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Pakistanis in Haiti

September 06, 2011

As you read this, I’m in Haiti. It’s mostly a personal trip, a chance to introduce my wife to a country that matters a great deal to me (yes, I plan Inshallah to take her to Pakistan too). It’s also a chance for me to revisit friends and stories from my two visits to Haiti last year, and to tie a bow on the book I’m on the verge of completing, Bearing the Bruise: A Life in the Context of Haiti.

What does Haiti have to do with Pakistan? Well, I touched on that in a column in mid-June. But beyond what I said then, I want to use this timing – of my current Haiti trip, and just after Ramazan – to highlight and honor the way Pakistani friends of mine responded to the demands of our shared humanity after Haiti’s devastating earthquake in January 2010. I’ve been telling people that I’m writing a “book about Haiti,” but that’s just shorthand; to me it’s significant that, in a “book about Haiti,” a full chapter (plus passages in several other chapters) is devoted to Pakistanis.

“As Pakistani-Americans,” my friend Dr. Salman Naqvi told me, “we can empathise with what the Haitians are going through, because we have gone through it already, and this is their time of need, and we are there for them. We assembled a team, doctors and nurses from Orange County [California] and the Pasadena area. And we made it very clear to the volunteers that ‘You have to rough it over there. You may not have water, you may not have anything, and you should be willing to sweep the floors, even if you’re a surgeon.’”

I think it’s important to note that the team members were from a variety of American ethnic groups, but the initiators and leaders were Pakistani. (Salman and others have since formed an organisation called SHINE Humanity and asked me to join its board.)

“Within an hour of landing, they [Salman and Dr. Sara Khan] were at work at an orphanage, helping some kids,” said Todd Shea, who founded Comprehensive Disaster Response Services (CDRS) in the wake of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and whose heroic logistical efforts made it possible for the California team, and others volunteering through the Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA), to work in Haiti. “Sara was a breath of fresh air, too. From the beginning she was all into doing whatever it took. People like that, who put their comforts way, way behind in the priority list, are the ones that I get along with.”

“A lot of patients had post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Salman told me. “Their complaints were pain in their stomach and dizziness after earthquakes that happen very commonly. We were seeing it in Pakistan [in 2005]. Because the earth shakes and they feel each time that impending doom, and they get that false sense of dizziness, as if an earthquake is happening.”

Salman’s wife, Dr. Farzana Naqvi, led the first team of volunteers that the Southern California group was able to send to Haiti. “It brought me a lot of memories of 2005,” she told me. “In many ways, it was exactly the same thing what I was seeing, in terms of the destruction: I would compare it to Balakot, which was a city that was totally demolished. … [Haitians] used to come all dressed up to see the physicians. It was so sweet: you saw the kids with their lace socks and their little pompoms, and the young women all dressed up. And then the locals explained to us that they dressed up in their Sunday best! So a lot of memories in terms of the people from both places. Somebody said, ‘Oh, you had a problem with language in Haiti, which you didn’t have in Pakistan.’ But that’s not true, because they speak a different dialect. So even in Pakistan I had an interpreter, who was such a lovely young man. And in Haiti I had this wonderful interpreter, a really bright young woman.

“One of our drivers [in Haiti] had a pawnshop. He lost everything: lost his business, everything was totaled. And these were people without big bank balances; this was his living. So I asked him how he was doing, and he told me every day was a headache. And I thought he meant for himself. But what he was doing was, he was working for this church, and they were trying to help people leave Port-au-Prince. … So he was sifting through the applications and trying to arrange funds for them. And so his headache was not that he had lost everything; his headache was how to help other people who he felt were worse off than him. You see this amazing spirit in people; that’s the grace that you see.”

“You have a nice life here in California,” I said to Farzana. “There are many other physicians living nicely in California. They didn’t go to Haiti; you did. What’s the difference?”

“I guess we all do what we have to do,” she said. “I wanted to go; I went.”

“Why did you want to go?”

“You know, they needed physicians there. Basically that’s what happened, even in Pakistan. I got a call, and I was told they needed a physician, and asked if I would go. So just the fact that I was needed was, I think, the reason I went. If somebody needs you to do what you are able to do, I think that’s reason enough to do it!”

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He can be reached at www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans and www.ethancasey.com

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.