x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Answering Swat's cry for help

Pakistanis in the UAE have rallied to their assistance by raising millions of dirhams to help their countrymen in need.

Bushra Ahmed, left, a housewife from Sharjah who raised Dh110,000 for relief supplies, with a refugee at the Shah Mansour camp.
Bushra Ahmed, left, a housewife from Sharjah who raised Dh110,000 for relief supplies, with a refugee at the Shah Mansour camp.

Three million people displaced by fighting in the Swat valley lack the basic necessities of life. Pakistanis in the UAE, one of the country largest expatriate groups, have rallied to their assistance by raising millions of dirhams to help their countrymen in need. Anealla Safdar reports Bushra Ahmed decided she had to do something to help after being kept awake by images of the suffering of refugees from the fighting in Pakistan's Swat valley.

"When I saw their condition on the TV, I couldn't sleep for three nights," she said. "My friend told me to take Panadol Night to go to sleep but I told her it wouldn't help." Since February, more than three million Pakistanis have fled their homes in Swat as the military's drive to push out the Taliban has turned the region into a war zone. The UN has called the displacement crisis the worst since the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

The hospitality of the Pashtun people has saved many of them from living in camps - António Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said last week that more than 2.5 million people were staying with host families in the regions bordering Swat. Despite their generosity, money for the hosts is tight, and the cramped conditions only add to the struggle. So, after her sleepless nights, Mrs Ahmed started raising money. The 58-year-old Pakistani, who lives in Sharjah, called friends and relatives, and soon had 2.5 million rupees (Dh110,000, US$30,000) to take with her to Pakistan. On May 22 she flew out, and spent three weeks trying to help the homeless.

During that time, she visited several camps in the region including Mardan, Swabi and Shah Mansour camp, which accommodates 20,000 refugees. "Believe me, these refugees have nothing," she said. "The ladies in the camps are sitting there crying with small babies. "It is all true what you see on the television. They are scared people, helpless. They have nothing. Some people were sitting by the roads and they didn't have any camps.

"They were just putting bedsheets on the roads and the ladies sat behind them. There are many people working there but only private NGOs are doing a lot. I don't think the government is doing much." She bought 800 sets of clothes for men and women, footballs for children, baby items, biscuits, cooking utensils and dried food. She also made up women's sanitary kits, an often forgotten necessity. "My trucks came into the Mardan camp so I managed to cover 150 families and provide for them in the school,"she said.

The Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation was the first UAE charity to visit Pakistan and deliver relief. "There are more than 3 million refugees," said Mohamed al Khoori, the foundation's executive director. "They are in need of everything. We just hope they will be OK. They need a lot of assistance." In June, an all-male delegation donated, among other items, 15 generators, each one able to serve 1,500 people, plus tents and blankets to the region. They bought from the local markets so that the products they were distributing would be familiar to the refugees.

Food and generators are the most needed items, Mr al Khoori added. "The refugees just want their homes to be maintained and want the war to be over." Poor hygiene is a problem in the camps, with limited supplies of clean running water, and few toilets, said Mr al Khoori. Many of the refugees were desperate and in a state of shock. "The delegation saw everyone in need. There are so many patients and pregnant women who need help," he said.

Earlier this month a delegation from the Pakistan Association Dubai, the UAE's largest expatriate group, flew out to set up a relief centre. The group had been collecting cash and goods for a month before sending its team. It set up a collection point for donations at its premises on Oud Mehta Road, held fundraising events and launched a telethon on Geo TV. Between them the events raised millions of dirhams.

The PAD is planning more campaigns and a donate-a-dirham appeal, geared to Pakistanis in the UAE, of whom there are 850,000. One of its team, Kabul Wazir Mir, a 31-year-old British Pakistani whose roots go back to the Afghan border, spent five days in the region, returning on June 20. "There were kids drawing pictures of helicopters with their houses being bombarded," he said. "They are distraught.

"They are out of their habitat. My concern is for the children. They will be psychologically damaged. They're still growing and should be out playing and learning." He added that host families were suffering as much as the refugees were. Some women in host families were even selling their gold to raise money. Mr Mir, who plans to return to the region as soon as possible, said he had gone there primarily to raise awareness.

"I have a command of English and Pashto. I felt in some way I bridged a gap so I could help the public become more aware of what's going on. And, as a humanitarian I wanted to do my part." Looking ahead, there is a concern that the monsoon season will make the already poor hygiene in the camps worse, making conditions ripe for disease to spread. Speaking from Peshawar, Mr Mir's colleague Shah Hussain, 62, the group's relief operations manager, said the plight of pregnant women was the worst consequence of the crisis. "There is a necessity for ambulances here, especially for the pregnant women," he said.

Around 67,000 female refugees are pregnant, with an average of 3,000 births a month. "These government hospitals just cannot meet the demands. I am trying to arrange that our association helps to maintain a 50-bed hospital to ease the suffering of ladies who are delivering," Mr Hussain said. Many of the pregnant women are anaemic, malnourished and underweight, putting themselves and their unborn children at risk.

Mr Hussain, a businessman who has lived in the UAE for 40 years, urged his countrymen to continue donating. "Cash is the best donation at the moment because then they can purchase what they need and like," he said. "Things are cheaper here in Pakistan than they are in the UAE, especially medicines and things for ladies and babies, including milk." The next step, he said, would be helping the refugees carve some sort of normal life out of their surroundings.

"We are hoping to sort out some joint marriages, of around 16 people at a time," he said. "The refugees are now preparing themselves because they thought they would be homeless for 10 or 20 days and now they know it could be months, so they want to restart their lives." @Email:asafdar@thenational.ae