Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Helping Pakistan one child at a time

I'm a little tired of the celibacy beat -- see spate of postings on Rentapriest blog -- and am wanting to focus attention on something more uplifting. Recently, I have had the opportunity to read about two different organizations that are helping the children of Pakistan. Most people in Pakistan are very poor. The total literacy rate is only 49.9% and the rate for women, an abysmal 36%. Life expectancy is only around 64 years, more than 10 years less than the United States. The infant mortality rate is 66.94 deaths/1,000 live births, or ten times greater than in the United States. The country has faced more than its share of war and natural disasters and, because it is not a predominantly Christian nation, it doesn't get the attention it needs or should receive.

1. Central Asia Institute

You may not know the name but you probably know the book: Three Cups of Tea, the story of the Institute's founder Greg Mortenson, has been on the bestseller list forever. I'm only just getting around to reading it and I can recommend it without any hesitation (plus the royalties go to Greg's charitable work).

Greg was a nurse and an avid mountain climber. While trying to scale K2 in the Karakoram region of the Himalayas, he failed to make it to the summit and got lost. He found his way, barely alive, to a small village in northern Pakistan, Korphe, and after the people nursed him back to health, he decided to repay them by helping them build a school for the village children. The entire course of Greg's life changed as he got to know the region, its languages and customs. He devoted himself entirely to his mission. "As of 2008, Mortenson has established over 78 schools in rural and often volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which provide education to over 28,000 children, including 18,000 girls, where few education opportunities existed before."

Anyway, Greg's story is inspirational and his project is a model of how foreign assistance should be delivered, with respect for the wishes of the people and their culture and, ultimately, turning over the management of the projects to them.

2. The Edhi Foundation

The April 2009 edition of Marie Claire had a marvellous article about the work of this foundation established by Abdul Sattar and Bilquis Edhi. Dr. Abdul Sattar Edhi was born in Gujarat province in India but migrated to Karachi, Pakistan after the Partition of India in 1847. In 1951 he used the money he saved up while he was looking after his mother to purchase a small shop. It was at this shop where he opened a tiny dispensary with the help of a doctor who taught him basic medical care. He also encouraged his friends to give literacy classes there. Edhi had spent his life a simple man, and would continue to do so, he would sleep on a concrete bench outside the dispensary so he was available at any time to help people.

In 1957 a major flu epidemic swept Karachi. Edhi was quick to react, setting up tents on the outskirts of the city to distribute free immunizations. Grateful residents donated generously to Edhi and so did the rest of Pakistan after hearing of his deeds. With all the donation money he bought the rest of the building his dispensary was located in. Edhi opened a free maternity centre and nursing school, and so Edhi Foundation was born.

Today,in Karachi alone, the Edhi Foundation runs 8 hospitals providing free medical care, eye hospitals, diabetic centres, surgical units, a 4- bed cancer hospital and mobile dispensaries. In addition to these the Foundation also manages two blood banks in Karachi. As with other Edhi services, employed professionals and volunteers run these. The foundation has a Legal aid department, which provides free services and has secured the release of countless innocent prisoners. Commissioned doctors visit jails on a regular basis and also supply food and other essentials to the inmates. There are 15 " Apna Ghar" ["Your Homes"] homes for the destitute children, runaways, and psychotics and the Edhi Foundation states that over the years 3 million children have been rehabilitated and reunited with their families thorough the Edhi network.

One of the most impressive aspects of the project are the "baby cradles" where parents who cannot cope with another child can leave a baby to be cared for by the Edhis. This has been vital in fighting female infanticide in Pakistan. The Edhi Foundation cares for the abandoned babies and tries to place them for adoption.

At the other end of life, the foundation buries unclaimed bodies. Edhi estimates that he has personally bathed 20,000 unclaimed dead bodies and for arranging their burial. All the dead are provided services according to their own religious rites.

Edhi’s wife Bilquis is a nurse who works in maternity center management. She runs 6 nursing training schools in Karachi. These centres have so far trained over 40,000 qualified nurses. Some 20,000 abandoned babies have been saved and about a million babies have been delivered in the Edhi maternity homes. Bilquis also supervises the food that is supplied to the Edhi hospitals in Karachi. The total number of orphans in Edhi housing at any given time is 50,000.

Disgracefully, Dr. Edhi, a 79-year old humanitarian, has been frequently detained and questioned by immigration authorities over the last few years as he travels abroad in search of funds for his work. It is my fondest hope that this will end and that as President Obama is formulating his policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan, he will reach out to people like Greg Mortenson and the Edhis, read the books about them, and invite them to the White House to share their experiences and opinions on how the United States can better relate to that region.

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