enough, the enterprising innkeepers had named it “Walnut Heights.” The nights were bitingly cold, so they had to save buckets of hot water and pile on the blankets before they slept. The early mornings were blindingly white, and someone had made a little snow Buddha just outside the window with twigs for hair. They recalled the beautiful bare trees and trout fishing in the treacherous Indus River, just a few miles away. They left that place knowing that someday they would return. That town was located in Swat Valley.

Ten years later, the same valley was overrun by the Taliban.  And barely two years after they were driven out, the Indus continued the cycle of destruction against the people of that valley that the Taliban began. What the Taliban left behind, the floods have taken away. There are many similar, tragic stories being played out all across Pakistan. Many of us South Asians here at Harvard have felt the pinch as we read the news and wonder what we can do about it from here. It is indeed a tragedy that the world media has gradually shifted attention from the flood crisis toward other controversies. For every Islamophobic statement made, one more family is forced to drink unsafe water. For every argument made back and forth about the mosque at Ground Zero, one more disease is reported among the refugees who are waiting for the world to decide what should be done. Even with celebrities like Angelina Jolie coming to Pakistan and speaking out in support of the flood victims, the issue still requires more attention from prestigious institutions like Harvard.

While politicians have already turned the other cheek to what is happening, perhaps we can rectify these crimes with the resources we possess, an institution that has fostered idealism within us from our first day of freshman year.

Here at Harvard, a number of initiatives are making headway. Spiced, the annual intercollegiate charity dance hosted by the South Asian Association this weekend at The Estate club in Boston, is donating part of its proceeds to the International Rescue Committee, an organization working in Pakistan since the influx of Afghan refugees in the 1980s. The Woodbridge Society for International Students is planning a panel discussion in October followed by a raffle for prizes, the proceeds will be donated towards flood relief. In addition to this a cultural event focusing on Pakistan is in the works. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative is launching a webpage with information and links on how to donate as well as current statistics on the situation. Meanwhile, Harvard Pakistan Student Group comprising of concerned graduate and undergraduate students is working with various organizations to launch a long-term awareness campaign that aims primarily to foster an interest in this affected region while raising funds on a smaller scale. The response from students and awareness on their part is needed most for an issue of this magnitude as apathy and media boredom with the issue have hindered humanitarian efforts thus far.

At the moment, with a looming threat of epidemics in refugee camps, immediate relief is crucial. Ten million people are in need of meals immediately, but in the long run, the need to rebuild hospitals, provide medicines, and rebuild homes and schools is a more daunting challenge.

Harvard alums are currently working in areas that have been ignored by the world media. Samad Khurram ’10 was recently in Baluchistan with Khushaal Pakistan, a social work organization he founded. Baluchistan province is the center of a separatist movement and has traditionally been the poorest in Pakistan. Along with a group of volunteers, Samad distributed medical supplies and food rations and identified far-flung affected areas that were unlikely to be visited again by major relief organizations. In an interview he told us how he came to realize the grave consequences if timely relief and reconstruction are not carried out.  According to him, “Rightwing Islamist groups are filling the vacuum of immediate relief, and this will have political consequences in years to come”. Another fear that he expressed to us was how “rebuilding educational institutions will be neglected in the wake of this disaster and this will have long-term social implications for a country already battling extremism, poverty, and lack of resources.” Yet his accounts were also inspiring. One member of the National Assembly of Pakistan with whom he stayed for a few days was living in the Baluch camps belonging to his constituency and was working tirelessly to meet the needs of all the people, despite the shortage of supplies. Day in and day out, he would be swarmed by women with concerns over a child’s ill health, shortage of medicines, shortage of water and the list went on. Yet his presence and resolve has in Samad’s words “prevented chaos in the camp” and it is these kinds of individuals who are really keeping the people afloat.

Swat is now just a memory, kept afloat by a vision. The place where some of us grew up or visited, where we planned to bring our children, is now nothing more than a remnant of the past that you see only with closed eyes. These days, moments, and places are lost—but their sights are retained in the minds of those who live on to educate others of their subtle beauties. We serve a mission here at Harvard to bring our knowledge and our past with us to share with others. The new crisis in Pakistan acts as a reminder for us to preserve and mend, to pick up the pieces of a memory and put them back together again.

Nur N. Ibrahim ’13 is a sophomore in Winthrop House. Ashin D. Shah ’12, a Crimson photo editor, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Ashin is the co-president of the South Asian Association.