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