Monday, March 13, 2006

Impak Quake Relief Summer Program

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Imran Saithna (UK) on UN radio

Listen to Imran Saithna, a volunteer from the UK, on UN Radio here.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Wesley Olsen (USA)

Visit Wesley Olsen's blog to read about his experiences volunteering in Pakistan. You'll need to scroll down to November/October posts.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Nadia Janjua (USA)

Nadia is an architect who spent a month doing architectural relief work in Pakistan during November 2005. She's been recording her experiences in Pakistan here.

Nadia volunteered to teach and train (and build with) local laborers and army soldiers at the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi in constructing low-cost, dome-shaped, earthquake-safe shelters made from sandbags and earth. I would train 10-15 men each week, and they would then go to areas of Kashmir and NWFP and start building and teaching the locals how to build these earthquake safe houses.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Salahuddin Khawaja (US)

Date: Dec 12, 2005 11:26 PM
Subject: My experience in Kashmir

I just got back from Muzzafarabad (the capital of Kashmir and one of three cities severely affected by the earthquake) two days ago. I know many of you asked me to send an update on my activities and I finally got the chance to sit down and write it up. The other reason I am sending this e-mail is an ulterior motive: fundraising (so those of you that didn't ask, now you know why are getting this e-mail!).
Here goes -
When I first saw the effects of the earthquake, I realized that everything that I had read in the news, saw on TV or heard from friends was true - but I only truly appreciated the magnitude of the destruction when I saw it with my own eyes. Key issues include: health, shelter, sanitation, education and nutrition. And to compound matters, the cold is fast approaching. And (not to be hyperbolic) it is worse that you can imagine. The government, various countries and NGOs are doing their level best to help ... but between limited resources, coordination issues and the locals' stubbornness to leave their ancestral land, it is a foregone conclusion that people (both the very old and very young) are going to die.
One of things I learned to accept (very quickly) that we can't help everyone … the NGO I work for is in the process of building 2000+ shelters for over 20,000 people. Given that building shelters is not the core competency of this organization, its amazing the scope of the work that they are undertaking. I am responsible for overseeing the construction of 1000 shelters on a mountain strip 25 km south-east of Muzzafarabad. Being thousands of miles from NY and my job, "Project Management" has a way of finding me. I guess I just can't run away from it :)
As personal experiences go, this is one of the best one for so many different reasons. To list a few 1) the various friends I have made from all different walks of life 2) simply helping others and giving them the assistance they need to survive the harsh winter 3) the stories that people have shared (both earthquake and non-earthquake related stories). All in all it has been an amazing experience so far. And I am hoping to spend the rest of my leave here, before coming back to NY.
I could fill this e-mail with stories, and as it is this message is getting pretty long. But I'd like to share one story. One of the locals who is both a guide and a driver for us was mentioning how a European crises group was charged with evacuating kids in a school building that had crumbled. After cleaning the rubble, once they had reached the inside - they grabbed the first kid and he said "Don't take me, my friend is more seriously injured … take him first". Stories such as this show, despite how cynical this world is, the human spirit does indeed have a sense of kindness and generosity.
Before I move on - I thought I'd share some pictures, which represent another dimension to my experience that these words are unable to illustrate. The attached document has a set of pictures that are the most telling (other than one with me at a cricket match :) And one of these days I will upload other pictures and send you a link.
Getting to the second reason you are receiving this message: fundraising. The shelter we are building costs approximately $330. So a $1000 donation can buy 3 shelters and can help upto 30 people endure the harsh winter. You can find specifics on how to donate at:
I would also appreciate it if you could forward this e-mail to your circle of friends, to both raise awareness and funds.
If you have any questions the best way to get a hold of me is via mobile at: +92 301 4709974
Since mobile coverage in Kashmir is shoddy, send me a txt/sms and I will call you back.
Warm regards, Salahuddin

Rabia Mir (US)

To follow the progress of relief worker Rabia Mir, read her blog at

Shenaaz Janmohamad (US)

Shenaaz has been volunteering with Relief International based in Mansehra for the last two weeks. She's been recording her experiences at her blog,

Friday, December 02, 2005

Sohail Azhar (UK)

A recent email from Sohail Azhar, founder of Travelpak, who is currently volunteering with TCF.

Dear all,

Hope all is well. Managed to get a couple of days break to catch up with the
outside world. Going back up north tonight.

For the last two weeks or so I've been working with The Citizen's Foundation
(TCF) in the quake affected areas. We have a base in Muzaffarabad, the
capital of Kashmir (on the Pakistan side) but have projects ongoing in all
the affected areas. It certainly doesn't feel like the Pakistan I know as
there are NGOs from all over the world here, the UN, Red Cross, helicopters
landing by the side of the road, troops from differing nations etc etc.

As far as I saw it, TCF had the best thought out strategy for immediate, mid
and long-term relief and reconstruction so I went with them over any other
NGO. I've been a TCF supporter for a while now in the UK and know they do a
great job with their education programme. They were also my first clients
out here this year so it all felt quite right.

Right now, the plan with TCF is to construct as many temporary shelters as
possible given that the snows have already hit the region. I've spent many
nights in the canvas tents that most people are living in and they get
pretty cold with outside temperatures dipping into minus numbers. Moreover,
if it rains/snows and the tents have no plastic sheeting, they are as good
as useless.

There are two of us volunteers based in a village called Dheri Nara in
Balakot, which was one of the worst hit areas with about 90% destruction. We
first survey a village and collect data on the number of people, houses
destroyed, injuries and deaths. The next step is engaging with the locals to
help rebuild their village. It's quite tough to get a project up and running
as the villagers have had everything taken from them and are still very
traumatised. Although TCF are there for the next two years, the locals take
that with a pinch of salt. We've also managed to provide some marquees so
that the village primary and middle schools can get up running again. Daily
life generally involves 12-14 hour days and a bite to eat when we can (much
like most of you back home eh?!)

For the shelters, we basically get them to clear some space near their
previous homes and to prepare a short wall and wood for the shelter, which
is 12ft by 12ft inside. We place a generator and a sawing machine in the
village and pay local carpenters to cut and build the framework. Everyone
has plans and guidance on how to build the structure. Then we inspect the
shelters before providing galvanized iron (GI) sheets, nails etc for the
walls and roof. For the inside we provide hardboard and suggestions for
insulation. There is a fire-place on one side for cooking and heating. One
of these units can be built in three days and is approx 2-3 times the cost
of big canvas tent. Although they are temporary shelters, they are more like
semi-permanent structures that will last a few years easily. The 3rd phase
of the strategy is to build permanent housing – 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and
kitchen. This will start early next year.

The Muzaffarabad area project has now got some 8-900 shelters underway and
we've got some 300 or so to complete in our area. I reckon the final number
will probably reach about 5000. The hardest part is that we get approached
everyday by neighbouring villages asking us to build there. It's difficult
explaining to desperate villagers that we will slowly move there and can't
spread ourselves so thinly.

I've also done some translation work for one of the medical camps jointly
run by Pakistani, Malaysian and Cuban medical teams which was interesting as
I had to make sense of the local dialect convert it to English then explain
it to Spanish speaking Cubans! Hopefully someone complaining of a dodgy
stomach didn't walk away with their leg in plaster!

TCF have a relief website up and running where all the progress and plans
can be followed. There are pics and diagrams of the shelters too – check it
out at If any of you are not suffering from donor
fatigue then seriously if you want to help out then send them your
donations. Details are on the site but if you have any problems or want more
info on TCF then contact Mehvish Khan who heads up UK fundraising. Her
details are:

E-mail: Mehvish(dot)Khan(at)FTCF(dot)org(dot)uk

As for coming back – it's difficult to leave once you get started on a
project and become friends with the villagers as you want to do more and see
it through to the end but that could take months. But it looks as if I'll be
back around xmas time…I hope!

Do send this round to anyone who may be interested in donating.

Love to all

Mitu x

Friday, November 25, 2005

Dr Farhan Rabbani (UK)

Dr Farhan Rabbani is a Senior House Officer in Accident and Emergency at Nelson Hospital in London.

Dear all,

Thank you all for your emails and correspondance offering assisstance to our group (Emergency Aid Uk) which has just returned from affected areas in NWFP

Thought I'd give you a short field report to update you on the situation. You may of course pass this on to others travelling out to affected areas.

The situation out in Pakistan is more dire than the worst field reports you may have read on the net. Although the earthquake occurred over 5 weeks ago, the medium to long term problems are becoming more and more apparent - shelter, sanitation, communicable diseases.

We operated with the assisstance of the Pakistan Army to try to reach more remote villages. We set up base in Balakot, where we treated the local population. we also trekked upto 3hrs each way to nearby villages. Here we found mostly women and children as well as the elderly and frail who were unable/unwilling to descend to the relief camps in Balakot. Even though we were there 4 weeks post event, there were still people who had not seen a single medic! We had two critically ill patients airlifted to Islamabad for further treatment. We also operated in Guri Dupatta under Operation Heartbeat which is being run by a Canadian called Todd Shea - amazing guy...he will put you to good use!!! Any new teams going out..I suggest you contact him...he has the means and the resources to fly you out to the remotest regions where you are needed most.

Most of our patients were suffering from psychsomatic symptoms indicative of post traumatic stress, i.e. general aches and pains, inability to focus, inability to sleep, loss of appetite. What 85% of the patients needed was good long term counselling. They will never get that.

It is easy to see the complete physical devastation of towns and villages. What is more difficult to see is that the society that existed has been ripped apart. In a culture which thrives on identified individual roles in family household (i.e man is breadwinner, female is mother and housemaker etc) there is disarray...families are incomplete, generations are mssing. I met so many 'families' where the oldest was 15 y.o...looking after numerous younger siblings....both parents dead. The support they would have had from extended families has gone. They are literally on thier the complete mercy of aid workers. If we do not feed them they will die of hunger. If we do not treat them they will die of disease. If we dont shelter them they will die of the cold. It's as simple as that. They are totally DEPENDENT on our help.

PLease keep up the good work you are all doing. The priorities now are the supply of WINTERISED TENTS...the ones theyv'e got are NO GOOD...I slept in one....I know. Blankets are essential. More docs are needed...not just specialists...I means GPs and junior doctors who have a wide range of skills. The relief effort is far from is not too late. People with REAL problems need you.

Inshallah, i may be flying back out in 4 weeks, anyone is welcome to join me / my team.

Get in touch.


US volunteers find Pakistan more friendly than feared

An intersting article from the Christian Science Monitor about the experiences of American volunteers in Pakistan.

Wesley Olson, quoted in the article, worked with the same team that Imran Saithna (see post) further below worked with, building shelters in the Surul Valley.

US volunteers find Pakistan more friendly than feared

By David Montero | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

BATTAL, PAKISTAN – Doctor Mary Burry has seen ethnic strife in Kosovo, war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But she still had apprehensions about volunteering in Pakistan, a country she often equated with terrorists and violence.
"Like most Americans, I had the idea that this is a pretty dangerous place to be," she says, adding that she had never known any Pakistanis. What she discovered, however, is a country whose beauty and hospitality she is now reluctant to leave. "This totally changed my concept of Pakistan."

Her Pakistani colleagues, who have never known any Americans, candidly admit the same. "We had a feeling before that Americans are selfish and too proud," says a smiling Rezwana Ahsan, a doctor working with Mercy Corps, a relief organization. "But they are not so. They came here with an open mind and an open heart."

Their small tent among the rubble in Battal is hope that healing of a different kind is taking place in the earthquake zone. US volunteers throughout Pakistan say that, despite initial concerns, relief work has fostered a welcome forum of exchange with Pakistanis, helping to dispel misconceptions held on both sides.

No one knows exactly how many Americans are volunteering in the earthquake relief, since neither the US Embassy nor Pakistan's Foreign Ministry is keeping track. But their presence is widely felt throughout the affected areas, from tent hospitals like Dr. Burry's, to mountainside villages where volunteers are building shelters before the winter arrives.

These efforts are part of the larger outpouring of American aid that includes 1,200 US military personnel, $510 million in official US relief, as well as $22 million raised by charitable organizations and $35 million in cash and kind committed by the US corporate sector. (The international community increased its total aid pledge to $5.8 billion over the weekend.)

Only 23 percent of Pakistanis have favorable view of US

While Washington has been a longtime ally of Islamabad, Americans often hear more about the trouble spots in the relationship, including nuclear proliferation by Pakistani scientists and the possibility that top Al Qaeda members like Osama bin Laden may be hiding in Pakistan. For their part, many Pakistanis harbor grievances common in the Muslim world about US foreign policy. In spring of 2005, just 23 percent of Pakistanis expressed a favorable opinion of the US, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

Pakistani officials hope the goodwill wrought by the tragedy can bring the two nations closer together.

"This tragedy has helped on both sides because people in Pakistan have had some misconceptions, but they've been greatly touched by Americans," says Tasnim Aslam, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry. "And the Americans who have come here and worked side by side with Pakistanis, their attitude must have undergone a change as well."

For some, volunteering means working for no money; for others, it has meant going beyond the normal call of duty. What they share in common, after working alongside Pakistanis, is a newfound appreciation for a country they never knew and therefore deeply misunderstood. Many say they don't want to leave anytime soon; most hope to come back.

Many Americans here are seasoned volunteers sent by organized missions, as in the case of Burry, a neuroradiologist who came through North West Medical Teams and Mercy Corps, both based in Portland, Oregon. Burry decided long ago, after witnessing the ravages of famine in Somalia, that this would be her calling. A picture she once saw of a medic in Iraq reminds her why it is important.

"The look on the medic's face, holding this child. It reminds people....," she says, fighting off an unexpected burst of tears. "Once you start to do this, you can't ignore the whole thing. You just want to be a part of it, even a small part."

Other Americans have come on their own, with no volunteer experience, only a wish to apply whatever skills they can in these hours of need. Wesley Olson, originally from Los Angeles, is something of an accidental volunteer. He was traveling around the world, and had applied for a visa to Pakistan the day before the quake struck.

"I decided if they gave me a visa, I'd go and volunteer," Mr. Olson says, adding that he'd never volunteered before. The visa eventually came through, and Olson has spent the last three weeks building shelters up in the mountain town of Surul, with a team including Pakistani doctors and volunteers from New Zealand, Australia, and India. He says he lives off his savings, paying when necessary for food and transportation. But it's all money well spent. "We're going around taking from these countries as tourists. And now it's time to give back in their hour of need."

Olson says that misconceptions were a common topic of conversation among his team. But like him, they've all come to think of Pakistan as a place they love. "All we hear about in the Western media is that Afghanistan is nearby, Al Qaeda is here. I don't want to say I had a negative concept, but I didn't know what to think." Now he lauds Pakistan as one of the highlights of his travels. "I've been to eight or nine countries by now - and by far the nicest people I've met have been here," he says.

Antiforeigner attacks occurred here in the past

It is an equation that seems to be working both ways, with Pakistani villagers saying their attitudes have also changed.

"There were some people, for political reasons, who had the wrong impression about Americans," says Ahmed Nawaz, a villager in Balakot. "But the people have seen you working with them in their hour of need and there is a great change in perception."

Some Americans, however, offer a more cautious view.

"I suspect this is a honeymoon period that may pass," says Dr. Luke Cutherell, the chief executive officer of Bach Christian Hospital in Qalandarabad, founded 50 years ago by a US missionary group. Dr. Cutherell, although American, was born in Pakistan, and has dedicated most of his life to working here. When the quake struck, he and other doctors, including eight Americans, went to 12-hour shifts, providing free treatment, medicine, and food for the patients.

Cutherell, who lost close friends in the earthquake, knows well that violent animosity toward Americans is limited to fringe groups in Pakistan. But those fringe elements also attacked a nearby Christian school for foreigners in 2002, killing six Pakistani employees. "It will take more than one period of goodwill to erase the deep animosity that some people have."

Burry hopes that efforts like hers can help erase that animosity one interaction at a time. "We always evaluate every program: Do we really want to send the next team?" She says the possibility to change perceptions on both sides alone would be worth it. "The more people who meet, the better it is," she says. "I want to come back in the winter."

Monday, November 21, 2005

Afshan Bokhari (USA)

Afshan Bokhari is an Assistant Professor at Wellesley college

Dear friends,

I hope this finds you well and enjoying the great weather. I wanted to update you on my progress in Pakistan towards the relief efforts. What started out as a fundraiser for 50 tents or $5000 became a $16,000 success!! Because of this large sum, I took the personal responsibility and charge of its expenditure and delivery of goods. I realized later that the fundraising was the easy part.

I left for Pakistan on Sunday Nov. 6th and returned on Sunday Nov. 13th. Needless to say, it was a whirlwind experience. I arrived early Tuesday morning and hit the ground running or the military helicopter flying to Muzzufarabad- the epicenter of the earthquake. My cousin encouraged me to see the conditions of the site and the victims before purchasing the tents from a local tent manufacturer. Though the trip was indeed disheartening, to see so much destruction and despair, it was also very enlightening and hopeful. I soon realized that no tent would survive the impending 12' snow falls in the region. This knowledge combined with the fact that most villagers are unwilling to leave their homes, their only prized possession, led me to the decision to buy building materials instead of tents.

The next few days were spent negotiating and purchasing 1500 corrugated metal sheets or CGI (corrugated galvanized iron) from a supplier in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. This 'vernacular' material is used throughout the region. Each 10' x 3' sheet cost approx. $10 each. We estimated for a 10' x 10' shed, we would distribute 10 sheets to each household. This would provide 150 households the means to reconstruct their homes to the extent where they could survive the winter safely until March. The rest of the funds were used for nails, hammers and transportation.

Thanks to my connections in high places my two female cousins (who work for the UNDP) and the Pakistani army and I delivered these sheets to two villages: Rawalakot and Bagh. We were driven by a military escort and our 3 jeeps with the metal sheets followed us 4 hours north of Islamabad.

The next two days (Thursday and Friday) were spent personally distributing these materials to heads of villages and to heads of households in Rawalakot and Bagh. We were quite a sight-three lone women in an area largely dominated by a male public presence. We were treated with the utmost respect and gratitude. There is no time for social norms in times of desperation.

Along the way, I did various interviews with locals and the international community helping the relief efforts. These interviews were taped for WBUR/NPR for the 'On Point' and 'Radio Diaries' series. After the producer listened to the tapes, the emotional narratives moved her to consider a longer broadcast on 'All Things Considered'. The tapes will be broadcast in December, I will keep you posted to the exact dates/times.

Most importantly, my deepest heartfelt thanks and undying gratitude to all of you who immediately contributed to this cause. It was a tremendous outpouring of affection, sensitivity and trust without which I could not have made this relief effort. It means a great deal to me knowing that I can count on my 'village' to at least save a piece of the world. I don't consider my efforts heroic but simply a resonse to a call for help. The heroes are in Pakistan who wake up daily and continue their lives knowing all they had was destroyed including innocent and defenseless loved ones. The Kashmiris do this everyday with a smile and a prayer. I sleep knowing that 150 people may also find some dignity and peace in the place where they sleep at night.

My love to you all and my prayers,
Afshan Bokhari